What’s it Like for Women in Consulting?

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It’s an exciting time to be a woman in business. Our voices are louder and stronger than ever. We are slowly but surely closing the pay gap (shout-out to Gap Inc.!), selecting more and more women to take the helm as CEO (shout-out to Deloitte!), and speaking out when our bodies and beliefs are mistreated (shout-out to #MeToo!).

That said, things are far from perfect. There are still more CEOs named John than female CEOs with an XX chromosome. There are still far too few Black, Latina, LGBTQ, and people with different abilities represented across the board. There are still far too many people treated as the “token” and far too few companies taking action toward actual inclusion.

As a consultant, I frequently look around the conference room and find that I’m the only woman sitting at the table. The reality is that women are still underrepresented in certain industries and echelons. However, being a woman in consulting allows you to provide unique insights to your clients and puts you on the fast-track to leadership.

From my perspective, there are several specific challenges and benefits to be a woman in consulting.

The challenges…

  • Mansplaining and other microaggressions

Sexism today is casually cruel. It sneaks into meetings almost unnoticed, except to the woman whose idea gets claimed for his own or whose outfit gets commented on by the male client every day (even though he’s never noticed Chad’s astonishing sock collection).

One of my biggest challenges is figuring out when and how to address the microaggressions made against me and other women on my team. Should I address that Gary consistently refers to the women on my team as “girls” but never to the men as “boys”? Should I call-out that I explained it well the first time, Joey, but thank you for reiterating my point? Should I question Frank when he says that she “isn’t a good cultural fit” for our team when she opted-out of flip cup after work?

To me, the answer to each of those questions is usually “yes”. Figuring out when and how is more difficult. You might be thinking, it shouldn’t be our job to educate men and women who are less fluent on gender equity. I agree with you. However, doing so can pay dividends, especially if done with compassion and a benefit of the doubt as to whether the microaggression was intended to be hurtful (it usually isn’t!). We are all imperfect feminists.

  • Finding female mentors and role models

I’ve been lucky. Three of my most trusted advisers in consulting are strong, senior-level women. However, many of my female peers are not so lucky.

Firms today struggle with retaining women at senior levels. Consulting is demanding, and I anticipate that until consulting culture adapts and “walks the walk” on work-life flexibility, we will continue to see high turnover rates of rising women in leadership. With fewer women in leadership, junior practitioners may struggle to find female role models to guide them in their consulting journey.

With the lack of women in high-ranking leadership positions, it can be difficult to picture your future in ten, fifteen, or twenty years. When I was younger, I often had questions surface in my head like: Can I really maintain this level of productivity in the long-term? How can I raise a family when I’m traveling every week and working crazy hours? How can I serve my clients AND serve myself, my family, and my local community?

The answers to those questions are unclear. However, the women I know who have made it to the top are extremely satisfied – they love their job, and they do what they need to make it work with their family and personal lives. It doesn’t come without sacrifices, small and large. The question really becomes, what sacrifices are you willing to make?

The benefits…

  • Having a unique point of view

Being a woman in consulting means that you can bring a perspective that your male counterparts simply cannot bring. The problem with women being a minority in the business world is that women are not a minority in the consumer world. Women make eighty percent of purchasing decisions. Thus, solving client challenges requires women’s perspective.

I’ve found that being a woman and having a unique point of view allows me to connect with clients on a deeper-level. I’m valued for my ideas and contributions. I’m applauded when I play devil’s advocate to conventional ways of thinking. That said, I’m white, straight, and (relatively) able-bodied. Women of color, varying sexual orientations, and different abilities may have different experiences when voicing their opinions. I cannot speak to that.

However, I’ve seen that most businesses today recognize that diversity of thought is critical for sound decision-making. Diversity of thought only comes when you embrace diversity of background, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. On the surface, I believe that most businesses recognize the second piece as well. Underneath the surface, there are an ice burg of unconscious biases that lead to the imperfect world we live in. Gender equity is a work-in-progress.

  • Making an impact

Consulting puts you on the fast-track to leadership. It teaches you valuable hard and soft skills that will allow to thrive in whatever career path that you choose to take. As our favorite superhero (ok, second favorite superhero… we all know Wonder Woman is the best) says, “With great power…”

As a woman on the fast-track, you get the opportunity to make business better for the next generation of women just by living your best life as a badass businesswoman yourself. Seriously. I’m not saying you must volunteer to lead the “Women’s Initiative” at your firm or spend 10 hours a week mentoring junior women. You are paving the way just by showing up, doing your best work, and proving that women are equally capable, valuable, and ambitious as men.

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It’s an exciting time to be a woman in business, especially as a consultant. If you can overcome the challenges of finding role models and dealing with microaggressions, I anticipate you will find ample opportunities to step up as a leader and make an impact on your clients.

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