Consulting: the right fit for women?

03 June 2020
By Clémentine Teinturier and Caroline Oyono, Grande Ecole Programme Students

Being a woman at work

Why and where does gender become an issue in careers in consulting? Becoming a consultant raises many questions for female candidates. The life of a consultant is indeed out of the ordinary, especially in terms of the balance between private and professional life. Under these conditions, can a woman have the same career as a male consultant? And if so, at what cost?

Beginning your career as a woman in consulting

The job of consultant is attracting a lot of women right after business schools. Indeed, in terms of resources, half of the junior consultants are female women. The choice of a consulting firm seems to come rather naturally for women (1). Violaine, senior consultant at Nielsen, has chosen this field very instinctively: she was looking for “a group with an international reputation” where she could use her previous experience at a global level, so she chose to work in the consulting field as the area does notappear as very masculine at first sight.

It should be remembered that the median length of professional experience in the major consulting firms is around two and a half years. The majority of consultants therefore do not stay for a very long time in these prestigious firms and, if we go deeper, this fact is even truer for women in consulting. In general, it is often explained by the fact that a consultant will have to put a bit of her social life on a relative pause during this period but it does not seem to be the only reason. As soon as women lose the fear of a very intense and high-skilled job, they are most welcome in the consulting jobs but they seem to leave sooner. Why is this so? [1]

Salaries as a female consultant: an obstacle to making women stay?

Even if being a woman is not an obstacle to joining a firm and working there, the question of salary seems to work the other way. Camilla Quental, in charge of the Negotraining initiative, explains: "The differences start from the education of girls, which is different to that of boys. In the workplace, these differences emerge, and women have a lower propensity to negotiate their salaries."

Most of the time, women do not dare to ask for more during the interview, as Violaine states: “I didn't dare to negotiate my salary. For me it was a luxury to find a job so easily in a group like this, I felt that the relationship was really unbalanced.” She added that, on the contrary, “There is a much higher proportion of men who negotiate their first paycheck. Companies that do not have a pay scale give free rein to everyone's power of persuasion and that is where men manage to get a higher starting wage than women.”

Moreover, female consultants are not sure whether their salaries are the same as those of their male peers. Violaine highlighted it: “At the same level of experience, I think that I earn as much as my male coworkers. However, as a senior, I know that I earn more than a female associate who is probably less paid than the other associate.” Women often do not know how to bring up the subject with their manager, especially in France, a country where money talk is quite taboo.

Nevertheless, the numbers are significant: a gap of 8000 dollars exists for the base salaries between different genders. One of the reasons for this large salary gap is that more men tend to work in more prestigious firms, earning more from the outset, and women are 18% less likely to get a promotion than their male colleagues. Women begin with slightly different wages and the gap widens with time. The work of a consultant is time-consuming and very demanding and, for this reason, the salary is a real motivation. If there are so many differences in the salaries it can be a first reason for women to leave consulting before men but it is not the only reason - women tend to evolve less quickly than men.

Is there still a ceiling glass to break?

If consulting hires alot of female graduates with an almost perfect parity at early career stages, women tend to be rare in the highest positions. Indeed, the numbers are striking asthe consulting industry only counts 20% of women partners. Some will argue it is the result of a trying work-life balance but Violaine tempered, “This question is asked much more to women than to men because all the load of raising children remains unbalanced (...), so they tend to put their career aside once they have kids as they unfortunately don’t have the choice.” The scarcity of women at top level can color differently depending on the functions in the firm.  Indeed, Violaine remarks that even if “several women sit at the executive committee with a female general director, the predominantly business-oriented positions including the client business partners are very much occupied by men.” Pushed to the extreme, it would result in the affiliation of a gender to some positions. Violaine recalls, “When I was a product manager, the key account manager positions in charge of negotiations with the chains, which go bad every time, had been largely occupied by men. They think a woman will be less likely to bite, so there is a kind of reproduction which is quite harmful.” You can see this phenomenon through various reading keys including a lack of representation having an impact on applicants and recruiters. The former will tend to apply for jobs she identifies with whereas the latter will tend to give the opportunity to someone he recognizes himself in. This is what we call homophilia.

A wake-up call for gender equality?

Secondly, moving up in consulting requires building a brand based on assertive behavior. Violaine reflects on this adding, “Women tend, wrongly, to dare less whereas men express their legitimacy to move up given their experience and the objectives they met. As a woman, we expect an endorsement from hierarchy, to be given an opportunity.” This something firms have started to change with more horizontal promotion systems involving peer assessment. Behavior discrepancies between gender may be a cause or a consequence of a different treatment whether it comes from a form of (positive or not) discrimination. Alot of firms have started programs to support women’s career advancement, among them PwC which partners with HeForShe and has developed its mentoring program, PwCSeed. But, if the corporate promotes inclusivity, women still face hostility as Violaine explains that she evolves in a welcoming atmosphere with a fair hierarchyyet still experiences sexism from collaborators with “recurring jokes”. The momentum cannot go without raising awareness among all collaborators including men: the glass cannot be broken if some hold on to it.

To have a great career in consulting as a woman: build your own business?

In order to avoid the issues related to the gender gap, some women decide to build their own consulting firm to set their own rules. Our interviewee confirmed this trend by expressing her interest in doing this later, to live “the extraordinary adventure of setting up your business.”But? if the optimal way for women to climb the ladder is to go it alone, does thaty mean that the consulting world will stay a man’s world? However, what wouldit be without a woman or a girl?

  1.  Study : Becoming a consultant : http://etude- ce-plan-de-carriere-est-il-fait-pour-les-femmes/


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