Mind the Gap - Addressing the Gender Imbalance in Strategy
about 6 years ago by Nicholas Barton

​Unless you have been living under a rock for the last six months, you can’t have failed to notice the hundreds of column inches devoted to the gender pay gap.  Having recruited in the strategy arena for more years than I care to remember, I have to put my hand on my heart and say that for me, the issue in our sector is not so much a gender pay gap but perhaps in some quarters, more of an under-representation of women in senior strategy positions in London and other locations. Our stats tell us that last year, 30% of our permanent placements were women and 27% of our independent consultant network are female.

As McKinsey points out in its gender pay gap report: “Our firm is meritocratic, so men and women with the same performance and experience in equivalent roles are paid equally. But we do have a gender pay gap because of the disproportionately high number of men in senior roles.”  This is borne out by our own recent survey of our female candidate network with over 80% telling us that their direct superior is male.  Our research also included interviews with senior women in strategy as I was keen to discover   what women themselves thought about this issue and as one Global Operations Head put it: We have a female dominated team – but a male dominated leadership team.”

Women at the top

According to another of our interviewees – a Global Client Lead at a major consulting firm, there can also be issues around sponsorship. “You need active sponsors and advocates of women so that they have an opportunity to build their skills and transition into leadership roles. Unfortunately, sometimes advancement is not a level playing field. Even though we all aspire to be meritocratic, that sponsorship is not necessarily evenly distributed between men and women.”    

There is another challenge though – and that’s based on assumptions by both genders that once women become parents they may lack ambition. “There is a high level of bias in terms of men feeling that women are not necessarily aspiring to reach the top once they become parents.,” continued our interviewee. “However, I also have to say that we have seen some evidence of self-limiting behaviour from women themselves who either believe that they don’t have what it takes, or that the top levels are not an inclusive environment in which to work.”

Bridging the gap

There have been some much-publicised initiatives by a number of consulting firms and commercial organisations aimed at increasing the number of women in senior positions and this is obviously to be welcomed, after all they do make up half of the human race.  McKinsey has its Women as Future Leaders Network and Pathway to Partner programmes and has rolled out unconscious bias training to all its hiring managers and in fact, in 2017, over 40% of new consultants hired were female which is allowing the firm to build a strong pipeline of women. Accenture has published goals of achieving a gender balanced workforce by 2025 and increasing the diversity of its leadership by growing the percentage of female directors to at least 25% by 2020. 

The diversity challenge

However, one of the main issues facing hiring managers and search firms like ourselves is the balance between hiring the very best talent and achieving diversity targets. Nobody wants tokenism and certainly the women I have spoken to want to be selected for the job because they are the best person for the role, not just to tick a box.  One of our interviewees, an ex-Principal from a global advisory firm made the point that even though they had a big drive to recruit more women, they avoided positive discrimination because of the ramifications later on. “We felt that women would generally have a much tougher time if there was a lower bar to enter – we didn’t want comments like ‘oh god, it’s a woman – she’s probably not very good’”.

Gender balanced shortlists

 In our survey we asked whether females were in favour of mandatory gender balanced shortlists. The answers were fairly evenly split with 47% answering in the affirmative and 53% disagreeing. There are pros and cons on each side.  There is obviously the danger of tokenism – after all as one respondent put it: “Hiring should be based on merit and equal opportunity. Forcing gender balance, or any sort of diversity balance makes others question the credibility and worthiness of female success.” While another said: “I don’t think quotas help anyone address the root of the issue. Both men and women end up feeling cheated. It’s far better to address unconscious bias and try to bring more women into the pipeline.”

Blind CVs

So how do we address this pipeline issue?  One of the initiatives that has been taken up by a number of firms for trainee positions is the use of blind CVs where a candidate’s name, educational record and address are removed. According to EY which introduced the policy in 2017, this has boosted the diversity of its workforce.  Advocates of the scheme say that it removes unconscious bias and it seems that our interviewees agree. “You can’t really argue that you need to have someone’s name or gender to be able to make a decision on whether to interview them or not!”  Interestingly one interviewee took it a stage further.  “To my mind – if the person deciding on whether to interview has a blind CV and has made the decision that the candidate is worthy of interview then why does the hiring manager even need a CV. Get them to interview without!”

Hold on tight!

From our conversations with senior women in strategy the gender imbalance appears to be a retention issue.  Anecdotally, the numbers at more junior levels are pretty equally balanced between male and female – it’s when we get higher up the tree that, in some areas, the number of women starts to thin out.  Access to flexible and agile working is one obvious solution – and in fact in our survey, almost two thirds (63%) said that their firm offered flexible or part time working.  “Consulting firms need to allow women to work flexibly – it’s a major enabler”, said one of our interviewees, a Global Client Development Lead in one of the leading consulting firms.  For parents that certainly seems to be the key “There does seem to be an increasing understanding that there is a need to get home when the kids are still awake – but then once they are down you can carry on working.”

Of course, there is also the option of the independent consulting route and that’s a route that we see more and more women – and indeed men who have become parents -  taking if they feel that they can’t get that access to flexibility from an employer. It allows a far higher degree of flexibility in terms of choosing your projects and taking time off between assignments while still earning well. In fact, the team that run that division at The Barton Partnership are former independent consultants themselves with experience form consultancies such as Bain and Boston Consulting Group.

Part Time

The issue of part time working however really divided opinion with some of our interviewees suggesting that it can’t really be done. “There are choices to be made”, said one Global Head of Strategy. “If you are client facing then you have to be there when the client needs you, you can’t just say I am sorry I don’t work Fridays. To be honest I have more flexibility working full time than I ever would do working part time. I get in at 9.15 so I can do the school run and sometimes I work from home if I need to. No-one pulls me up on that – if I was part time I am not sure that would be the case.” Another of our interviewees told me that when she had her child she made a conscious decision to go back full time. “First of all, I knew that if I went back 4 days I would be doing 5 days work and only being paid for 4 and secondly I would get shifted into an operational role which I just didn’t want.”

The best talent

I found the interviews fascinating. The world of work is changing and if the retention and pipelining policies that are being put into place to encourage a broader pool of female talent bear fruit then mandatory gender balanced shortlists will just not be an issue because they will happen naturally.  What we need is diversity by design – not tokenism.  As a search firm we just don’t take gender into account – or any other characteristic.  Our job is to find the best talent.  As Dame Kelly Holmes put it when she spoke at our strategy conference last year “if you are the best for the job – you should get the job!”  My sentiments exactly!