Gender Diversity: An inside...

Posted over 1 year ago By Chloe Large

Adrienne Youngman is Director and Head of APAC for The Barton Partnership, having joined the team following a career that started in consulting and transitioned into specialist search. Adrienne opened The Barton Partnership Singapore office in 2018 having worked in Asia for over 8 years.   

Victoria Montagu leads The Barton Partnership’s North American business and is based in New York. She has spearheaded The Barton Partnership’s presence in the USA and was the highest individual performer in the business last year. She has built a successful career in executive recruitment focused on Strategy and Transformation and her experience spans all levels and sector areas.

As two of the company’s senior leaders, we wanted to get their insight into gender diversity in the strategy sphere and how they have seen this evolve throughout their careers as well as understand what challenges they have faced themselves as women. 

Vicky, what do you believe are the key challenges in terms of achieving diversity in today’s workplace? 

VICTORIA: I think that this is definitely industry dependent on some level. For example, with some STEM focused careers, such as engineering, the challenge comes from of a lack of diverse talent being educated in these subjects, which is another conversation entirely! 

However, in client facing industries, including Recruitment and Management Consulting, the majority of the time the graduate intakes from undergraduate and post graduate are evenly split, and often there are actually more women coming in at the junior levels than men. The problem is that these women drop out of the workforce, or at least of their client-facing roles, so the problem is less around attracting a diverse workforce and more around retaining it.

The reality is that in the majority of household’s women take on most of the child raising responsibilities, as well as of course childbirth itself. When you combine these domestic responsibilities with clients who expect 24/7 response and careers which require travel to client site 75% of the week, it becomes almost impossible to sustain both of those commitments.

I believe it’s this that then leads to a lack of senior female talent and decision makers, and means that the senior leaders and hiring managers and those responsible for promotion are men, and we know through multiple studies that we hire and promote in our own image. Therefore, even women who stay in the workforce are at a disadvantage.

In summary, I think increased domestic responsibilities, companies focusing on short term revenue rather than investing in longer term revenue potential, and unconscious bias, are the main challenges in terms of achieving diversity in today’s workplace. 

Adrienne, anything to add?

ADRIENNE: I completely agree with Vicky.

The way I think about it, if you want diversity in the work place you need diversity in recruitment (at every level of seniority), diversity in retention mechanisms (and overcoming challenges that are particularly tough for women), and diversity in promotion and remuneration. And there are challenges at each of those points. 

Some of those challenges are perhaps more prevalent in Asia, for example:

Recruitment: there is a significant reliance on networks of existing employees which is more likely to perpetuate the mix than change it and a more pronounced perception of gender roles in some markets, especially at a senior level

Retention: the heavy travel load in what are usually regional roles places a strain on all talent, and this can be especially strenuous for women with childcare responsibilities 

Promotion: in many APAC markets the weight of responsibility for childcare and care for ageing parents falls more on the women, affecting expectation and reality

Thankfully, an increasing number of people are dedicating resources to how we overcome them. Speaking to my clients I know diversity is something they take more and more seriously but looking around me we are still a long way from our goal. 

The biggest challenges though are unconscious – things like the affinity effect and the science of decision making (factors that we are only beginning to fully understand, let alone managing) and the lack of female role models (if you can see it, you can be it).  

It’s great that there are more and more people talking about it and becoming aware and I think that momentum is building and will bear fruit.

In your opinion, how seriously do you think leaders are taking the diversity agenda? 

VICTORIA: From what I see, leaders are taking diversity extremely seriously, both verbally and on paper. It’s a priority for nearly all of our clients and is in all of their 2020 or 2025 strategies. Sometimes this is accompanied by a hard number or percentage growth, other times it is a more fluid theory.

When we’re speaking to our clients, nearly all of them say we would love a diverse hire in this role, but very few of them would specifically demand a diverse hire or a diverse shortlist. I have only had one client who truly challenged us on this and said that they would not progress with our shortlist of five men until they had at least one woman to interview too. 


ADRIENNE: Broadly I think leaders understand increasingly the importance and, probably more importantly, the economic benefits of a diverse team and are doing what they can consciously, but I think there are a number of systemic and subconscious factors that will be hard to fully overcome (and some of the technology driving efficiency gains may actually risk setting us back a step from a diversity standpoint).

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career? 

VICTORIA: Like a lot of women, I have been to meetings where even if I was leading the meeting and the most senior person in the room, the male client would only engage and make real eye contact with my more junior male colleagues. I always find that disheartening and frustrating. 

The biggest challenge that I personally face is that, as an extroverted and tenacious individual, I’m a combination between stereotypical “female” and “male” characteristics which some people can find a challenging mix. 

I think that there is a difficult balance for women between not seeming too emotional and showing any of those “female qualities” that traditionally we’re meant to hide as they’re “signs of weakness”, but at the same time not trying to be too authoritative because as soon as we show too many “masculine qualities” we become less likable!

Striking this balance while trying to demonstrate my capability and authority and ultimately justifying my seat at the table has been a challenge for me in my career so far. 


ADRIENNE: I’ve been fortunate enough to work at great companies and great bosses, which isn’t to say that there have been no challenges, but a lot of them have been internal. For example, the imposter syndrome that I think women are more inclined to struggle with, the tendency to over-associate my own personal value with my professional performance (and therefore take on too much in search of validation, burn out, build frustration), the power-distance (or lack thereof) vs connection… We can turn these ‘weaknesses’ into tremendous strengths but only with the right support and coaching.

Yes, it isn’t easy being the only woman in the room – male colleagues create a ‘male’ environment without intending to and human nature means that relationships drive opportunity. That is definitely harder for women and there is still certainly a ‘boys’ club’ lingering in some places. But I believe in the leaders I see and I believe that those with positive intentions will overcome the remaining challenges. 

As women we have a chance to deal with our demons and thrive. And as recruiters we have a chance to shape the systems and to support those leaders. That excites me.

What request would you want to make of tomorrow’s leaders to make the world a better (fairer, happier, and more profitable!) place? 

VICTORIA: Sponsor and mentor your female high performers, just as you would your male high performers, if not more so. If they feel invested in they are going to feel a greater level of loyalty to your business. This loyalty will be imperative if they decide to have children at some point and will feel a greater level of responsibility to come back.

Go out of your way to find strong female talent in the team. You are more likely to attract and retain junior female talent if you have senior female talent already in the organization. Every single study which has been done on this shows that boards which have women on are more profitable. 

Lastly, value the different qualities which women bring. They may be more emotional in some ways, but doesn’t that just mean they care more and are more passionate? It’s a no brainer.  Support, mentor and value diverse thought.


ADRIENNE: Be aware that it is human nature to promote and advance what looks like us. This unconscious bias needs to be addressed. 

Be aware that the criticisms that can arise against female leaders are because equality doesn’t mean that there isn’t difference – we have different needs, and when these are met you will be glad you took the time because diverse leadership teams deliver 34% more EBIT. How many initiatives do you have on your strategic plan this year that can do more?

What advice would you offer to a young woman starting her career? 

VICTORIA: Find senior colleagues who will be your sponsors and advocates. They will likely be men, and don’t be afraid of that. They will be making promotion decisions, and if you make them your sponsor who will have more freedom to have a level of flexibility if you want it. You will also be able to influence broader hiring and promotion decisions, and that includes enabling other senior female hires, and therefore you will be directly impacting diversity. 

Outside of your organization find senior female mentors. They have been through it all before. They know how to have the difficult conversations because they will already have had them. They will empathize with you when you need a vent, which you will need! Do not be afraid to ask them for help and advice. They will be excited to give it and it will be grounding and invaluable. 

Furthermore, take every opportunity you can to demonstrate the commercial success that diversity will bring. It’s not just the right thing to do socially and morally, it’s a clear commercial decision. I genuinely believe that my male competitors in the US do not invest in building strong relationships with female clients, and I have found this to be an extremely profitable revenue stream. Many of these women have not only become clients, but also mentors and friends. The reality is that if you don’t invest in female employees you will lose your market share because your competitors will invest in women who have female clients, and you will lose top talent to competitors, and it will be a continuous cycle. This is what The Barton Partnership has done so well. They’ve recognized that in myself and in you, Adrienne, they have two fantastic senior women who are leading regional business lines, driving significant revenue, and mentoring other fantastic women through the business.


ADRIENNE: I agree with Vicky in terms of finding a strong mentor.

And I’d also add, simply be kind to yourself (and other women!). Most days we’re our own toughest critics. 

Build yourself up and be prepared for a career that is a marathon, not a sprint.