Women in consulting are a minority, as management consulting is a male dominated field. Being the only female in the room is a common experience for almost all women in consulting.
The discomfort that women in consulting experience ranges from simple things like men being slightly uncomfortable and apologizing every time they use a vulgar word to having your ideas completely ignored, only to see the very same ideas being accepted when a male colleague paraphrases exactly what you have just said a few minutes ago.
To make things worse, not only men, but also some women treat other women worse than men. I have observed on several occasions female clients treating male consultants significantly better than female consultants on the same team.
Think about the situation a female management consultant is in?
She is in most cases the only female on the team and most likely is already being discriminated to some degree by her own colleagues. She is trying to do a great job on the project and satisfaction of the client as well as relationship with the client contribute significantly to her reputation and overall career in the management consulting firm.
Yet, the client likes her less due to preference to deal with men. Who would not feel isolated and under an unfair amount of pressure in such a situation?
To me personally, the discrimination by women is even more concerning. The worst discrimination I personally experienced in my management consulting career was from a female client on an engagement where I was the only female on the team and was already struggling with my team. The female client basically ignored me at times or made condescending and rude comments, while all men on my project team, with exception of one, did not treat me as an equal to the guys.
It is important to underline that I have met a number of amazing men and women who were treating women as equals and were amazing people to work with. Not all men and not all female clients have a preference for working with men.
However, enough of them are out there to make it hard for women in consulting to feel included and to be on an even playing field with men.
How do you cope with this? What can women in consulting do to avoid the traps and rise to the top?
Below are 8 ideas I found helpful over the course of my career.
1. Be fearless.
The worst thing that can happen after you allow yourself to stand up for yourself is you may get fired, and this is highly unlikely.
Therefore, you really don’t have that much to fear. And if you don’t have anything to fear, you can act exactly the way you feel you should act to teach people how you should be treated.
Once I was staffed on a project where a male colleague would openly exclude me from everything. He would hold meetings without inviting me and withhold important information related to the project, which would result in me doing unnecessary work.
How do you deal with this? I just approached it head on. While I remained professional and continued to work hard, I addressed my concerns with him repeatedly and in private until he corrected his behavior.
It was not hard for me to do so because I was treated by men this way many times before and every single time I ended up being promoted faster or received much better grades (in my MBA program) than those individuals who ignored my input and excluded me.
In other words, in business and in academia the system confirmed that my input was often superior to the input of the very men who were dismissive of my input.
2. Lower the pitch of your voice.
It may sound like strange advice, but studies had shown that speaking with a lower voice automatically makes you appear more authoritative.
It is a little awkward to change your voice. I would suggest to just change it and let people accept it. I remember I switched to a lower voice few years back. I could see people noticed but only my closest friend actually asked me “Why does your voice sound so different?”.
This prompted a short conversation during which I explained that I am experimenting with my voice since studies have proved that a lower voice would make it easier for me to succeed in business and in life. The subject of my voice was never brought up again and few weeks later it was my new normal.
I can report that I noticed a big difference in how people were treating me once I switched to lower voice. I noticed I immediately appeared more assertive to people and commanded respect. I noticed a positive difference not only in my management consulting career but also in dealing with people in my daily life, such as with service providers like the cable companies.
It is hard to believe that such a small thing could make such a big difference in how people perceived me and choose to treat me, but yet it did.
This is a low hanging fruit. Why not to grab it?
3. Know the work better than anyone.
If you have a reputation of someone who is a star, it becomes very difficult for people to ignore you. To gain that type of reputation you will need to work really hard, especially during your first year in management consulting. You will need to do exceptional work for a few senior people within the firm to ensure that word will spread that you are exceptional.
Some advice on how to achieve a “bullet proof” reputation was shared in the recent article MANAGEMENT CONSULTING CAREER: 10 INSIGHTS FOR YOUR 1ST STUDY.
4. Speak up and be assertive.
Women in consulting are expected to be outspoken, assertive and bright. They earned their right to speak up with confidence by crossing all the boxes that allowed them to land a management consulting job in the first place.
You know what I am talking about: graduating with distinction, excellent career prior to business school and passing multiple rounds of grueling interviews.
So even if you have a jerk or two on your project team or from the client’s side that dares to ignore you, it does not mean you should allow yourself to shrink and let the firm and the client miss out on the input that you can provide.
And most importantly, it does not mean that you should allow anyone to treat you this way. You earned your place under the sun.
5. Women in consulting are equal.
This point is difficult to explain. It is well established that women in consulting and in other businesses are often treated as an inferior breed by men and by some women.
What is interesting is that, even though we often do not admit it to ourselves, a scary number of women in consulting internally agree, at least on some level, that they are not equal.
This is partly driven by the fact that consulting leadership teams in most firms are dominated by men. In fact the higher you will go within the organization the fewer women you will find. Your engagement manager and partner almost always will be men. The most senior client people are also usually men.
In fact, in my experience, being discriminated by women was always coming from the clients’ side since I never even had a female engagement manager or partner on any of my projects.
Now think about a signal it sends to younger women in consulting?
Another driver is the way girls are brought up. As a girl you are often told “because you are a girl you have to do x or cannot do y”, “boys can behave this way or can do x, you can’t”. My mother used to tell me things like this all the time.
Moreover, as a girl I used to see my mother holding a full time job and having to do all the housework in the evenings and on weekends, while my father had time to recharge during his time at home. I observed a similar pattern when watching the families of friends.
When I would question this set-up as a child, I was told that my father made more money. Yes he made slightly more money but he was not working harder.
In fact, my mother may have made less money largely due to the fact that she was a woman and it is well known that even in our day and age, let alone during my mother’s working years, women are paid less than men. Unfortunately, even women in consulting, despite the fact that it is a prestigious line of work, are not an exception to this rule.
Somehow women are overburdened with responsibilities, underpaid, under-appreciated, which I think sends a message to young women in consulting that we are less important.
You need to truly believe that you are equal to men. In fact, you are superior in some aspects. You need to believe it with all your being and don’t allow anyone to treat you as if you are less significant.
6. Toughen up and don’t make it harder for other women in consulting.
I sometimes hear women in consulting complaining about how men were using vulgar words or telling inappropriate jokes in front of the woman. Every time this happens it makes me sad because these very women make it harder for every other woman to fit in.
They are too sensitive and demand to be handled with velvet gloves.
Women in consulting or in business in general need to be tough. They need to be comfortable with people being rude, being vulgar or outright inappropriate. And if they wish to complain and demand for people to behave differently in their presence, at least they should not use the fact that they are women as an excuse.
If they do, it makes it harder for other women in consulting to fit in. They will be treated more as outsiders by men who were impacted by these complaints.
I am not saying that it is acceptable to behave inappropriately or to tell disrespectful jokes. However, this is life. In management consulting we work with many people from within the firm and from the client’s side who will not be as sensitive and as civilized as one thinks is necessary. We have to focus on the job and get it done.
We should focus on our job first and later, when we become senior managers and thereafter partners or even managing partners, we can limit the number of uncivilized and biased people included on “hired” and “promoted” lists.
7. Get the client and engagement manager to like you.
If the client and engagement manager will go to you for information, you are in a class of your own. Your value to the team will go up exponentially.
So focus on being seen by the client and by the engagement manager as a go-to person.
You will need two things to stand out.
Firstly, know about the project more than anyone else. Be extremely reliable. Always be over-prepared for meetings and over-deliver on deliverables.
Secondly, try to build relationship with the client, engagement manager and partner. Try to connect with them on a personal level. Also, look at the project from their point of view and try to do things that are important from their perspective.
Make a huge effort to become a go-to person as soon as you learn that you will be staffed on a project because if someone else on the team fills in this coveted role, it will be very difficult to change things since people like to stick to what works.
8. Women in consulting should use advantages that come with being a woman and a minority.
Be as polished, as professional and as attractive as you can be and go after building relationship with senior males within the firm. Within management consulting firms senior male leaders are very open to helping out young women in consulting. Use it.
They don’t seek it but if you initiate conversations by reaching out to leaders for advice, most of them will help you.
I don’t know many people who do, but I always had and still have mentors within leadership.
How is it possible?
I just share a lot of opinions and recommendations on what can be done better. I also try to over-deliver every time so people want to invest in my development since they see potential in me.
I can give you an example of how I formed one of my mentorship relationships with a very senior leader. I was sitting at an event next to a senior person and I started talking to him about what we could improve as an organization.
At the end of the event he invited me to set up a formal meeting to discuss my recommendations. I took it one step further and prepared a power point presentation with my analysis and recommendations. At the end of the meeting he asked me to set up meetings with him every 2-3 months to update him on how things are going with me.
He also asked me for a copy of presentation and sent it to other leaders within the organization, which helped to raise my profile.
Did it help me that I was a woman? I think so.
There is a movement to promote diversity, including giving opportunities to women in consulting to progress further in their careers. As I mentioned before, as you go higher within the organization you will encounter less and less women.
This is because many women in consulting drop out of the race or leave consulting to have a better work-life balance. There is some pressure to keep women in consulting from leaving. Use this to your advantage.
Attend women in consulting events and take advantage of opportunities available within the firm. Especially if there is an application process for certain programs and only few people will be selected, you have a better chance than your male colleagues if diversity metrics will have to be met.
Since being a woman in consulting and in business in general has a lot of disadvantages, take advantage of the opportunities that it does offer. This is part of playing the game.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that it is important not to let the difficulties of being female in a male-dominated world to get to you. Just learn to use it to your advantage and teach people how to treat you.
And once you get to the top, help other young women in consulting to make it beyond manager level so some day our daughters or at least our granddaughters can live in a world where women in consulting are just as powerful and as numerous at the top of the consulting firms as men.