Why Your Consulting Team Should Have Strong Female Representation

By Katie Hall. Digital Transformation Consultant at CvE.

Katie Hall

Two years ago, I pivoted my career to consulting. I was both confident and excited to take what I had learned in the world of data, targeting and media performance to help companies refine their digital marketing strategy.

What I wasn’t prepared for were male clients that were not ready to hear an American, suburban mother of 3 consult on their business. It’s true, I am a suburban mom of 3. I also have 20 years of corporate experience in advertising on the publisher and agency side with companies like Microsoft and AOL, and a master’s degree in digital media. You can guess which part of me stood out more.

Paired with a male colleague, I began to recognize a different reaction to his recommendations than mine. When he spoke, they listened. When I spoke, they challenged. We began persona mapping, a practice where we chose who spoke to the client based on how well the client’s background matched ours. In short, I presented to women, he presented to men. It worked.

The problem with this approach, which most of our female readers have already concluded, is that there are roughly 7x more men than women in top roles in corporate America. Globally, 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. When I presented, I was presenting to lower ranks than my male colleague. He was getting noticed more, while my confidence was questioned.

Addressing bias against women can be a difficult process at work, particularly to male leadership. It can be perceived as all in your head, a crutch, or worse yet, emotional. In this case I was lucky enough to have a male colleague that saw this happening as clearly as I did, and was comfortable speaking up. I also have a supportive male leadership team that helped us all work toward a solution. As a result, we’ve reset how we’re introduced to clients, made visible the work each other is doing, and begun considering the makeup of our ideal client. Things have dramatically improved.

Because women encounter different biases at each stage of their career, in hindsight I can’t believe I didn’t see this one coming. Historically, consulting companies have been predominantly male – in 1991, only 4 of Deloitte’s 50 candidates for partner were women. Consulting firms have made great strides and have initiatives to reach equality, but as of 2020, still only 14% of Deloitte’s partners and directors were women. As a result, people still aren’t used to female consultants. To change this perception, we not only need to hire and retain more female consultants, but we also need our clients to be just as comfortable with them as they are with their male counterparts. Collectively, we need to break the bias.

One reason for this bias is that while organizations talk a lot about maintaining a diverse workforce within their own walls, they often overlook the need to partner with, refer, and hire 3rd parties that also put a focus on diversity. Not only is this not helping the cause, it doesn’t help the business. Research shows that a diverse team generates the best results, both in-house and with third parties. If you are considering hiring a consulting firm, here are 5 reasons a diverse group with strong female representation is beneficial to your bottom line.

1. Employees should represent customers; consultants should represent them both.

There are countless examples of when poor representation of minority groups at a company lead to less than desirable results. Perhaps the most famous is the development of crash test dummies that only represent the average male body. As a result, a woman wearing a seatbelt has, “73% greater odds of being seriously injured in a frontal car crash than a seatbelt-wearing male.” A predominantly male team of designers at Microsoft ignored female feedback that the infamous Clippy was not relatable, and that feature has gone down in history as one of the “most unpopular features ever introduced.” And voice recognition systems developed and tested primarily by English speaking men have a difficult time recognising women and foreign accents.

Because consultants typically have the ear of the C-Suite, which already leans white and male, diversity is even more important.  If the consulting firm advising these companies is equally lacking in diversity, it is likely that mistakes like the above may continue to repeat themselves.

2. Your employees should identify with your consultants. 

A successful consulting engagement will involve the consultants’ fact finding, onboarding, and working side by side employees to drive improvements to the company overall. For the consultants to identify barriers to change and get an accurate view of business as usual, they need a realistic view of the current state. Employees must feel comfortable being honest with them and helping them build a plan for change.

Imagine a workforce at a company that has spent years prioritizing gender and racial equality at the leadership level. Now imagine those same people being introduced to a team of all white, male consultants brought on board to initiate change. Those employees may feel they’ve taken a step backwards instead of forward, and be less enthusiastic and trusting about the process.  Now imagine those same employees are instead paired up with consultants with diverse backgrounds, that look more like where they want to go than where they’ve been. They may feel more comfortable opening up, and appreciative of their leadership for sticking to their corporate values.  The more those employees embrace the consultants, the more likely the projects will be completed in a timely fashion, with accurate input, and positive results.

3. Diversity of thought and representation are integral to solving any problem.

Consultants are brought into an organization to help break down barriers and initiate change. At the core of the project there is typically a problem that needs to be solved, perhaps in the organizational structure, the aptitude and skill set of the employees, the distribution of budget, or overall company strategy for success. While research and competitive examples can drive many of the recommendations, a good consulting team also spends time generating new ideas, and unique solutions for each company.  A successful brainstorm includes a variety of team members, bringing different points of view and new ways of thinking. According to HBR, cognitive diversity, or “differences in perspective or information processing styles,” has a great impact on performance.  In other words, a team made up of people who all think the same will not perform as well as a team made up of diverse thinkers.  

4. Your employees will be happier.

Employees looking for diverse environments at work warn not to rely solely on diversity of thought and include a diverse makeup as well.  According to Glassdoor, “more than 3 in 4 employees and job seekers (76%) report a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.” This applies not just to the full-time employees at a company, but their overall workforce, consultants included. Organizations looking to attract and retain a younger workforce will need to consider not only who they hire as individual contributors, but also the types of organizations that are brought in to support their workforce. Hiring diverse teams will help companies avoid attrition and maintain long, happy relationships with their employees.

5. Aligning values is the right thing to do

I saved this for last because it’s perhaps the most obvious reason you should align your values with your consulting firm. It’s the right thing to do.

Imagine a company that prides itself on being family-friendly, looking for consulting support. They promise their own employees reasonable working hours, flexibility, and a reasonable approach to work-life balance.  As they evaluate proposals for consulting support on their operating model, it might be tempting for them to select the proposal that promises the best results in the shortest time at the lowest price. However, those results may be achieved by the consulting firm’s employees working long hours, travelling Monday through Friday, and living a life in stark contrast to the culture they’ve worked so hard to create for their own workforce.

If a value is truly the belief system of the company, it should apply to everyone they work with, not just their full-time workforce.  Keeping true to your commitments will grow trust with your employees and create an overall better working environment to drive toward success.     

This year, CvE is supporting International Women’s Day by surfacing the tough conversation of bias against women in the workforce, both at work, and at home. Over the coming days, we will be sharing examples from our female colleagues and clients of when they’ve encountered bias, and what they’ve done about it. By amplifying a topic often discussed only among women, we hope to generate awareness, appreciation, and change.

[i] https://www.forbes.com/sites/naomicahn/2021/02/19/womens-status-and-pay-in-the-c-suite–new-study/?sh=4f16d31c3762

[ii] https://thesocietypages.org/specials/fortune-500-ceos-2000-2020-still-male-still-white/

[iii] https://hbr.org/2000/11/winning-the-talent-war-for-women-sometimes-it-takes-a-revolution

[iv] https://www.consumerreports.org/car-safety/crash-test-bias-how-male-focused-testing-puts-female-drivers-at-risk/

[v] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/clippy-the-microsoft-office-assistant-is-the-patriarchys-fault/396653/

[vi] https://techland.time.com/2011/06/01/its-not-you-its-it-voice-recognition-doesnt-recognize-women/

[vii] https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse

[viii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/02/18/millennial-genz-workplace-diversity-equity-inclusion/

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