While a career in management consulting can be highly lucrative, breaking into that field can be extremely difficult. Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) consulting is particularly tough to enter, and it is only more difficult for women trying to break into the historically male-dominated space. Still, despite the odds, female entrepreneur Amira elAdawi formed her own consulting firm, AMIRA & CO., and is an excellent example of how women can not only succeed in the industry but offer a unique and refreshing perspective to it.
Growing up in predominantly patriarchal societies in the Middle East, elAdawi experienced firsthand the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated environment. She worked with companies in the region where she was the first female they had worked with who was in a leadership role. One time, she even experienced the cliche Hollywood scene where she was asked, “Honey, will you get us some coffee?” until she was introduced to the offending parties as the senior partner on the engagement!
Once elAdawi expanded her firm globally, she saw more women internationally, but still not nearly enough. “The world of consulting — for many reasons — is just male-dominated in general,” explains elAdawi, “we see incredibly low percentages of women in consulting across the globe.” This can be seen in the top firms as well — at Boston Consulting Group, only 25% of full-time consultants are women; at Bain, 20%; and at McKinsey, a staggeringly low 16%, and those numbers go down even further the more senior you are.
How business is inherently less accommodating to women
Part of the issue with getting more women into consulting — and more importantly, keeping them there — could be the nature of the business itself. “The frequent travel, the long hours; it’s all hard,” elAdawi asserts. “In general, you’re away from home five days a week. You fly out Monday morning and back on Friday night, making it very difficult to have a family.”
Indeed, elAdawi points to the reductive double standard that society has about parenting. “Somehow, society accepts that a father can be gone for five days a week and still be a good dad,” she explains, “but if you’re a mom, and you leave your kids five days a week, everybody and their brother will think you’re a horrible mom.” While this perception absolutely needs to be changed, the industry has been trying for decades to find solutions for this. At least for now, this is the way things are.
Companies and firms must be more accommodating to the needs of women in the workplace. If a woman decides to have a child, that means she’ll be out for at least several months — given the travel involved in the consulting business, sometimes even more. Companies need to find a solution to bring women back into the workplace after temporarily stepping away to focus on their families.
The additional challenges of consulting
In the business world, many people in the highest ranks of power are still older, white men. Although there have been some great strides in diversification, as of 2020, 85.8% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are still men. And the simple fact is that people in business tend to hire and trust the people who are most like them.
In many ways, the world still doesn’t take women as seriously as men. Many have discussed that men are less likely to take advice from women than men, even if the woman is just as — if not more — qualified to give that advice. It’s a bias that has existed in the patriarchal business world since its inception. While it isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, women must still work hard to overcome it.
Much of the issue is that these men serving as CEOs are generally afraid to admit that a woman is smarter than them. As a consultant, you have to not only be the smartest person in the room, but be recognized and respected as the smartest person in the room.
The way to do that is to prove yourself. While women in consulting constantly have to jump through hoops to show that they are as intelligent and qualified as they are, the many empirical ways of proving your worth as a consultant provides an opportunity to earn the trust of your clients. And for the most part, once you have your client’s trust, you keep it.
“It usually takes me three weeks to get a client to recognize me — I’ve timed it,” elAdawi asserts, “and the hard thing about consulting is that you start from scratch with every new client. You have to prove yourself every time, which can get demoralizing. But once you do prove yourself, the work can get done, which is what is really rewarding.”
How the COVID-19 pandemic may have had an unintended impact on women in consulting
A silver lining to the Covid cloud, elAdawi says, is the trend towards remote work and working from home. This can become a potential solution to the issue of travel being a prohibiting factor for women entering the field. Since international travel wasn’t feasible for a time due to the onset of the pandemic, the industry has been forced to find creative and efficient ways to conduct its business from afar. These same practices can help women who want to break into consulting but have geographical limitations.
As an added benefit, these new models tend to be far cheaper than traditional consulting models. Flights, hotel rooms, and meals are all expensive and add up to more client costs. While there is something to be said for a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground approach, the pandemic has shown that there are other ways of doing business for many consulting services.
Additionally, the work-life balance in the consulting industry as a whole has changed. Twenty-hour days used to be commonplace in consulting, and overtime was just part of the gig. If you weren’t doing these hours week after week, you weren’t seen as being committed enough. However, now that the standards have changed, everyone — including women — can work more healthily in this industry.
The work being done to make consulting more accommodating
Even though there are certainly some significant challenges for women in consulting, this industry is working harder to shift towards being more inclusive than most. At some point, all of the leading consulting firms realized the value of discussing how to attract more women to consulting. They came to a series of conclusions about the challenges preventing women from succeeding in the industry and some solutions that can be implemented to correct them.
elAdawi notes the different ways men and women are typically judged in business. She tells us: “Women are evaluated on “personality.” How emotional or aggressive they are, how friendly or unfriendly they are, and none of the men get evaluated on that. The men just get evaluated on whether they deliver results for the clients and if the clients appreciate the outcomes — they’re never evaluated on their personalities, but women are consistently. This also affects how fast we get promoted.”
Even so, one benefit of the consulting industry is that the career path is very transparent and by the book. “From the moment you start at the junior level, you know precisely what you need to do to move up the ladder,” states elAdawi. “There is no jumping the line — everyone has to do the same thing to move upwards. And ultimately, that benefits women. Women may still have to work harder to make it, but we know what to do to make it.”
Still, elAdawi admits that there is a bit of a remaining double standard, although it is not as pervasive. The transparency in the career path means that men and women don’t have to do different things to be promoted, but women still tend to have to prove themselves more often than men. Whereas the potential for growth and success may be enough to earn a promotion for a man, a woman must have a proven track record of consistently delivering those same results to get promoted.
Yet, elAdawi’s achievements in the industry proves that women can overcome these barriers to find success. She worked her way up through the ranks of the Big Five before launching her boutique consulting firm where she serves Fortune-500 companies as well as governments who have learned to overcome gender bias and trust the advice she brings. The great thing about the consulting industry is that if you’re good at what you do, and create value for your clients, you will thrive.