On the road to gender equality

First and foremost, Happy International Women’s Day 2021!

This day, observed since the early 1900s, seems to generate more momentum, discussion, and energy every year, remaining uneclipsed even by the pandemic. And it’s no wonder: the past few years have seen our voices break through ancient barriers, shining light with a certain urgency on recurring injustices and abuses. Even the aftermath of COVID-19, with its regressive effects when it comes to gender equality, shows us how the issue evolves and grows, necessitating conversation.

Gender equality in the workplace is a topic that sits at the forefront of my mind and affects every decision and interaction I make in my professional day to day life. This is why I was thrilled to be invited to participate in a panel discussion hosted by CMC-Canada on the topic of Women in Consulting on May 12th.

Leading up to our first planning meeting to talk about the format of the event, my mind churned with ideas: what to speak about? Where do I begin? After introductions, we each spoke about the kinds of topics we would like to discuss during the event. Trying to keep a light tone, I suggested we discuss the creation of space; the evolving consultant “identity”; and the ways in which women approach consulting both among their teams and with their clients. I spoke about my experiences and the other women shared theirs. I heard them speak about the ways they were treated, particularly when they started their careers. The word that really stuck out to me was “inconsequential.”

Being a woman in consulting is, for me, a challenging position; one that is filled with barriers, hurdles, and opportunities. My mind swims with questions on a regular basis. How do I begin to reconcile the notions I have internalized about my place in society as a young woman; the learned behaviours of “taking up less space”; the institutionalized structures that reinforce hierarchy and power dynamics; and the actual knowledge and experience I have? How do I stop apologizing for my existence, for my encroachment on people’s time and attention? How do I stand out and how can I make sure I am heard when the business world remains emphatically male dominated and the basis of my patterns and behaviours are rooted in an upbringing in a highly traditional culture?

The term “imposter syndrome” comes to mind, something that I heard mentioned countless times by my female peers in other jobs. I try to battle it, but the forces that show me I need to wait (to be older, to have my turn in a conversation, to be validated by someone else) stack up.  By the time I’ve finished grappling with all of these elements on a Teams call, the conversation has already moved on three points ahead, and I am left speechless, when I might have had an otherwise interesting key point to add.

My role as a consultant is to be a conduit for knowledge creation and mobilization. My teammates and I facilitate and enable planning, change, new ways of thinking. In that sense, I am not there to educate clients or to break down barriers and hierarchies when I feel that I am treated differently as a woman. I must put myself aside for the moment, and listen, immerse myself, be there to help and guide. How, then, do I effect change?

A few ideas pop up for day to day actions, based on my experience with my highly esteemed colleagues, with our business partners, and with my professional networks.

Keep the conversation going. Perhaps the most powerful force preventing us from achieving equality is the banality of sexism; its deep entrenchment in the status quo. It is so pervasive that it is invisible, neatly internalized and integrated in our language, our ways of working, our hierarchies, our public figures, our everyday interactions. It may be tempting to look back on our progresses, and indeed, these should be celebrated… without forgetting about the road that remains ahead.

In one of his podcast episodes, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the moral credential effect, a bias when a person or institution’s track record as a good egalitarian establishes a sort of unconscious ethical certification, endorsement, or license, that increases the likelihood of less egalitarian decisions later. He mentions at least 15 countries, for instance, that have elected female leaders… once, and never again. We can see the moral credential effect time and again. The implication, that we may celebrate one success and then become complacent or even regress, is disastrous.

I look forward to CMC’s event and I plan to take part in the conversation regularly going forward, both in the context of micro-interactions, as well as in more formalized settings. Certainly, as the profession flexes and changes, we need to keep the conversation alive to make sure that gender equality becomes a principal tenet.

Look up to female role models. One time, back in the days of lunch at the office, we challenged ourselves to come up with our top five female influential figures without repeating any names. Whereas we all could have counted off male figures quite quickly, the exercise ended in research and brainstorming to uncover a substantial list of female influential figures… that moment lingered in my mind for weeks after.

Increasingly, I look for female consultant role models. I am lucky enough to work with incredible female colleagues. I feel inspired and empowered when I hear the experiences of impressive female consultants in our network. Often, their consulting outlooks and universes are dramatically different from the traditional “look and feel” of a consultant. Rather than satisfying my interest, I feel an appetite growing: I want to know more women in consulting. I want to hear stories of success and trials, accomplishments and challenges. I want to know how their approaches differ, how they solve problems, how they accompany their clients towards successful outcomes.

Work with those in positions of power to break down the power structures. Rather than calling out behaviours that reflect institutionalized sexism among clients, I have been calling on my senior or male consultant colleagues – those who, inherently, have more ability to broker power – to empower me and give me space in our client interactions. In a perfect world, my credentials should speak for themselves: I shouldn’t need to be empowered by another person in order to be acknowledged… but perhaps this solution helps us work together in the interim.

In fact, I do think it is useful and important to include everyone in the conversation about power dynamics and equality, without resorting to alienation or “us versus them” mentalities. For instance, whereas I am speaking here from my personal perspective as a woman in consulting, there is a broader conversation to be had here about power dynamics in the workplace and the bias/discrimination that pose barriers rooted in multiple factors: gender, sexuality, race, age, experience, personality…

My commitment to my team is to create a platform for mutual support, leveraging individual strengths, and empowering people to flourish. This includes working together to break down power structures and dispelling preconceptions.   

These three ideas are just a few of things we can do in our day to day professional lives. Ultimately, I am curious about the ways in which we can battle the forces and trends that crash like waves against the progress we have made towards gender equality. The word “inconsequential” looms like a dark cloud, bringing with it sense of urgency and a need for action. In that regard, I remain curious: how can/will consulting evolve? What tools and approaches do other consultants use to move the needle closer towards equality?

I hope to see you and hear from you during the panel discussion on May 12th. Meeting details will be forthcoming in the near future or please email us for details.

Eva Maxwell