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Accessibility in consulting: some reasons for optimism

After a challenging and chaotic 2020, the global consulting market has bounced back faster than anyone could have anticipated—with this rapid uptick in demand creating an unprecedented talent crisis within the industry. Seventy-nine percent of consulting firms report that they are currently short-staffed, and 21% have had to turn down work as a result of those shortages. In fact, many of the larger firms are now in a position where access to talent, not client demand, is the factor that dictates their pace of growth. But in every crisis, as they say, there’s an opportunity. And if there’s a silver lining to consulting firms’ current talent woes, it’s that the situation may finally force them to take real action in addressing the industry’s long-standing diversity & inclusion challenges.

For many years now, industry leaders have professed a desire to shake off consulting’s reputation as a profession dominated by able-bodied white men who went to elite business schools. However, what little hard data exists on the subject suggests that progress has been slow, to say the least. In markets like the UK where D&I reporting is now mandatory for large firms, it’s clear to see that sizable gender and racial pay gaps remain the norm, not the exception, across most of the consulting industry (we wrote a report on this last year). Bonus gaps tend to be even larger—which suggests that, for most firms, their partnerships are even less representative of society than their organisations as a whole.

However, it’s just possible that the talent crisis currently engulfing the industry has created the conditions necessary for that to finally change. For the first time, the D&I agenda isn’t just an ethical issue or a PR concern for consulting firms; instead, firms finally have a strong commercial reason to take these issues seriously. The industry’s leaders have started to realise that, with qualified consultants in such short supply, it’s vital they start looking for ways to expand the size of the talent pools that their firms have access to. And to do that, they will have to find ways to make the industry more accessible to people who don’t fit the traditional mould of a consultant.

But the pandemic hasn’t just created a scenario where firms are more strongly incentivised to care about issues of accessibility; it’s also given them a unique opportunity to act on those incentives. If firms continue to allow their employees to frequently work from home, for example, then it could become easier for consultants with childcare responsibilities to fit those obligations around their professional ones. Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for people—especially women—to leave the industry in their late 20s or early 30s because they felt that the “road warrior” lifestyle of consulting was incompatible with starting a family. Now, it may be possible for firms to retain more of those people. Similarly, the rise of remote working within the industry may also end up making the industry more accessible for people with disabilities who require specialist office equipment.

Accompanying the rise of remote working has been the transition to a more virtualised model of recruitment—and that, too, has created an opportunity for firms to make the industry more accessible. One of the biggest barriers to diversity within the industry has always been the fact that top firms tend to recruit almost exclusively from a small number of top tier schools—schools which are themselves disproportionately white and male. But now that on-campus recruitment events have been replaced by webinars, it’s become cheaper and easier for firms to build relationships with colleges outside of their core networks. In theory, firms could use this as a moment to cost-effectively start building relationships with more diverse educational institutions.

Of course, whether they take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen. Certainly, we should avoid allowing ourselves to become overly optimistic; after all, there are still deep structural barriers to access within the industry (many of which we discussed in this recent podcast). Nor should we ignore the disproportionately negative impact that COVID-19 has had on women, people of colour, and people with disabilities. Nonetheless, there are at least a few reasons to think that we may eventually come to look back on this talent crisis as a key turning point in the effort to build a more welcoming and accessible consulting industry.