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Reflections on the “pinched middle” now I’m there

On International Women’s Day in 2018 I presented a research paper about how consulting firms can retain women in what we termed the “pinched middle”*. A common dropout point occurs when women hit the manager to senior manager grade. Often, these women are in their late 20s and early 30s, and just as they’re expected to be at full-throttle with their career, they’re also becoming busier at home. It’s the point at which many reflect on the kind of life they want, the trade-offs they’re willing to make, and what it takes to be successful in consulting. Unfortunately for consulting firms, an awful lot of women decide it’s either not doable or not worth it, so they leave the industry altogether.

At the time of writing, I was in my late 20s. While I was a woman working in consulting, I wasn’t fully in the “pinched middle” myself. This International Women’s Day, I very much am, and it’s caused me to reflect on the recommendations I suggested. Now, as a working mother in consulting, do I still think what I said is relevant? And what, in my lack of personal experience, did I miss?

Overall, I think the pandemic has demonstrated that many of the key recommendations can and do work. Relentless travel clearly isn’t a requirement all the time: In fact, our latest client survey shows that clients actually think remote working has improved their access to firms’ expertise, and speak more favourably than ever about the quality of work delivered. Many consultants—male and female—have had to juggle work and home schooling, necessitating more flexible working patterns. Again, this hasn’t dented clients’ opinions. A key recommendation was that all consultants need to feel empowered to ask for what works for them, and I’d hope that it’s happening more frequently without negative consequences for women’s careers.

While I think the recommendations have stood the test of time, I do think I made one glaring omission: that this shouldn’t be about creating a special or different path for women—men need to have these options too.

Specifically, I’d say that men’s access to paid paternity leave on equal terms with women is crucial. Many firms will now point out that they’ve got market-leading, highly generous paternity leave policies. My response: How many men are actually using them? From talking to friends (male and female) in consulting, there are still many barriers that make it unattractive. These range from policies being quite literally hidden on the company intranet so they have to be requested from HR, to all sorts of complicated exceptions (e.g., the leave will only be paid if it’s taken during the first six weeks of the baby’s life, but not on Tuesdays, and only when Jupiter is in the second house), to men simply still feeling that it will be detrimental to their careers if they took significant time out (sound familiar?).

My own experience of parenthood has convinced me that firms (and society at large) are too concerned with trying to ‘fix the women’, when we should be fixing the shape of men’s careers. My sense is that the pandemic will have emboldened men to ask for flexibility if they need it. Even if a firm refuses, just asking the question chips away at assumptions about what a man’s career should look like. The more times a firm has to refuse, the more it’ll realise it’s out of step with what many highly talented people want. And with a war-for-talent going on, you don’t want to give consultants extra reasons to look at their options elsewhere—male or female.

*Although an oldie, it’s still a goodie—if you’d like a copy of this research, please contact us here.