Is the ‘bromance’ holding back women in consulting?

The ‘bromance’ may be a fading Hollywood genre, but it’s alive and well in the world of consulting. Having been kindly invited to several analyst days with consulting firms, it struck me that the clients wheeled out to sing a firm’s praises are always men.

And then I noticed that it’s always men introducing them. No, I lie – I heard one female partner speak at a tech firm once, and her specialism was (you guessed it) HR.

Now, we all know there are some women working at consulting firms, so where are they all? Why is it always (sorry guys) the same male, pale, and stale line up?

I think I saw part of the answer during a Q&A session with a client CEO and the partner working with him. Clearly, this CEO really rated the consulting firm. He was brimming with compliments about the innovative approach, the dedication of the team, and how he just couldn’t have done it without them. They were more than consultants – they were business partners, together through thick and thin to make the programme a success.

But there was something about the session that reminded me of a Will Ferrell buddy movie. It quickly became clear that these guys didn’t just get along in a professional manner – there was a raging bromance going on too. They were positively beaming at each other throughout, finishing each other’s sentences, and laughing at their in jokes. So deep was their understanding of each other, they even had the same slicked back hair do. Perhaps the consultant sealed the relationship as a bone-fide bromance by making life-changing style recommendations as well as transforming his business.

But as I sat there watching this love-in, I wondered: what if a female partner was behaving in this way? Very quickly this behaviour could be seen as seriously inappropriate. Suddenly the Anchorman newsroom dynamic is loaded with suspicion – those lingering smiles interpreted as flirtatious rather than friendly. For senior women, an innocent invitation to dinner could be misconstrued; men have it far easier inviting each other to rounds of golf.

Consulting is a relationship-based business, and if your relationships are placed under different levels of scrutiny, it’s not a level playing field. In short, can a female partner behave in the same way as their male counterparts do and get away with it? I don’t think so.

I’m not suggesting this is the only reason for the dearth of women in senior consulting positions: there are many. And I’m not suggesting every man in consulting is some sort of social Borat who can’t understand the idea of a woman with a job. But the bromance is an advantage that men probably don’t even realise they are exploiting. As Shakespeare wrote, “Love is blind, and lovers cannot see.”