Why are there so few women leaders in professional services firms?
DEIDiversityExecutive SearchDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Article Icon News Article
DEIDiversityExecutive SearchDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
The Les Echos article, "Why are there so few women leaders in professional services firms?" quotes Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Florence Ferraton​. The article is excerpted below.  
navigating-global-businesses.jpg

Les Echos

In the professional services sector, the feminisation of management bodies is off the pace. 
Why are there so few female managers in professional services, i.e. law, audit and consultancy firms? This is a subject for the Assises de la Parité, which open their virtual doors today. 

That said, there have been a few tentative signs of progress recently. On May 1st, Frenchwoman Marie-Aimée de Dampierre was appointed Chair of the law firm Hogan Lovells, very much a first for this international firm of 800 partners with dual headquarters in London and Washington. This appointment follows those of the Australian Rebecca Maslen-Stannage at the head of Herbert Smith Freehills, and that of another Australian, Georgia Dawson, at the head of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Dawson is no longer expected to be the only female leader of the Magic Circle, a club of five international law firms of British origin, as at Linklaters three women are in the running to lead the firm: Aedamar Comiskey, Sarah Wiggins and Claudia Parzani. 

Pulling out of the race 
"Their appointment suddenly puts these female talents very much in the limelight and meets the insistent demands of clients who are concerned about corporate social responsibility and consequently about parity," says Caroline Oulié, a partner at the headhunting firm Boyden, which employs a high proportion of women. "But among lawyers, for every woman appointed, there are barely more than three or four female partners for every thirty men, and this when the legal profession is high up in the mixed-gender table." Nor is there parity in auditing and consulting, as Marie Guillemot, board chairwoman of KPMG in France (again, a first), finds herself in the top spot, but with a team of men. 

These business services cover professions grounded in projects and love of the job, and so involve a lot of pressure for both men and women. The more prestigious the firm, the higher its fees, the tougher the client's demands and the harder the road to partner status. As a result, some women find it difficult to reconcile access to partnership with family life and prefer to pull out of the race and join a company, often a client of their firm. 

"Their job with a firm is not any easier but they can get better organised there. Often, in a firm, an urgent job can take up a good part of their evening or, especially in strategy or organisation consulting, they may be asked to block overnight a whole week or more for travel (pandemic permitting, of course). That's great when you're 25-30 years old, but at some point it can turn into huge sacrifices and wear you down," says the headhunter. In these professions, becoming a partner takes 7 to 12 or even 15 years. For many women, the age bracket of 35 to 38 is the same age at which they are bringing up their children, or even having children. They are therefore de facto at a disadvantage. And many of them get tired of having to juggle with a group of nannies who can be called on day and night. This in part explains why there are more women on the management and executive boards of companies (but not yet enough) than in the partner groups of law firms. 

Modulating career paths 
"I started working at the age of 23, fiercely determined to succeed and build my career before I was 35," recalls Marie-Aimée de Dampierre, who was successively head of the IP, media and technology team in Paris and then managing partner of the French office (now headed by Xenia Legendre), before taking on international responsibilities. "Choosing the right partner is important: my husband helped me a lot", concludes the lawyer. But, a few exceptions aside, the desire to succeed is one thing, the possibility of doing so is another. It is difficult, even for women who bring in clients, generate turnover and manage to keep to demanding schedules. Mentoring, sponsoring, networking, training, coaching... If they really want a change, firms must adopt a proactive and inclusive approach. 

Sensitive to prestige 
"For example, I have monthly telephone meetings with four 'mentees' - women and men selected by human resources according to profile - who tell me about their projects and to whom I give advice," explains Florence Ferraton, who has headed Russell Reynolds in Paris for almost three years. To run a professional services organisation, "having depth and perspective is a prerequisite. You also need a good dose of pragmatism, knowing how to stay on course and cope with risks, as well as being close to people, caring and above all inclusive," she says. Like men, women are sensitive to prestige, money and the ability to influence, but they ask more questions about the nature of their work and the impact of their assignments. 

To read the full article, click here​.