Clearing the path to partnership: The challenge for women in professional services

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Alison, an up-and-coming star in a midsized law firm, cradled her face in her palms. “The partners in the firm want me to go to another networking event… which means missing my son’s game and having lots of aimless conversations with people who are more interested in the free drinks and appetizers than in what our firm can do for them. It just doesn’t feel like the best use of my time.” She went on to say that attending these events was an expectation of the current partners, especially if she wanted to “lean in” to her career and stay on the partner track.

Such stories are all too common among the women I have met over more than 20 years facilitating women’s leadership retreats. Many women face daunting challenges in trying to navigate the path to professional recognition and career advancement — from access to childcare, to equal pay based on performance, to a workplace free of harassment, to a chance to compete with male counterparts for prime projects and opportunities.

Professional Services: Obstacles Along the Partnership Path

Women in professional firms face additional obstacles that are specific to this sector, as they pursue a career path that often has been designed by the men who preceded them. As an older woman, and a new partner in a progressive accounting firm, I am keenly aware of the path of progression for both the women around me, as well as the many women I work with across other professional fields. Some challenges are especially prevalent in professional firms such as law, accounting, financial services and consulting:

  • A traditional reliance on face-to-face networking for relationship building and business development, usually after hours and involving pseudo-social events;
  • The burden of being involved with internal projects and process improvements, while at the same time building a book of business, managing the work of others, and also continuing to build one’s personal value by learning new skills and finding areas of specialization;
  • Pressure to work, and bill for, extensive hours;
  • The risk and financial complexity of becoming a partner, particularly when women are the primary or only breadwinner in the family.

Why is it so hard to be a professionally motivated woman in a professional services firm? The reality is that, regardless of income and/or earning potential, women still often carry the bulk of the responsibility for childcare, housework or caring for aging parents. Even when a spouse has agreed to the “house-husband” role, many women find their household workload has not diminished meaningfully. The need to deal with issues “on the home front” often occurs just when a woman in a professional firm is entering the most pivotal time of her career.

In addition, many professional firms limit the number of partners and are very competitive in their selection process. Thus, women find themselves competing against one another — often to the detriment of their interpersonal relationships and negatively impacting the organizational culture.

Staking Out a Progressive Path to Partnership

I am fortunate to work for a firm that generally welcomes the opportunity to explore these issues and is open to new ways to design a workplace where both genders can flourish. Yet, challenges still exist. So, what can firms do to create a more progressive path to partnership for women?

1. Traditional networking is only one (and, some would argue, a not necessarily effective) way to build prospects. Some firms are moving toward more selective opportunities to meet with prospects through well-designed learning sessions, focus groups, small client gatherings and site visits, which can occur during normal working hours. Such formats provide value for both the prospect and the service provider, and often suit the innate skills of women.

2. Utilize advances in technology to allow for greater flexibility in the workplace. We find more clients are open to video conferences, virtual meetings and other long-distance channels that may fit the needs of employees who must work remotely due to family responsibilities.

3. Childcare remains an issue. Trying to run a video meeting while soothing a two-year old is never going to feel like true work-life balance! Allowing women to bring children to the workplace, or to a sponsored, on-site or local childcare program, can enable working mothers to be part of the company culture, attend meetings and be available for at least part of their working week.

4. Women still report that one of their biggest barriers to success is the lack of support from other women. Culturally, we are not comfortable with apparent conflict between women. Women sense this and will avoid candid conversations with other women in the workplace. We need to provide women with the following:

a. Encouragement to be candid, honest, forthright, outspoken and direct. These behaviors should be supported and applauded — instead of labeled destructive or ‘unladylike.’

b. Women need strong female mentors who can demonstrate the best of skills in navigating the professional business world.

c. There must be regular education and shared learning opportunities around the unique leadership attributes of women and how they can both find their own signature style as well as partner with other women to positively influence company culture.

5. Women must have the opportunity to contribute to the strategic, cultural and business aspects of the organization, not as “extra” job duties, but as a part of their defined role. While women generally excel in multitasking, they are balancing many responsibilities both inside and outside the organization. They can bring unique perspectives, cultural awareness and new ideas regarding client relationship management. They may welcome team-based projects, an opportunity for greater influence, and a voice at the table in company strategy.

6. Making the financial commitment to a professional firm can be a tough decision. More women might take that leap if there were more creative ways to invest in the business — or at least greater transparency regarding the long-term financial viability of the company.
Finally, women still hesitate to express their need for more balance in their lives for fear of being seen as weak, not committed and not interested in professional development. They still talk about having to make the choice between family and partnership. The time has come for this conversation to change.

We cannot afford to lose bright women who can bring so much to the workplace. If we want women to be able to lean in rather than just lean against, we need to create space for that to happen.

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