Women’s Advancement and Retention in Professional Services

In professional services industries such as finance, economics, and law, women remain underrepresented at upper levels of leadership. Women are also more likely than men to leave professional services in the early years of their careers.

In this Q&A, Chief Human Resources Officer Elena Garcia discusses key turning points in women’s careers, how organizations can help to retain women in professional services, and how all employees can support their own career development.

How does the gender imbalance in leadership and retention play out in different professional services industries?

In my experience, lower retention rates at the mid-levels are consistent across different types of professional services firms. You can start with an incoming class of new associates that is close to 50-50 men and women, but five to seven years later, that same class will show a distinct gender imbalance. Most firms I have seen and been involved with show this same trend: over time, women’s numbers taper off.

We are fortunate that Cornerstone Research has always had a strong record of gender parity in senior positions. This is partly because of our history. Since two of our three founders are women, gender balance has been embedded in the firm’s culture since the beginning. We also provide flexibility so that employees can reduce and increase their hours in order to meet work/life needs. We have many great women role models that work part-time. The issue of gender parity is still something we will continue to pay diligent attention to.

What are the biggest effects of gender imbalance in leadership?

I see two main downsides. First, the less gender diversity there is at the top of organizations, the less natural diversity there is in thinking and approach. I believe that when organizations have less diversity overall, there is a risk that they will lack richness and breadth of perspective, both in their client work and their corporate culture.

When more women than men leave before advancing to more senior roles, it sends a signal to the rest of the organization about how feasible it is for women to succeed.

Second, when more women than men leave before advancing to more senior roles, such departures tend to be highly visible. They inevitably send a signal to the rest of the organization about how feasible it is for women to succeed. This can lead to a vicious cycle: less senior women see fewer women role models, or they make incorrect assumptions about how difficult it must be to stay or continue on, so they are more likely to opt out themselves. Over time, the fewer senior women there are in an organization, the harder it can become for people to believe they have a future there.

When do you see key turning points occur?

Typically, most people start making decisions about their future in professional services after three to five years. This is also usually the point at which most people—men included—start debating the associated pros and cons of staying on and trying to make partner.

Most women have been conditioned to learn how to function in environments where the playing field has not been equal.

I see men struggle with many of the same issues and doubts that women do. However, I think the incidence of women choosing to leave is higher for a couple of reasons. A big one is family and work/life balance. Even today, with so many women in the workforce, it remains true that women bear the bulk of the responsibility for taking care of the household. So, when women early in their professional services careers already have a family or are thinking about starting one soon, it can be daunting to consider how to successfully juggle a demanding job and a busy home life.

Another reason is related to self-confidence and pressure. As women, we already put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Most of us have been conditioned to learn how to function in environments where the playing field has not been equal. If you are at a point in your career where you see the need to invest even more than you already have to achieve a certain seniority, you have fewer role models within your organization, and you have added responsibilities outside of work, it is not hard to understand why you might choose to opt out.

How can organizations stem loss of talent during these critical years?

The most effective action I have seen is for organizations to start by acknowledging that talent loss is an issue, and that different people have different needs. Because we want to be equitable, we often make the mistake of treating everyone the same. For example, many of our senior women are part of dual-career families, while other senior women have their significant other bearing the load of household responsibilities.

We often are afraid to acknowledge that we all have different challenges to deal with, but once we acknowledge those disparate needs, we can engage in meaningful conversations about what we as an organization can do differently. I believe organizations can and should be more willing to think creatively about providing more flexibility around career paths, and offering different types of development support. Some issues are specific to women, some are not. The process has to begin with an acknowledgment of what different people actually need.

What advice do you have for individuals to get through key transitions and improve their ability to advance in an organization?

I am a firm believer that women in particular need active sponsors, who may or may not also serve as mentors. Mentoring plays a critical role in professional development, whereas sponsorship takes it a step further, in that sponsors advocate to advance the careers of their sponsorees. In most organizations, it can be difficult for anyone to keep progressing at the higher levels, unless you have people who take an active interest in wanting to help you.

I also believe each person needs different types of sponsors. You need to find mentorship and sponsorship—and different pieces of what those entail—in different people. You should not rely on, nor can you expect, that one or even two people can provide everything you need.

Who are the different types of sponsors a person should have?

As I noted above, there are many types, and each sponsor brings a unique perspective. For example, you need someone who is in a position to provide you with opportunities. You need someone who is able, literally, to teach you: to help you develop your skill set and give you candid feedback. You need someone who will help you network and offer guidance on how to expand that network, so you can get to where you want to be. Finally, you need someone who can just listen. You may not need a different person for each of these, but no one person can handle them all.

For women in particular, making sure we have that support, and asking for it if we are not getting it, is critical. When I think about people who have been instrumental at different points in my career, it has been colleagues who have focused on the elements above, and offered specific support and mentoring at times when I needed them most.

Is cultivating sponsorship something that should be self-driven, or organizationally supported?

In my view, both the organization and the individual should drive sponsorship. Encouraging a trusting, caring environment—through forums, mentoring programs, and other support services—makes sponsorship more feasible, and more effective.

In addition, if you want to succeed, especially within a professional services model, you have to get yourself to a point where your mindset shifts. Stop trying to be the person you think the organization wants to see and start showing up as the person you actually are. Doing this requires considerable self-confidence and some appetite for risk. This switch in mindset applies to all genders, but I have observed that it can be harder for women to take that leap of faith. In my experience, both for myself and others, my career shifted the minute I just got comfortable being me.

You have experienced the professional services world from multiple perspectives. How have you seen gender equity evolve, and how do you see it changing in the future?

If we look at the statistics over, say, the past 20 to 30 years, gender equity has been improving. Not as fast as one would expect or hope, but it is definitely better. The biggest change in recent years has been the fact that organizations are becoming much more comfortable having open conversations about these challenges. Many of the issues we are talking about are not new, but there is now greater willingness to engage in the discussion and face reality. This is a huge step forward.

At the end of the day, we serve clients. More and more clients are asking, if not demanding, that the people they do business with represent a broad range of values, genders, ethnicities, and perspectives. That they be, in a word, diverse. From a recruiting standpoint, candidates now ask directly about firms’ stances on these issues. Diversity has become a requirement for the kind and level of talent that we want to attract, not for its own sake, but because it makes the business and the culture stronger, richer, and more innovative.


The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of Cornerstone Research.