Inside COMATCH

Women Thrive as Independent Consultants

  • Katrin Schwarzenberg
  • April 29, 2022
Women in Consulting

Over the past several years, consultancies across the globe have worked to increase gender equality. However, there are still fewer women than men in the consulting industry. When it comes to self-employment, men significantly outnumber women at 65% of our consultant pool. In the world of independent consulting, self-employment and consulting intersect. 

What can we learn from the women who choose this professional path? 

To find out, COMATCH conducted a study analyzing 220,000 data points stemming from our everyday business activities and surveyed our consultant network. The in-depth report we generated provided several new findings — some expected and some surprising. Our Women in Independent Consulting report sheds light on several aspects of gender equality efforts in today’s landscape. One of our goals is a brighter female future in consulting, and the following insights provide crucial context to an important conversation. 

The Statistics: Women Are a Minority in Consulting

If you’re familiar with the consulting industry, then you know that women are less likely to be employed in the sector. They have traditionally lagged behind men in consulting roles, and the gap is much wider in more senior positions. One UK study shared that despite the female headcount within consulting improving by 190% in recent years, the industry overall has seen its gender balance become 5% less equal.

The same trend applies when it comes to independent consulting as well. Here, too, women represent a minority. When it comes to our proprietary study, we found that only 19% of the independent consultants in the network are female. That means that for every woman there are 4 men. 

Looking at Europe’s biggest consulting markets, we see the highest share of women in our French network with 24%. In the UK, 22% are women, in Germany only 17%. Overall, the younger the age group, the more equal the gender share. For example, at ages above 61, only 7% of our network is female. However, looking at ages of 30 or below, 31% of our network of independent consultants are women. 

A general takeaway here is that women feel as though freelance opportunities are more robust now than in the past. In fact, respondents mentioned that third-party platforms help alleviate some of the risks of independent consulting. As one UK independent consultant stated, “You don’t have to rely on your own network exclusively, they help with infrastructure like billing and provide a sense of community. Self-employment is a possible career path and I hope more women will be encouraged to take the leap.”

Career Progression and Goals

Our study reiterated that women tend to reach higher steps in the consulting career ladder at a younger age. However, as we noted above, there are very few women at the “top of the ladder”. Women in the network are on average younger than their male counterparts at the same seniority level and this gap grows with experience. This mirrors the wider consulting industry as a whole, where we see women in entry-level positions at 40-50%, but much lower in higher echelons over time. 

Furthermore, the study revealed some key insights into what is driving women toward independent consulting as a profession. Though men and women generally have the same hopes when choosing to become an independent consultant, women are more likely to cite factors related to self-determination. When finishing the statement, “I chose independent consulting because I wanted to…” women were more likely than men to select the following answers: 

  • Have more flexibility in my schedule
  • Give more purpose to my professional life
  • Have more free time
  • Be able to work remotely
  • Gain more responsibility
  • Do less work-related traveling

However, the desire to decide on one’s own terms — especially on project topics — is the main motivator for both genders. Yet, women more often than men wish to work remotely, aim to have more free time, and travel less for work. The biggest difference was in being able to work remotely, with women being 10% more likely than men to cite this as a factor in becoming an independent consultant. 

That being said, women were much less likely to step into self-employment in 2020. With the pandemic and all of the associated uncertainties, it stands to reason that women found making this type of change too risky. Though the COMATCH network is growing consistently, the decrease in women applicants was 49% higher than men.

However, in  2020, women in the COMATCH network were more likely to accept project offers. The freedom to say no to an assignment is crucial to independent consultants, but in 2020 women in the network were less likely to decline than in previous years. Additionally, the study found that compared to male consultants, women have a 13% higher probability of receiving an invitation to interview after clients saw their CV and a 7% higher project win rate after they had a personal conversation with the potential client. The total share of projects completed by women was 18%, with an average of a 4.5 out of 5 rating. This may come down to a decades-long drive to deliver even more in order to be recognized equally in the professional arena. 

Consultants Share Several Things Beyond Gender

We’ve touched on some of the differences in male and female independent consultants. At their core, though, many people who choose this profession share certain traits. Through our in-depth StyleMatch assessment, we can analyze working styles. Generally speaking, consultants have more “doer” qualities rather than being “analysts” and score higher as “collective” instead of “individual” thinkers. Female consultants are most likely to have a diplomatic communication style and tend to be “explorers” instead of “structure fans” on projects. However, the deviations are very small (below 5%).

Furthermore, when it comes to the world of consulting at large, some industries have similar representation between men and women (for example, ​​Digital Business and Financial Services). However, the share of women within a certain sector can differ profoundly. Spaces with the highest share of women are: 

  • Textile industry
  • Consumer goods
  • Air transport and tourism

Independent consultants usually specialize in two to five functional expertises. Here as well, the gender share differs with some topics being more attractive for women than others. The top 3 topics picked by the most consultants are very similar for women and men in the pool: Change Management, Business Plan Development, and Growth Strategy. The highest share of female consultants is in Marketing and HR. 

What About the Pay Gap?

Generally speaking, the EU does have a pay gap averaging 14% (that is, women earn 14.1% less per hour than men). It’s worth noting that those numbers fluctuate significantly between countries, but it is something progressive organizations are actively working on improving every year. As an industry, consulting also has a pay gap but the numbers give more cause for hope. 

Across all industries, professional backgrounds, seniority levels, and nationalities, female consultants have an average daily rate of 1,112 Euros versus male consultants with a 1,180 Euro rate. This reflects a 6% gender pay gap in the daily rates that consultants have picked for themselves. One of the more difficult elements of consulting independently is assessing your own value and setting fees. However, doing so allows both women and men to correct a financial misjudgment they might have taken at the beginning of their careers. That’s likely one reason that our study showed the pay gap getting smaller with more experience. Our report shows that the higher the seniority level, the smaller the pay gap, with senior roles experiencing a difference of only 2.9%.

Female Consultants are Thriving

One of the most encouraging elements of the study is related to women’s satisfaction with being self-employed. The overwhelming majority of women —92%— are at least as happy with their lives as independent consultants (with 3 out of 4 women reporting that they are even happier as they were with their previous roles). This number is much higher than what’s reported for general job satisfaction in the UK, as research shows only 64% of people are satisfied with their jobs (representing a significant decline over the past decade). 

Furthermore, women are getting what they want out of their independent consulting arrangements. For seven out of the ten drivers to transition into independent consulting, women report higher achievement scores than men. Especially when it comes to business travel, remote work, and decision power regarding clients and project topics, women are more successful in pursuing their goals. 

As one independent consultant, Heid Hofer from Germany, stated, “It took a while before I found my own way but it was the best decision. I enjoy being out of business routines and company politics, being part of something for some months, and leaving again. You have to learn to live with insecurities, but it’s worth it. I am definitely happier than before.”

You can access the original, detailed report on Women in Consulting here. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in independent consulting, consider joining our network and taking on meaningful work with top clients. 

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