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A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend in Hyde Park, and knowing that I was working in a male dominated environment and was interested in gender issues at work, she asked me what I thought about her cousin’s choice of career. Apparently her cousin wanted to become an anesthesiologist, but her mother had discouraged her claiming that it was not a female-friendly career. She asked me what I thought about it and it got me thinking…. what is a female-friendly career? What does that mean?

When people talk about female-friendly jobs, they often refer to the following job characteristics:
– lots of other women
– flexible hours, opportunity to work part-time
– good maternity policies, help with childcare
– collaborative, non-competitive environment

According to this view, investment banker or surgeon is probably an awful choice for women, right? I’d like to point out an alternative view, and I think it is particularly important for very young women making choices on undergraduate degrees and entry-level jobs.

First of all, I take offense at the automatic assumption that female employee equals pregnant employee or mother. If you start a career aged 22 or 23, it might be 10 years till you have children, by which time you have likely either made it to partner or boss, or might have changed jobs five times. When I was working at McKinsey, I remember I got really annoyed by the “women’s events” that were held, as all the male partners talked about was how they were going to set up private childcare for us and how they would ensure that consultants on maternity leave would not be disadvantaged in their performance appraisals and how they were going to look into how we could work part-time. And I thought, wait a minute, I’m 25, I’m ambitious, how do you know I want to work part-time just because I am a woman? Why don’t we talk about how I can become partner? I felt rather than helping women get to the top, a lot of the “female-friendly” policies ensure men stay on the job, while women are lured into staying away from work as long as possible and not threatening their male colleagues on their march to partnerhood. It is no coincidence that countries like Germany with very “female-friendly” maternity policies have a much lower share of women in power than cutthroat capitalist countries like the US, where women go back to work shortly after childbirth. Don’t get me wrong, I think flexible work and taking maternity leave for as long as possible are fantastic, but they are child friendly and family friendly, rather than helping women get to the top in business and politics, and it’s important to be aware of that.
So let’s assume you are in your early twenties and have 5-10 years ahead of you before having a child, what should one consider a female-friendly career? I would argue it is one that is “career-friendly”, and this should be no different for men. What you want in your twenties, especially as a woman, is to advance as fast as possible, learn as much as possible, and make as much money as possible. It is a likely that a demanding, competitive, well-paid job is going to get you much farther. The skills you acquire and the money you make will help you much more later on in your thirties than any women’s workshops or networking events could offer you.
In my opinion, trading is a fantastic career for young ambitious women, despite the fact that very few women do it, you cannot do it part-time and it involves an intense work environment. If you do well, you can accumulate several hundreds of thousands of dollars until you have your first child, or until you decide you want to do something different and set up your own business or write a novel. A safe job like being a teacher or a secretary doesn’t offer any such flexibility and freedom.
Here’s the list of questions I suggest young women ask themselves when deciding on a career path:

– how meritocratic is the firm? how fast can I advance?
– how much responsibility will I get early on?
– what skills will I acquire that will serve me long term, either for switching jobs or setting up my own business?
– what exit option does this give me 2, 5 and 10 years down the road?
– how much money will I have made until I am 30 and 35?
– what network will I build up that might be useful if I ever want to set up my own business?

Always remember, what we want is freedom and independence, do not get tricked into either a job that sucks out your lifeblood while giving you nothing lasting in return (Alexander the Great is supposed to have uttered the last words “I conquered the world but am leaving empty handed”, and you should think of these words when you take on a job – what counts is what you can take from the job once you, leave it) or a job that is comfortable and “female-friendly” but offers such little returns in terms of money, skills and network that it will require you to work as an employee for the rest of your life.

Instead, go for jobs where you learn a lot, make a lot of money, meet a lot of people and that way, when you get to a stage where you are faced with a very different situation than your male colleagues find themselves in, and this usually happens in your thirties, you have the financial freedom and the personal confidence and experience to do your own thing and taylor your own career.

I know this is controversial, so I would be really curious to hear what you guys think? What’s a female-friendly job to you?

The real reasons behind the gender attainment gap

This year’s GCSE results in the UK are out, and while 19.8% of boys’ entries were awarded an A* or an A this year, 26.5% of girls scored the top mark – a gap of 6.7 percentage points. The media cites a lot of reasons for this, such as the high share of female teachers favouring girls in the education system or boys’ higher need for physical activity or their lower reading skills (this BBC article is one of the more balanced articles with some reasonable attempts at explanation), but in my opinion they all fail to get to the core issue.

First of all, I totally dismiss the explanation of the high share of female teachers discouraging boys. I don’t know about your experience, but I had some female teachers who favoured the boys in the classroom very clearly. As a girl, I have received much fairer treatment from male teachers. This may just be my personal experience, but it definitely shows that there is no evidence that female teachers will be more suited at bringing out the best in girls than boys. In addition, there is clear evidence that teachers as a whole instinctively favour boys over girls in the classroom: they are called up more often, get interrupted less easily, and every single study on gifted education that asked teachers to identift the most gifted students in class has found teachers will name a far larger share of “highly gifted” boys than girls than what you should expect based on the actual distribution of IQ in boys and girls. So poor boys being discriminated against by teachers? I don’t think so.

A key reason, in my opinion, is the gender pay gap. Girls are just like many of the hard working first generation immigrants: they know they have to work much harder than boys to get anywhere near as far as average boys. Girls grow up hearing about how they have to be twice as good as boys to get to the top, that no matter how good they are, they will miss out on promotions and rewards, and this generation of girls is determined to fight this bias. The real outrage is not the gender attainment gap. The real outrage is that DESPITE the far higher achievement and hard work of girls, these same girls will still end up earning less and exerting less power and influence in business and politics than their underperforming male classmates.

Enough of babble about the system favouring girls. Let’s worry about the boys once we have eliminated the gender pay gap.

Relationships and management consulting

While I was working as an analyst at McKinsey & Company, the Global Head at the time, Ian Davis, gave a moving speech to all the newly recruited analysts and associates. He wanted to make the point that being analytical and smart wouldn’t be enough in the future. He told the story of a team that had been complaining about the client project leader. They said he was inept and slowed down the whole project. They didn’t know why he was so uncooperative and unmotivated. He went there to talk to some clients and find out what was going wrong. The response he got from the client employees was that everybody in the company knew that the project leader’s child had had an accident and was in intensive care – except the consultants. The point he wanted to make was that we wouldn’t get anywhere in this job if we couldn’t connect with our clients and show interest and empathy to everybody we worked with. I think it is terrific that he wanted to change company culture and make us focus more on personal relationships. On the other hand, I don’t see how it is going to work.

If you want to be a management consultant, you need to accept sleeping away from home at least 3 nights per week, usually from Monday to at least Thursday. You are likely to work 14-16h per day and have no private life during the week. The type of people who are least likely to mind this lifestyle are those who suffer the least from lack of contact with friends and family. As a consultant, you will besupposed to work when you have the flu, when it’s your mother’s birthday, you will only see your cute nephews or nieces a couple of hours on the weekend and you will have to miss your boyfriend or husband …. and then you’re supposed to care if your client’s wife has depression or his child is ill? I just think there is an inherent contradiction here. Those people who really care about relationships and friendship cannot be happy in such a job and are likely to leave after a couple of years. I still think people who don’t mind being away from family and friends 5 days a week for years are complete freaks. That’s why I think consultants who’ve been in the job for a long time are unlikely to be compassionate about other people’s personal problems, as they are insensitive even to their own. There are great people in consultancies, don’t get me wrong, but be suspicious about those who get to the top.

Week in the life of a consultant

I wrote this post in May 2006 while still working at McKinsey. I used to run a very popular blog on my life as a consultant during this time, and this one one of the most popular posts that many readers found very helpful, so I am reposting this here for anyone interested in what life as a management consultant is really like:

Monday, Monday

My week starts on Monday morning, 5:45 a.m. My alarm is always set for 6 a.m. but I usually wake up shortly before it rings, worried I might oversleep and miss my flight. I used to do the packing on Sundays but by now the process has become so efficient I can shower, dress, pack my bags and have a tea within 30 minutes.

At 6:30 I’m off to the airport, get my ticket from the machine and go straight to the lounge. I used to cling to every possible minute of sleep and thus arrive only a minute or two before the deadline for electronic tickets (25 minutes before takeoff) but I have picked up the habit of arriving 10 minutes earlier to spend some time in the lounge. That way I can have a small muesli with tea and grab a banana or two that come in handy during the rest of the day. In the lounge, I already tend to bump into at least 5 colleagues heading to different cities for their projects. The usual questions are “where are you at the moment?” and “how is it going?”, apart from that we don’t usually talk too much.

In order to be a consultant you need a client…

Monday around 9 or 9:30 the working week begins…. To explain what we actually do on a daily basis is very hard, because it is so varied. The general idea is that we get assigned to a project, and this can be anything from cutting backoffice cost to designing a market entry strategy to setting up world class operations or customer experience, really anything. The very first days are dedicated to meeting with senior clients (members of the board and their direct reports) to agree on concrete actions to take and the direction and scope of the project. Then we spend a lot of time gathering data, understanding data, discussing potential solutions and creating concrete suggestions. There are different approaches to this. The approach I like the most is what we call “collaborative problem solving” which means you don’t do many presentations as a consultant but learn more to solve problems and develop solutions jointly with the client, using their expertise and “the wisdom of the masses”.

Once you have gathered enough data and information, a lot of time is spent on drawing good and meaningful charts. At the beginning I couldn’t believe how much time I had to spend on this and I thought it was completely useless. Now I see the point of it. First of all, the more experience you have, the faster you draw the charts so the more time you spend on the actual content rather than the format. Secondly, each word and number in the hands of the wrong people (or the right people who misunderstood) is very dangerous, so it is very important to document on a constant basis the status of discussions. We tend to work on critical issues decisive for targets, bonus payments, investment decisions and so on, so it is important to have documented what you propose and what you don’t propose, otherwise people can easily shift blame on you.

So I would say we spend 1/3 of the time on meetings and discussions with clients, 1/3 on conducting excel analyses and making presentations, and almost 1/3 can be spent internally in discussions with project managers, partners and directors. This is often insightful but sometimes seems a waste of time when you’re busy. At my current project, we have a lot of interaction with partners and directors (directors are one step higher than the partners and actually the highest you can get within our company). We tend to get together 3h per week with all the teams working at this client to discuss current events at the client (critical discussions, frictions between senior managers, potential takeovers, competitor moves etc.), this is a great way to get to know the industry and the higher echelons of the client. Additionally, we have two or three more hours for the small team working on one topic to discuss it with directors. They make sure we are going into the right direction and like to challenge everything to test if we have thought everything through.

Working hard

Working hours depend very much on the project, the normal consulting hours in Germany are probably 8:30 am till 11 pm, but currently I have to work till midnight or longer on many days and also start at 8 am most days. There is not much “facetime” as in investment banking though, if there’s not much to do I leave much earlier than that. Yesterday for example I left at 7:45 (I think that was my record during the last 2 years!), or on Friday I just took the flight home at 1 pm since I had worked till 3 am the two nights before. So hours are definitely very flexible, but if there is one thing to count on it is that you don’t have any private life during the week.

Keeping in touch

The time spent in taxis is a great time to call friends and family. By now, it’s almost only family I call on the way to and from airports and hotels. In the first year, right after the introductory trainings, I would call many new colleagues or they would call me. Conversations were very kind and supportive. We would call and e-mail each other at least once a week to see how everyone was going, how they liked it and so on.

This has subsided significantly in the second year. Some people have adapted to work fully and have found new friends among the people they work with, or they were opportunistic from the start and have shifted their attention to people higher up in the food chain. Some people are unhappy due to tough projects or unfavourable performance ratings and avoid contact (promotions are very transparent so if you’re not promoted, while all your peers are, everybody will come up to you and ask “why weren’t you promoted?”). And then there is the third group that is somewhere in the middle, moderately happy but really counting down the days till they can leave. They are focused on finding a new job, dreaming about their MBA or just spending time with their loved ones and also tend to become less and les communicative.

Most of the best friends I have made fall in the third category, one Jamaican lawyer is looking to return to a law career, one Californian HBS grad is looking into a teaching career, and my fellow peer from Germany is counting down the days till his IESE MBA in Barcelona starts. These are the people I’m still in touch with. If I hear from people from the other two categories at all it is at the time they are looking for a new project and they call me to ask “have you worked with this partner?”, “how’s this guy?” etc.. I tend to be very helpful with extensive advice but have often experienced that once people pick a new project, they don’t really bother to update you where they ended up finally. I wonder if this will happen also with lots of contacts at business school. You have a great time together, then everybody starts new jobs, the first year people stay very much in touch to find out how they are doing at their respective jobs, and then most people fall out of touch and only call each other when they are looking for a new job and remember they should “network”. The important thing I guess is to have 5 people or so who are true friends for a longer period of time.

Home sweet home

Thursday evening before takeoff I also head to the lounge if I have time to have a quick snack before the flight (the food on the planes is usually unacceptable). Again, I tend to bump into several colleagues, which is nice because people tend to be more cheerful and talkative on Thursday evenings when compared to Mondays. I used to go to the duty free to bring chocolate or champagne as a present on Thursday but this has also become less interesting over the years so now I don’t usually bring any presents home anymore.

Casual Friday

Friday is our “office day” (see the view from my office on the left) where we have no client meetings and use the time to prepare documents for the next week, conduct analyses and also complete some of the admin stuff we don’t have time for during the week, such as expenses etc.. I also like catching up with my peers, especially with the above mentioned partner in crime counting the days till business school. I tend to be very efficient on Fridays since I like to go home early. I try to head home at 5 pm, unless there is something urgent for Monday. Usually I opt for leaving early no matter what, even if it means I have to spend an hour or two on the weekend finishing.

This pretty much sums up my week. On the weekend I usually recover from the week, sleeping a lot, relaxing a lot, playing with my nephew, shopping, watching Seinfeld or Bruce Lee movies , doing some sports and so on. In general, time passes extremely fast.

If you are interested in a career in management consulting, also read this consulting career guide.

McKinsey nightmare

I had a bad nightmare last night. I had just finished my MBA, and for some reason, I was starting back with McKinsey! I was at a welcome dinner in London, ready to start my associate training, and they told us there were different training locations where we would have to go the next day. The locations were London, New Jersey, and Frankfurt. We each had to draw a card that would tell us where we were bound. The director (who happened to be a serious German guy wearing a grey suit) handed out the cards. I told him I wanted to stay in London, that since I lived in London I saw no reason to fly of to some other place just to do a training. He said these were the rules and I would have to show flexibility as a consultant. I refused and finally managed to force him into giving me a card that gave me the right to stay in London. But he told me that I would regret this, that I had the wrong attitude to be a consultant, that I would have to show flexibility and be delighted being told to fly around. He would take my attitude into account at the next “people’s performance committee”.

After that, the dinner continued. I was sitting opposite an associate principal who I had actually known during my time there. She told me that she was pregnant and would probably going to stop working for a year when the baby came, because, after all, APs didn’t earn that much and it wasn’t worth it. Then suddenly I was just myself and told her that that was true, that I was very happy with my decision to become an investment banker, and that taking into account my bonus I would probably earn more than her as an Associate Principal, hehehe.

Then I woke up, the sun was shining, and I was in London. I didn’t have to fly away. I just took a long walk through Hyde Park, bought fresh juice at Wholefoods, came back home, read a book about 19th century explorers to Tibet, and then took a nap on my sofa. Life is good.