This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.
Catherine Roche and Nandini DasGupta are Toronto-based partners and managing directors of Boston Consulting Group, one of the world's leading management consulting firms.
Diversity, and gender diversity in particular, is at the top of the agenda for government and business leaders in Canada. Many of us watched with great excitement as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet – more diverse on several fronts than any in our country's history. This bold move signals that the issue of gender equality in the workplace is moving into a period marked by concrete action. Corporate Canada has a big role to play in moving this story forward – and doing so will require all the good ideas and persistence we can muster.
In the spirit of pushing this agenda forward together, we'd like to share some ideas that have allowed Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of Canada to attract, develop and retain female leaders. Our efforts to support women have transformed our approach to apprenticeship to the benefit of all of our staff – male and female. More than 10 years ago, we established a Women@BCG program to increase the number of women at the firm – as well as the levels of their success and satisfaction. Our work in this area is hardly done, but we're making strong progress. Over the past five years, we've seen a 70-per-cent increase in the number of women in our North American consulting ranks. We have been boosting our numbers of professional women in Canada at twice the rate of our male professional staff growth. Not bad, but we aspire to do much more.
Central to our efforts was an in-depth assessment of how we develop talent at BCG. Apprenticeship is a large part of our talent-development model, making it critical that we get that process of hands-on learning right. As strong believers in listening to "the voice of the customer" and learning from objective facts in our client work, we applied the same rigorous analysis to our own processes. We examined how our apprenticeship culture and process was working for women. This involved conversations and interviews with hundreds of consultants in focus groups, interviews and surveys.
What we uncovered was eye-opening. First, we found that while long-term relationships are important to both genders, women put more value on them. That value stems in part from having mentors who offer coaching, advice and connection to the firm. But it also relates to the work itself, with women looking for sponsorship by senior managers that allows them to find rewarding opportunities and navigate their career path.
Second, women sometimes felt that they were expected to adopt a more "male" communication style, one typically defined as a highly assertive demeanour. For many of our female consultants, this felt inauthentic and often considered a less effective approach to building relationships.
Finally, both female and male consultants told us they viewed our performance-feedback process as overly focused on addressing weaknesses rather than on building strengths. BCG women in particular cited this as a barrier to their job satisfaction, development and advancement.
Zeroing in on these three elements sparked a comprehensive initiative, called Apprenticeship in Action. It focuses on enhancing the apprenticeship experience for everyone – shaped by feedback from our female consultants on what mattered most to them. Among the program's initiatives: the training of all managers in delivering feedback that highlights employee strengths, the assigning of senior sponsors to every senior female manager at BCG, training on avoiding unconscious bias in the workplace and the coaching of all consultants on how to develop and hone a powerful and authentic communication style. The roll-out, which began in North America four years ago, has expanded globally. At the same time, we continue to learn what works and what doesn't, driving further refinements in our approach.
We are busy on many other fronts aimed at supporting women as well, including the enhancement of flextime programs, networking and focused recruiting efforts. But our new thinking around apprenticeship is likely to be the most powerful driver of change within our firm. An effort that was started with women in mind has proven to have tremendous developmental benefits for all of our people. And it comes at a time when we see many other leading Canadian companies taking actions to support their female leaders. We hope that drawing on the lessons learned from our efforts and the efforts of others will add momentum toward the goal of improving diversity in Canada's workplaces.