Is it a strike against you to be a woman with family + young children when applying to Top Tier firms like MBB?

I am an APD in Toronto, Canada (healthcare professional with work experience finishing a PhD this year).

I would really like to understand what big firms might be thinking behind closed doors.

Would they be thinking they’d rather not deal with the complexities of a new consultant who might – down the road – want to switch to a part-time stream, or want to specialize in more local industries?

Thanks in advance for any advice you might have on this.


My Reply :

It’s not a strike against you to be a woman with young children. It’s essentially a non-factor unless you make it one.

In the U.S. in particular, employers are prohibited by law from even asking if you have children. And in practice, they do not ask.

I do not know what the policy is in Canada.

Legal issues aside, I’ll speak a little to what I noticed at McKinsey regarding this topic.

Keep in mind this was many years ago.

At the time I left McKinsey, the firm was facing a problem of women with children leaving the firm due to lifestyle considerations.

These woman were not pushed out, these were some of the best women the firm had, and they were leaving.

It was an issue of major concern amongst the partners, in part because these woman had developed very valuable (a.k.a. profitable) client relationships that left with them.

The firm had just completed some internal research (they do use issue trees on themselves, you know…) and identified several of the key factors driving such a high exit rate.

The key issue in a nutshell was the perception (and largely reality at the time) that there were two tracks in the firm:

1) the partnership track
2) the mommy track (part-time, but impossible to make partner)

The problem was there was no part-time “mommy partnership track.”

So basically, if you took the “mommy” track, which basically meant working part time, you were at the time pretty much guaranteed to not make partner.

It’s not possible to accomplish in three days a week what others (men who work full time and moms who work full time) accomplish in five (and sometimes six) days a week.

So it was not that moms were penalized as a group. It was anyone taking a part-time track ended up getting penalized.

The women who stayed until partner came up with all kinds of compromises and tradeoffs. Some would work until 5pm three nights a week (considered an early night), and work until 1am two nights a week.

They were still full-time, and they got to see their kids for dinner and tuck them into bed five nights a week (two weekend nights + three weekday nights)… and on those two other days, they got to work at 7am, stayed until 1am, and basically worked an 18-hour day.

The one woman I know who did this (who was also an APD) I think ultimately did make partner.

In the years since I’ve been away from McKinsey, I have been hearing that a more formalized part-time track has emerged — a track that is both part-time and partnership-oriented.

Keep in mind, I haven’t confirmed this, so you will definitely want to check online and with others to confirm this.

But the gist of what I heard was basically like this. Normally you work full time, work two years and it’s up or out. Under the new approach, the concept was your time until “up or out” was adjusted on an inverse pro-rata basis.

So if you worked 2.5 days a week, instead of requiring you to do all the things you need to do to be “promotable” within two years, you now had four years to do it.

So basically the standards hadn’t really changed, just the time scale was adjusted to reflect a “billable year” instead of the historical “calendar year.”

My recollection was this had popularity with some dads too.

My impression of McKinsey at the time was they were taking the issue of retaining women extremely seriously. It was most definitely not just a lip service issue.

So to summarize, from a getting the offer standpoint, having children is a non-issue. In particular, if they do not ask, do not tell (that is until after you get the offer, then ask all you want).

Historically it has been an issue once you were on the job… with the issue being McKinsey falling short, as opposed to women being marginalized intentionally.

Again, it has been several years since I’ve been in the firm, so you will want to independently confirm all of this elsewhere.

That being said, my general sense was given the trajectory of changes I saw at the time I was there, and a handful of data points I noticed since I left, I would expect that today this would not be a major issue or any issue at all.

Also as to the other firms, the top 3 – McKinsey, Bain and BCG tend to make human resource policy changes around the same time.

The reason is if one firm offers something more attractive (such as MBA tuition reimbursement), the other firms risk watching their recruiting numbers suffer.

When one firm’s yield (percentage of those who were extended offers who accepted the offer) falls one year, it is a very, very, very big deal. So when you see one or two years in a row like that due to some HR policy difference with a competitor, those gaps get closed pretty quickly.

So by and large the major firms do not try to out-do each other on HR policy type things, but they do seem to work pretty hard to make sure they are not lagging behind others in these areas.

Also I just googled McKinsey’s most recent gender numbers and it’s 47% female. I believe this ratio refers only to consulting professionals. If so, it suggests they must have figured something out to make the place attractive to women.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if you discover any additional information on this topic from other sources.