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Has the Glass Ceiling Finally Been Broken at the Big Four Consulting Firms?

Author Deepa Purushothaman discusses the progress of women and women of color in corporate America.

In a Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A interview, Deepa Purushothaman—the author of The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America and co-founder nFormation as well as an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School—discusses progress, or lack-thereof, of women and women of color in corporate America.

HBSHAA: Back in the mid-1980s, a Catalyst employee explained some of the interesting research which her firm was doing around how the Big 8 accounting firms might address a pain point regarding female employee development and retention.1 Despite comparable levels of men and women joining the firm’s entry-level auditing practice, the number of women thinned out after the manager level for several of these firms, which have since morphed into the current Big Four firms.2 During those days, Catalyst’s President argued “…that employers can make the most of their women in management by identifying two groups early: the ”career primary” woman, who can be worked long hours, promoted, relocated and generally treated like a man; and the ”career and family” woman, who is valuable to the company for her willingness to accept lower pay and little advancement in return for a flexible schedule that allow her to accommodate family needs.”3 Considered quite controversial, the HBR article helped catalyze talent management discussions at several firms. Fast forward to 2015, and there were two female CEOs at the Big Four firms. Given this context, has the glass ceiling been broken given progress here and at other firms like CVS Health and GSK to name a few?

Purushothaman:This question reminds me of the Einstein quotation about how problems cannot be solved by the same style of thinking that gave rise to them in the first place. As long as we think about women’s success in corporate America hinging upon their ability to adapt to the existing norms and culture, we force them into these false dichotomies and untenable tradeoffs. It’s absolutely unacceptable to expect women to choose between professional advancement and family. While we all have our own values and priorities, the truth is we’re asking women to contort themselves and conform to a workplace culture that is woefully outdated. And it’s not just women who are frustrated, men are also craving more balance, time with their families, and purpose-oriented growth.

To me, progress doesn’t just look like women in more high-powered seats, because I’ve been one of those women and I’ve interviewed over a thousand of them at this point. They’re exhausted, disillusioned, and often physically sick over the toll of maintaining an invincible front. Two out of three women I interviewed were dealing with symptoms of chronic stress, like fatigue, rashes, issues with digestion, and fertility challenges.

Women of color have it especially difficult, and when we at nFormation partnered with the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative on a proprietary research study, PowHer ReDefined, we found that:

  1. 70% of WOC say “I have to prove myself over and over again”
  1. They are 20% less likely to say “I have the resources needed to advance my career”
  2. And over 95% say that companies must establish better processes to investigate racism and discrimination at work; and that it’s vital to create safe spaces where WOC can discuss our unique challenges and solutions.

To me progress looks like affirming that leadership shows up in many forms, that caretaking for example is as valuable to society, if not more so, than managing assets.

We have not made the progress we need to make. That is why McKinsey4 recently talked about the “great break up” and cited that many women at all levels of the workforce are leaving to find ways of working that work better for them. One of the three main reasons cited for attrition was the desire for better company culture, one that values employee well-being and DE&I. It also stood out to me that two-thirds of women under 30, though ambitious, say they would be more interested in advancement if they had senior leaders as models who were satisfied with their work-life balance, rather than on the brink of burn out.

We need to revamp the ways we work, redesign a workplace that works for all of us, and better honor the needs and gifts of diverse individuals.

HBSHAA: Given the business value that women bring to organizations, what actions should be taken to elevate the development and retention of these employees?

Purushothaman: Let’s elaborate a bit on the business value that women bring to organizations. Women, and especially women of color, bring both lived experience, and a unique perspective to organizations. Leadership, as we understand it, is incomplete if it doesn’t include women’s voices. And we see the effects of this across industries and fields, whether it’s lack of medical research around women’s health issues; or HR policies around maternity leave; or what kinds of ideas receive the most funding.

In the same PowHer Redefined study mentioned above, we found that though WOC self-identified as effective decision makers, resilient leaders and bold truth tellers, which are the qualities needed to reform corporate America, they are simultaneously 34% less likely to say they are rewarded fairly, and over 61% are not satisfied with their rate of advancement.

We also heard that while women are struggling, “toxic rock stars” are being promoted despite complaints and red flags. Toxic rockstars are high performers or employees who meet large sales targets but do not uphold company cultures. They actually cause harm to their colleagues. When women report toxic rockstars they often get dismissed as the “one lone wolf or just being difficult.” If workplaces want to retain women and women of color, they need to improve reporting processes and take action against their toxic rockstars and their behaviors.

At the same time we take these actions, we need to have more honest discussions. We have to move away from corporate fairytales that promise women it will get better one day and ask them to strive for perfection, sacrifice their wellbeing, and mute their voices in the present. We need to expand our definition of leadership and leadership ready so that the leaders we put in seats are ready for the growing challenges we are facing now and into the future. And, we need to have more space to talk about how work does not work for women and women of color and then move to fix issues at an individual, company, and systemic level.


  1. Catalyst is a global nonprofit supported by many of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. What We Do | Catalyst
  2. Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG)
  3. Lewin, Tamar, ‘Mommy Career Track’ Sets Off a Furor,” New York Times, March 8, 1989
  4., McKinsey Report.

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