How We Closed the Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Retention Rates

Many companies continue to struggle with advancing and retaining women. As we’ve studied our own progress at BCG, we have found that gender disparities in our senior cohorts are not completely explained by traditional workplace concerns, such as work-life balance, maternity leave, unequal pay, and differential ambitions. We have identified a very different explanation, which is just as critical: the quality of the day-to-day apprenticeship experience.

Apprenticeship, the working relationships of junior team members learning alongside experienced colleagues, is critical to mastering the consulting craft and succeeding in professional services. It’s a model that’s increasingly used in companies of all kinds looking to accelerate the development of their high-potential people. Management consulting is a challenging environment in which to cultivate apprenticeship, because staff regularly jump from project to project and manager to manager. As in many fast-paced companies today, consulting staff operate without formal job descriptions or handbooks. So relationships are where employees develop critical skills and leadership capabilities.

However, when we analyzed the annual employee survey data specifically for high-potential, mid-career women who regrettably left the firm, we found the lowest scores were around the statement “I am satisfied with the apprenticeship and feedback I received.” Moreover, in a survey of employees leaving BCG, departing women ranked mentorship, not work-life balance, as the number one topic that the firm needs to improve on. Finally, in a survey of all North American staff, asking about 16 options of what people seek from a manager, “forming a strong relationship with my manager(s)” and “having someone in leadership who cares about me and reached out long after the project ended” were the most valued dimensions for women.

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