The role of paradox in understanding female career progression within UK professional services firms

Over the past fifteen years, professional service firms have increasingly promoted their commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I), particularly with regard to gender.

Proponents of D&I policies in professional service firms typically cite the "business case" to support their arguments: that the retention and promotion of more women will enable the organisation to attract and retain more female talent in future.

The benefits of this include an improved capacity to innovate, and to respond to the requirements of a diverse client base.

Despite this argument however, there remains a wide variation in female career progression in the professions. A study of accounting firms by Louise Ashley and Laura Empson of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms has shown how the "business case" is just one of three sometimes conflicting and contradictory narratives that are employed in relation to gender equality.

In addition to the business case, some professional service firms also cite the moral case, arguing that promotion of D&I is simply the right thing to do.

However, Ashley and Empson's study finds that both the business and moral case for gender equality and diversity are undermined by a strong client service ethic in accounting firms.

The most important aspect of client service is responsiveness to client demands and expectations. In practice, this is interpreted as meaning constant availability to the client: the ability to respond quickly to demands which are sometimes erratic and unpredictable; the effective and efficient turnaround of projects often at short notice; and the provision of advice by an individual (or team) who is consistently available, known to, and trusted by, the client.

So while some interviewees in the study argued that the business case for retaining more talented women is consistent with effective client service, the actual structural changes needed to retain these women, such as flexible working, are in fact in direct conflict with it. This contradiction begins to help explain why so many firms have struggled to deliver on their espoused commitment to D&I.

Ashley and Empson argue that the way in which organisational leaders combine and utilise these three narratives can help to explain and predict their success in promoting gender diversity at senior levels.

Firms that utilise just one narrative in favour of workplace diversity, either the business case or the moral case, are less likely to challenge the dominant client service ethic and retain senior women.

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