Market-based and association-based professionalisation strategies. Restructuring and feminisation in business consulting


s project examines the market strategies, personnel policies and professionalisation activities in the business consulting sector in Germany in the context of the increasing tendency towards internationalisation. At the centre of the study is the question of in how far associations and businesses appreciate that an increasing number of qualified women is available to them and in how far they view them as a target group for their strategies and activities.

The theoretical basis of the study combines three strands:

  • Abbott's (1988) dynamic concept of the system of professions;
  • Acker's (1990) concept of gendered organisation and
  • Schmitter/Streeck's (1999) theory of the logics prevailing for associations and their business interests.

The following four methods formed the basis of the empirical research:

  • Interviews with experts at six professional and/or economic associations connected with business consultancy
  • Mikrocensus data for the years 1995, 1996 and 1997
  • The use of mailed questionnaires (the majority via WWW) at consultancies and
  • 40 personal interviews with managers at business consultancies.

The results of the exploratory studies of associations point to a low level of problem awareness in regard to gender politics; the activities carried out by associations tend to maintain established structures.

In actual consultancies, women are a minority, making up 25% of the qualified staff. The careers of the female consultants tend to be influenced by the consultancy areas in which they specialise, by the hierarchical structure and the size of the company and by whether it is based in the former West or the former East Germany. Women are significantly underrepresented in the prestigious area of strategic consultancy compared to their presence (by percentage) in personnel or marketing consulting. In general, the proportion of female consultants stands in inverse proportion to the size of the company and to the level of the hierarchy; however, in absolute terms by far the majority of women are employed at large businesses.

In the new (i.e. former East) federal states, the consultancy sector is still in its infancy and is characterised by structures associated with small businesses. The fact that on average the percentage of women consultants (c. 40%) is higher here is due in part to employment traditions inherited from the GDR. The fact that more of them can be found in management positions and/or as self-employed consultants correlates with the dominance of small businesses.

However, the fact that more qualified women have lower-level jobs than their male colleagues in this sector - which has remained on the whole unchanged even during the recent boom period - is not due to difficulties at the level of entry. Rather, organisational factors at work act as a kind of "filter" which prevent women from staying on and/or from advancing. A central factor here is the typical "project work" which, particularly where large companies are concerned, usually involves frequent and long business trips. Another important aspect is the "up or out" principle which assumes the norm of a relatively strict timescale for career development. These factors leave almost no room for any family-related interests or tasks. In addition, the business culture of this sector tends to be strongly based around a "boys' club" attitude, leading to a high drop-out factor for women after a few years compared to their male colleagues.