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April 30, 2008

Plugging the gender gap

Plugging the gender gap

Deloitte US chairman Sharon Allen joined the Big Four firm’s predecessor 34 years ago. She speaks to Carolyn Canham about the growing opportunities for women in accounting and also about Deloitte’s strategy for women’s leadership.

Sharon Allen was elected as chairman of the Deloitte US board of directors in 2003. She was the first woman on the board, is the highest-ranking woman in Deloitte’s history and in 2006 was named as number 64 in Forbes magazine’s list of 100 most powerful women.

Allen says she is proud of her achievements, but credits much of her success to the environment Deloitte provided. “A lot of my accomplishments have come very much because of the environment in which I find myself and within an organisation that is both supportive of women within our organisations and supporting of the development of talent,” Allen says.

“Those two combined focuses have allowed me to succeed within the organisation. While I’m really very proud of the firsts I have accomplished within Deloitte and the profession over the years, I think it’s time to really be focusing more on the next CEO, managing partner and so on within our organisation and others as women continue to find their way into very good and appropriate positions within the profession.”

Encouraging women Deloitte embarked 15 years ago on its initiative for the advancement and retention of women. “We did that because we, by that time, had been hiring about 50 percent women for some period of time and had expected we would start seeing the same proportion of women being promoted to partner. That wasn’t happening as out turnover rate was much higher at that time for women than for men, so we undertook this initiative and really started to focus on understanding why,” Allen recalls.

“[We found that] some were leaving to choose to have a family and stay home with their children. Many were leaving for more specific reasons like finding more flexibility that allowed them to balance career, or places where they could find better mentoring. Importantly, we also found that women were leaving because they weren’t given as many opportunities to have the best assignments because we were worried that they were going to leave, so we had this crazy cycle.”

Allen says the firm undertook some very specific initiatives and programmes to try to deal with all of the reasons why women were leaving at a higher rate. She says the improvements in turnover are remarkable. “I’m happy to say that today our turnover gap between men and women, clear up to the partner level, is almost nothing,” she reveals. “We’re still today challenged to get as many women as men into the partnership, but we’re approaching the 30 to 35 percent promotion to partner and director, so we’re getting there.”

Allen says that raising the admission rate for women is linked to facilitating more balanced lives for men and women.

“I think we are all finding that we need to continue to focus on ways to help people get through the course of their career with the acceleration and deceleration times that they need to deal with their personal lives, and continue to find ways to do that within the context of still serving our clients and providing the important work that we do to the capital market system,” she says.

Allen was recently awarded the US Women’s Leadership Exchange’s Compass Award in recognition of her service to her profession and her position as a role model to other female leaders.

Allen and her husband are a two-career family and chose not to have children. “I think the work environment today, certainly within Deloitte, while it doesn’t make it easy to have children and balance all that, it is certainly more accommodating to that today than it ever was during the course of my career,” she says.

She explains that work/life balance and ethics are important to the younger generation. She also believes the work that Deloitte has done on the advancement and retention of women has put the firm in a good position to address work/life balance for men and women alike.

In terms of ethics, Allen says efforts the firm has undertaken to “understand the next generation” have found “they have an interest in the greater good and the broader understanding of how their potential employer may be impacting on the world around them, the environment around them and the business community”.

“I believe that it is really a great time for men and women alike, but women specifically, to have careers in accounting and in public accounting specifically. It is, I think, going to continue to provide tremendous opportunity for people to have an impact on the capital markets system in a very positive way and as we, as a profession, take on our role as important components and players in the capital markets,” Allen concludes.

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