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.