No More Excuses – Or Straw Men

Straw Man – To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw-man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent…

There are still too few big four women partners
Accountancy Age, 01 Mar 2007
Max Williamson, chief executive of Careers in Audit
“Not enough is being done to give women accountants a level playing field – every industry statistic you care to examine on the issue of sexual equality leads inexorably to this conclusion. The number of female partners working within the Big Four is embarrassingly low and the old excuse that the number of female partners would rise as more women entered the profession can now surely be buried. In 2006, 91% of PricewaterhouseCoopers’s UK partners were male and yet 40% of their qualified staff were female.

So why aren’t female qualified accountants reaching the top of their profession? Our survey reveals that an almost equal number of women and men aim to reach the position of partner or ‘climb the corporate ladder as far as possible.’ …Partnerships must voice genuine support for equality policies and create an environment in which women do not feel ostracised for having a family.

Interestingly, 87% of male accountants in our survey said their careers have been adversely affected as a result of trying to create more favourable working environments for women. I think we can take this statistic with a pinch of salt.

What men are really saying is that they would like their own issues to be acknowledged. They would like to spend more time with their families and be given greater flexibility on working hours. Don’t they realise that better conditions for women will pave the way for better conditions for themselves?”

I “retired” from PwC here in the US last October. After a year and a few months we came to a mutual conclusion that the job I had taken was not for me. I like being a manager, a leader, a part of the strategic team. I have been all of that successfully in the past. My role at PwC, however, was as an individual contributor on a primarily internal team, with no significant leadership role in practice development, business development or staff development.

It is just as well, since I now have the freedom to write about my experiences in all the firms, not only PwC, without the obligation to be loyal and supportive of any firm blindly. During the time at PwC, I experienced even more examples of the closed-circuit thinking that is still pervasive in the Big 4 audit environment.

After having been away from the pure audit environment for many years (KPMG Consulting started the breakup with KPMG a few years after I joined in 1993 and I have been working in non-audit firms, consulting firms or on my own since,) I thought that the business and the model would have progressed further by now. However, the model has not matured in the past ten years (they’re running the business circa-BearingPoint 1996…) but has regressed due to the fact that since most of the firms sold off their consulting arms after Enron, the competitive and technologically advanced consulting types were no longer around. Even when they didn’t retreat completely from consulting (Deloitte), the audit practice became re-dominant and has been the primary driver of every aspect of how and why anything is done inside the firms.

I am now an alumni of PwC and so I’m on the mailing list for any and all activities and events held to maintain contact with former employees, regardless of how and why they left. Since I am a woman of a certain age (early forties) it is unfortunately assumed by anyone who does not know me that I left because I wanted to raise a family and was frustrated with attaining or maintaining a partnership role given that desire. I recently received an invitation to a “Mom’s Day Out at the Spa” party. Big picture of a mom and cute baby on her shoulder on the cover, nice words inside inviting me to take a break with my fellow women friends from the kids and the house and enjoy some spa services and champagne on PwC.

I also recently received an invitation to hang out at a local brew pub on a Thursday (come by any time between 11:30 am and 7 pm) to watch “March Madness,” the annual college basketball championship tournament on big screen TVs. Come and go as my schedule permits, meet “old friends,” and watch Men’s college basketball games all day while drinking beer and eating chicken wings and other appetizers. You can win two tickets to a Chicago Bulls basketball game!

Last example – While I was there, we had the annual announcements of new Partners in July. All over the firm, posters with pictures were in the halls, to celebrate the local office professionals who had been selected and countless emails were sent out to tell of the ones from your practice and your industry sectors (your colleagues nationwide) who had achieved this distinction. Each announcement was accompanied by a picture and a short biography. The candidates probably had to complete a questionnaire with the following data requests:

1)What university did you attend? (Better to identify you with fellow alumni from the ten limited schools that the firm recruits from.)
2)What town do you live in? (Assuming you had moved to the affluent suburbs at this point in your career.)
3)What is your spouse’s and children’s’ first names? (When there was no spouse name in the bio there was a noticeable gap in the narrative flow. But this was rare. In a few cases there was no spouse name but the bio still included children’s names, but this was also rare. In the case of divorce, I guess everyone gets married again very quickly and has more children! In one case, a woman did not name a partner but named the unnamed partner’s children!)
4)Where do you like to vacation and what are some other activities you and your family enjoy? (family places, very typical risk-adverse hobbies.)
5)What charitable or community organizations do you have a leadership position in? (Lot of little league baseball, boy scouts and big names like the United Way.)

So imagine a professional who may be gay, or a single woman, who may have attended a foreign university no one in the US has ever heard of, who doesn’t have children, who lives in a loft style place in the city, who has odd artistic or creative friends or maybe who supports non-traditional activist or other non-profit organizations that make obvious their multicultural ethnic, religious or racial background and you can imagine a person who does not easily fit the Big 4 mold.

Every program that was intended to improve staff retention was oriented around either the young 23-27 year old professional who wants to continue their university lifestyle while now being employed in a demanding professional firm that requires them to work 70 hour weeks and travel to obscure places or towards the women who all supposedly wanted “work-life-family balance” and were to be accommodated at any cost. PwC’s approach is to put the outliers into “Circles” so they can be identified and labled and counted. They can talk to each other instead of connecting with everyone else. They have less chance to be respected and promoted for their intelligence and achievements, but rather are “groomed”, “mentored”, “coached” and maybe eventually promoted in spite of their differences.

There were some very noticeable women partners in our office who also had very visible families, (visible in that they talked about them all the time, were assigned to any other women managers as their mentors and brought small children to professional events.) I felt they were being paraded like heifers at the county fair, as if anything was possible. About 12% of its partners globally are women, up from 11% in 2005, even though in both years, about 22% of new partners are women. So something is going wrong even after the women make partner…

I was expecting an environment that was more like the one I experienced at KPMG Consulting/BearingPoint ten years ago. You may be surprised that a consulting firm, with an audit firm legacy, was more progressive ten years ago, but I believe it was at least more of a meritocracy. At PwC, I would have liked to see an environment that rewarded knowledge and achievements (even if they weren’t achieved at PwC,) rather than one that, every year, grinds down any “square peg” attributes so that after ten-twelve years, one fits nicely into the (literal and figurative) plain vanilla round slot that is their picture of a Big 4 partner. It would have been nice not be considered “odd” or “high-maintenance” even if one is a single mature professional, who may not have a stay-at-home opposite sex spouse or one who is the socially acceptable lawyer, accountant or investment banker, who doesn’t have children, who may have diverse community, political and personal interests, who may live in the city center instead of a tony suburb, and who doesn’t take vacations at Disney World.

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