Women can make partner: advice from those who have made it

Agnes Chan FCPA, managing partner at EY Hong Kong, is on a mission to keep fellow female talent firmly in place.

The leadership track for women is still not as defined as it should be, but the glass ceiling can be broken.

When Karen Abramson was offered her first chief executive role at Wolters Kluwer in New York, her daughter was still a baby. The job was a global position overseeing the Medical Research unit of the firm and involved extensive travel, and Abramson was apprehensive about juggling motherhood with a leadership position. 

“How am I going to do this?” she recalls asking Wolters Kluwer chair Nancy McKinstry at the time. 

“I have this one-year-old. I’m just getting used to that. I don’t know if I can do this job.”

McKinstry’s reply, which remains the best piece of advice Abramson ever received, will resonate with any woman who has ever wondered ‘Can I do it all?’ 

“She said to me you have to learn how to balance,” says Abramson. 

“Some days, the business is going to be the number one problem and the number one priority and you will have to be there. And some days, home is going to be that number one priority and you will have to be there.

"We work differently to men. We come home and often we put our kids to bed and go back to work." Karen Abramson, Wolters Kluwer, US

“If you start off by saying, ‘I’m always going to put my job first’ or ‘I’m always going to put my family first’, you are going to kill yourself because those kinds of aspirations are impossible [she told me]. When you learn how to make that discernment and you let yourself have that balance, then you’re going to be very successful.” 

Finding that balance was what helped push Abramson to the top of her profession. She is now chief executive of Wolters Kluwer tax and accounting (global division), overseeing almost 6600 staff. 

Abramson believes companies need to enable staff to balance work with family commitments and says having a woman at the helm has definitely helped set the tone for gender diversity

Since McKinstry became CEO of Wolters Kluwer in 2003, the number of women in senior positions has risen from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, with 67 per cent of the divisional CEO level positions filled by women. 

Abramson explains that technology has dramatically changed the trajectory for women aspiring to be senior leaders. 

“We work differently from men,” she asserts. “We come home and often we put our children to bed and we go back to work. 

“Mobility enables us. Sometimes you have to be at a soccer game. Sometimes you have to answer a call from a client at a soccer game, and the technology and mobility enables you to do that.”

Karen Abramson, Wolters Kluwer, US It’s a sentiment echoed among the senior women INTHEBLACK spoke to about the partnership track. Yet while there are shared beliefs among them and certain qualities that no doubt helped them rise to the top of their professions, their experiences have been anything but identical. 

There may be no secret formula when it comes to being successful. What is common among these women is having a good support network (family, friends, paid help); attributes such as perseverance and loyalty; and perhaps most importantly, a corporate environment that enables them to balance leadership with family obligations. 

“That empowers women, because those are the things that we need to be able to work the way we need to work, so that we can have great careers and great families,” Abramson says.

There are also quantifiable benefits for business. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report shared research from EY that showed companies with at least 30 per cent female leadership can add as much as 6 per cent to their net margins. 

Professional Development: Building effective leadership and management capacity value pack: successful managers have skills across a wide range of leadership and management areas and this selection of courses will help to develop these skills.

Asia leading the way in leadership roles for women

In Asia, there’s a quiet revolution slowly transforming the world of professional services. After years of struggling to retain female talent, the industry is now promoting more women to leadership roles than ever before. 

At EY in Hong Kong, 30 per cent of partners are women. The company’s first female managing partner for Hong Kong and Macao, Agnes Chan FCPA (who marked 30 years with the company last year), is on a mission to keep fellow female talent firmly in place. 

Teresa Chong FCPA, KPMG, Malaysia “We may lose some good women because, in family discussions, the husband wants his wife to stay home,” she admits. “With all these struggles, we do spend a lot of time talking to our female high performers, finding ways to keep them in the workforce.” 

For Chan, who has a young son, domestic and family support has made her career possible. While cultural beliefs may be preventing some women from forging ahead, Chan is adamant there is “no glass ceiling” for women in Hong Kong, who she says are treated on merit if they go the extra mile. 

“The job can be challenging and you do have to make sacrifices,” she says, adding at least 12-hour days were the norm for her in the 1990s. 

“Maybe we’re a bit ahead because of the environment here. We have domestic house helpers here that we can afford. It makes it easier for women to stay in the workforce. It was certainly a big factor for me.”

Teresa Chong FCPA, audit partner at KPMG Malaysia, agrees. In countries such as Malaysia, where domestic help is not only affordable but the norm for many families, the situation has helped organisations achieve gender targets at a faster rate than in Australia, where access to affordable child care is not the standard. 

“Getting nanny assistance is very common and something that is easily obtainable,” she says, adding she took only two months off after the birth of each of her children. 

Chong says while access to affordable child care obviously helps, it’s not the only answer. The onus is on employers to step up and provide the type of working environment that enables women to succeed. 

“If we don’t adapt, we will lose good talent,” she says, adding that flexible working hours and the option to work from home are now the norm at KPMG. 

"Malaysian ladies, they are very determined. They want to have a career of their own." Theresa Chong, FCPA, KPMG, Malaysia

Certainly, Malaysia boasts some of the highest female partner levels in the world; for example, 40 per cent of the partners at PwC in Malaysia are female, compared with 18 per cent globally. At KPMG Malaysia, about 35 per cent of partners are female.

At Deloitte in Singapore, reduced work portfolios can be tailored to individual parents, says talent and audit partner Seah Gek Choo FCPA, who has two young children. These specialised flexible working arrangements are popular with working mothers of young children, and fathers access them, too. 

While women might previously have tended to leave the profession after the birth of a child, “Now we’re giving mothers more incentive to stay after giving birth,” Gek Choo says. 

"We do spend a lot of time talking to our female high performers, finding ways to keep them in the workforce." Agnes Chan FCPA, EY, Hong Kong

Australia playing catch-up in the number of female partners

In Australia, about one in five partners at the Big Four professional services firms are women. In 2016, KPMG and EY had 19.9 per cent female partners, according to The Workplace Gender Equality Agency

Deloitte had the most, with 27 per cent of its partners being women, but Cindy Hook, the first woman to head a Big Four accounting firm in Australia, says there’s still a long way to go.

“If we’re not supporting our women at important milestones in their career – such as removing bias from recruitment processes, or providing adequate support to help women re-enter the workplace after an extended career break – then how can we expect them to remain engaged and continue working for us, giving their personal best?” she says on the Deloitte website.

Seah Gek Choo FCPA, Deloitte, SingaporeDeloitte has undertaken targeted interventions within each of its divisions to improve female representation, running a senior leadership development program for high-potential women, and education programs to help raise awareness of gender equity issues to actively address unconscious bias in decision-making.

PwC has launched a similar campaign. It established an external Diversity Advisory Board in early 2015, and adopted a target for 40 per cent women, after an internal audit revealed only 18 per cent of partnerships were held by women. 

Setting gender targets has become common among ASX-listed companies. Research from 2016 by KPMG Australia for the ASX Education and Research Program found companies that disclosed clear, quantifiable objectives (for example, having 35 per cent of senior management roles filled by women by 2018) showed a higher level of gender diversity than those that didn’t. 

The Male Champions of Change Institute, which works with influential leaders to redefine men’s role in taking action on gender inequality, has instigated a number of strategies, including linking diversity targets to rewards, just like other high-priority business objectives. 

There are further obstacles at play. In Australia, two in five working women work part-time, compared with 14 per cent of men. “Flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies,” the authors of a Bain & Co brief – The Power of Flexibility: A key enabler to boost gender parity and employee engagement – wrote in 2016. 

“Fewer than 50 per cent of organisations have a workplace flexibility policy. And when such policies exist, they are not always effectively utilised.”

"Now we're giving mothers more incentive to stay after giving birth." Seah Gek Choo FCPA, Deloitte, Singapore

Australian journalist and author Catherine Fox says in her most recent book, Stop Fixing Women, “As more employers recognise the benefit from stopping ineffective remedial measures, they will also start to see the upside of addressing structural bias so all employees can fully contribute and boost results. The traditional ways of work aren’t just old-fashioned – they are failing to deliver for men, women and employers.”

Diversity delivers tangible benefits. In an internal EY study in 2016, the firm reviewed 22,000 world audits, and found gender-balanced teams produced better quality audits and financial performance.

Solving the family-work dilemma

South African-born Aletta Boshoff, a mother of four who became a partner at BDO Australia last year, has always worked full-time but flexibly, with help from her husband, nannies and family.

With her youngest children (twins) now aged 11, Boshoff says she has paid for nannies over the years because she enjoys working and wanted to keep her foot in the workforce.

Kathy Evans CPA, Crowe Horwath, Australia“Friends said they’re not going to work because there’s no pay left after child care, but I took the long-term view that maybe I don’t work for much [money] now but in 10 years’ time I will be working for a bigger profit,” she says.

Juggling family demands as a senior partner was also not easy at first for Kathy Evans CPA, principal at Crowe Horwath in Albury, NSW, who made partner in 2000 with two young children. 

“While I was on maternity leave, I took my three-month-old son to a two-day partner meeting,” she says. Later, help from her husband, who gave up his job in building, allowed her to work full-time. 

“That took a lot of the pressure off,” she says.

While New York’s Abramson admits the support of her husband (who, as a plastic surgeon has his own demanding job, albeit one that does not require travel) has helped her to juggle family and work responsibilities, she is not of the opinion that a supportive partner is needed for a woman to be successful

“I know that ever since [Sheryl Sandberg’s] Lean In was written there has been quite a bit of controversy about that and I believe it’s wonderful if you can have a supportive spouse. That makes everything in life better but I don’t believe that it’s necessary,” she says.

“Many women are single mums and they’re having great careers. Many men stay at home. Many men continue to work. But that shouldn’t necessarily be a driver. Rather, a woman can be successful in her own career.”

Moving women into the C-Suite

Women supporting women is key for Abramson, who celebrates 16 years at Wolters Kluwer this year. 

“One of the things that I really like to do is reach out if I know that an employee has just come back from maternity leave after having a first child,” she says, adding that might be one of the most lonely and scary days of any woman’s life.

“It’s the moment to call up and say, ‘Hi, welcome back. How are you doing? You’re going to be OK with this’,” she says. “And make sure you give them the opportunity if they need to ask some questions about it, because it’s hard.

“I believe women need to support women. If there isn’t going to be another woman there to support you when you’re going through something that we all go through, how will it ever happen?” 

She also believes that to move women into the C-suite, they have to break out of the traditional roles of HR, PR and marketing and into profit-and-loss (P&L) responsibility roles.

“These are the jobs that move to the C-suite. It’s very important for us to make sure that women have the opportunity for jobs managing P&L businesses,” she says. “We can teach them and grow them into those roles. That’s how we can move women into the C-suite.”

"While I was on maternity leave, I took my three-month-old son to a two-day partner meeting." Kathey Evans CPA, Crowe Horwath, Australia 

Chong believes ambition and determination got her to where she is today – and sticking around when many of her colleagues were tempted by offers at other firms. She joined KPMG in 1989 and “decided to stay”.

She says: “Staying on to go through that, the hurdles, the challenges … that makes us different. I think that’s where some ladies may just give up along the way, when they feel the challenges are a bit too much for them.

“Even though they are good at their work, I think once the stress gets to them, perhaps they say that this is not what they want. This is where we are losing them along the way.

“Malaysian ladies, they are very determined,” she continues. “They want to have a career of their own … they don’t want to be dependent on their husband, the spouse, and the family. If possible, they want to have their own career.”

Evidently, accounting firms that have set targets, understand cultural bias, enable flexible working options, and pay their employees enough to access child care and domestic help, are providing the requisite structural backbone for women to get ahead.

However, while the upside of having more female partners is impossible to ignore, it’s clear not all firms are there yet.

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October 2021
October 2021

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