Magazine article Personnel Journal

Deloitte & Touche Changes Women's Minds

Magazine article Personnel Journal

Deloitte & Touche Changes Women's Minds

Article excerpt

Not so long ago, the Big Six firm made an alarming discovery. It was losing high-talent women due to its stifling environment. After an extensive overhaul, the firm is back in business with low turnover and high recruitment rates for women.

It's not as if Deloitte & Touche hadn't started out with the best intentions. Back in the mid-70s, the Big Six accounting firm acknowledged the women's issue-basically, that it pretty much had no women. So it began hiring more women and dutifully placing them in the pipeline toward partnership, a journey that takes a decade or more. By the mid-80s, 50% of its new hires at the professional level were women.

The firm then kicked back and waited for women to spill out at the other end of the pipeline, making bids for partnership. It knew 1991 was going to see a big increase.

Instead, it saw a decline. Apparently, Deloitte & Touche LLP had a leaky pipeline. "We're pretty good at numbers, being an accounting organization, and the numbers here were inescapable," says J. Michael "Mike" Cook, chairman and CEO. "Our biggest investment as a firm is our people. You can't employ half your population and have them leave prematurely and not have a very bad business result." For a company that invests more than $1 billion a year in its people, this was bad news. Deloitte & Touche was staring at a big financial loss. But just as importantly, it was in danger of losing its competitive advantage-hightalent accountants.

The problem is all too common these days. Women currently make up almost half the U.S. workforce. Fifty-four percent of college-degree holders are women. Yet we continually see women thwarted in their advancement attempts: According to New York City-based Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the workplace, women make up less than 5% of senior managers at Fortune 500 companies.

What isn't so common these days is the intense attack that Deloitte & Touche launched against the problem. The firm ferreted out the issues, set up its goals and lit a fire underneath everyone's seats. It devoted money, time and the company's best people to patching up its pipeline. By the end of 1995, the company had numbers to back up its zeal: 23% of its senior managers were women, and its percentage of women admitted as partners rose from 8% in 1991 to 21% last year.

These numbers reflect a lot of effort and struggle. The numbers represent nothing less than a metamorphosis of Deloitte & Touche--one that continues today, but began back in 1991 with the simple question: Why are women leaving us?

A task force uncovers some unsettling news. The accounting business in general tends to weigh heavy on the testosterone. For decades upon decades, it has celebrated its successes in male-dominated clubs, settled its deals on the links and stayed safely in its oldboys networks. So, when the issue of female turnover was first slapped on the discussion table, a lot of the men at Deloitte & Touche assumed it was a genetic thing: Women must be leaving to start up families. Cook himself even admits to this first assumption. His own wife chose to be a stay-at-home mom for the couple's three children.

Still, the firm was determined to find out for sure. In early 1992, a group of 20 employees--mostly partners--assembled to form the Task Force for the Retention and Advancement of Women, which would study the company for the next year. "The main objective was quite simple," recalls Ellen Gabriel, partner and task-force member. "It appeared that women were leaving the firm at a faster rate than men, and we were just trying to understand why that was."

The task force first looked up personnel records-poring over promotion rates, compensation comparisons and assignment equability. Where were they losing the women? Upon studying turnover numbers, the group soon realized that the higher women rose in the company, the more likely they were to drop out. …

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