Men Play Key Role in Helping Women Advance at PwC

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek July 29, 2019
Men Play Key Role in Helping Women Advance at PwC

Organizations need to adopt strategies that have a "gender lens" in order to help women overcome three main obstacles that can block their path to leadership opportunities and men play a key role in those strategies, said Jennifer Allyn. She is diversity strategy leader at PwC's U.S. headquarters in the New York City area. The global company is considered one of the world's four largest auditors, along with Deloitte, EY and KPMG.

The hurdles: Inadequate exposure to senior leaders, a support network that was not broad or deep enough to propel their careers, and not getting clear and candid feedback about their performance, she said. 

Realizing that women cannot advance alone, the company's diversity team created Breakthrough Leadership, a two-day session for prospective female partners that complements its three-year curriculum for male and female employees who demonstrate partnership potential.

"It's very valuable to also do something that has a gender lens," Allyn observed.

That's where Breakthrough Leadership comes in. Sponsors, who are usually male, and their female proteges attend the two-day session in the first year of the three-year curriculum. The session prepares participants for leadership and includes panel discussions, keynote speakers, "fireside" chats and exercises on topics such as the challenges sponsors face when giving and receiving candid feedback.

Breakthrough Leadership features mostly internal speakers, Allyn said, because the firm wants to hear from people who can address the dynamics of partnership at PwC.

"At a lot of women's conferences, it's all external speakers, and they can give you multiple perspectives, but we're trying to pair that insight with PwC examples because it's very specific within our culture how you make [partnerships] that work."

Breakthrough Leadership is a time for sponsors and proteges to reflect and create plans to showcase the potential partner's strengths and work on areas that need development. Those plans include increasing the women's visibility among the partners, which is orchestrated by the sponsors.

"The protege has to build relationships, but the sponsor offers opportunities to work with those people so they can see [her] in action," Allyn explained.

Sponsorship Is Key to Women's Advancement 

Since Breakthrough Leadership began in 2012, Mindi Lowy and 268 other women who attended with their sponsor have been admitted to partnership nationally. 

Lowy's sponsor, Marvin Nagler, arranged for her to give a presentation at an annual conference that the company's tax group holds and nominated her to chair a global PwC leadership program. And he diverted 600 hours of her 1,000 hours of work for a large tax client to others at PwC, to give her time to research and write a paper for publication in a national journal. This also allowed her to work with other partners and clients, people she continues to work with in her current role as a partner.

"She still was the 'face' to the client" and attended every meeting, "but she wasn't going to advance her technical and soft skills doing the busy work," Nagler said.

Sponsors and proteges are coached and trained on giving and receiving feedback. Sponsors learn which feedback is most important to address and to connect it to business results. Proteges learn to delve into negative feedback to better understand how they can improve.

Breakthrough Leadership educates sponsors on the reality of gender bias. That includes understanding what Allyn called the "double bind" women experience when they are seen as too aggressive.

"The qualities we associate with women are being nice and generous and likable. When they go against that we see them as abrasive," she said. "If [sponsors] encounter that feedback—and not everyone does—I'm asking them to challenge it as a blind spot and reframe those behaviors in a gender-neutral way" to say, for example, "She's tough and fair; she gets results."

Sponsors also can teach proteges how to manage work/life conflicts. 

Nagler has been a partner at PwC for 19 years and, like Lowy, is an Orthodox Jew. 

When observing the Sabbath, he does not use electronics from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. That includes refraining from e-mailing and texting. 

"In an industry like this, we do have a busy season where people are working the weekends," explained Lowy, who in 2015 became the first Orthodox-Jewish woman promoted to partner in the New York City office. "I was able to observe how [Nagler's] been so successful making it to the top with the same [religious] limitations … [when] you feel like you have to say yes to many of the asks that come your way."

PwC's inclusive culture, Lowy said, made it easier for her to manage her workload while adhering to the strictures of her faith. She works late on Thursdays and informs her clients when she will be unavailable.

Making partner is a "team sport" involving sponsor and protege, Allyn said.

"They both have a lot to do on both sides and it's working together that leads to the success." 



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