By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“I see myself riding a wave,” explained Wanda Eriksen, Assurance Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Zurich office and founder of its Women’s Initiative. “I think that I’m really part of the change. Looking back, I’m going to be in that group to really have more opportunity.” Eriksen sees a shift in attitudes regarding women in the workplace – an acceptance that grows larger with each generation.
She recalled how she had been approached to spearhead the Women’s Initiative for PwC Switzerland. “Until about four years ago, I was not even remotely informed about gender issues. I was like, ‘I don’t want to start any trouble!’” she joked. “In the beginning I needed to be convinced. [In Switzerland], we were probably about 10 years behind the U.S.,” regarding gender activities.
“I don’t want to say there are barriers… there aren’t a lot of women in leadership positions,” Eriksen explained, attributing this to the “little me” syndrome, in which leaders (usually men) promote people who are like themselves or take someone similar to themselves under their wing. “It’s more related to behavior than barriers,” she said. “I also see that things are changing, solely through the increasing volume of women choosing to have a career.”
“I think [younger women] have every opportunity. It’s already a totally different landscape. Opportunities are open to young women in the same way they are to young men.”
Active Engagement in Career and Community
Eriksen cites having been raised by Swiss parents in Peoria, Illinois with the career choices she has made – which grew out of a desire to work abroad. After graduating from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a masters in accounting science, she moved to New York City as a stepping stone to a European career. “My dream was always to get a job in Europe and move back to Switzerland,” she said.
In her 21 years with PwC, Eriksen has quickly risen through the ranks, having achieved several leadership positions within the organization – becoming partner only nine and a half years after joining the company.
“I think my greatest professional achievement is a sustained high quality performance,” she said, “which has given me the ability to make partner at a fairly young age and continue to have good opportunities.” Additionally, she has sat on the Swiss oversight board since 2007, is Chair of the Partner admissions committee, leads the pension plan business development group, and represents Switzerland in the European Women in PwC initiative.
And on top of all that, in her spare time, Eriksen is also working on a cultural project for her Zurich community.
“Three of us are trying to see if we can get funds mobilized to buy a historical textile collection. I feel the time is right to use my experience and position to engage myself in the project.” She continued, “Maybe in five years, we will have a wonderful museum.”
Regarding her next career move, she joked, “I know this is something women aren’t as good at as men and that is active career planning.” She explained, “There really are a wealth of opportunities. I go back to having sustained quality of performance – but I’m not looking for an exponential career path. Personally, I need to know where I’ll be in 2 or 3 years, to actively plan the short term.”
Eriksen sees operational improvement as the most exciting part of her career right now. “Looking at things from a strategic standpoint and making suggestions for improvement is what interests me – more a business view than an accounting view.”
Considering Work/Life Balance
“I don’t actively say much about myself,” said Eriksen. “I never present myself as a mother of four.” She continued, “There is some aversion to the idea that a woman who has four children can also have a career. It’s also a little bit of the surprise effect – people can form a view of me and I can establish myself without that prejudice.”
As a mother of four with many professional and personal commitments, she explained that she believes work/life balance is an emotional issue. “There are people who have given a lot to their career. It’s really a question of what path you have chosen for yourself.”
If you strive to be a high achievement individual in your career, “that probably means more work than life,” she says.
“My observation on my own work/life balance is that I don’t measure it in hours. There are many issues that take a lot of energy emotionally. If I look at myself, the negative part of work/life balance comes from being burdened by things that are occupying my thoughts. It’s more about emotional energy than time expended.”
Advice – Be Confident, Maintain Integrity
Eriksen has two pieces of advice for women in her industry. First, “Have confidence. Believe in yourself.” And second, “Ask for next steps. If you see a position open, actively go for it. Don’t wait to get picked.”
She says that you need to learn from your errors. “I think in the end, if I were to look back at a situation where I had a misstep, it was not actively realizing that I had too much on my plate, and not having the experience to recognize it.” She continued, “I had not really had missteps and was quite disappointed. In those years that have passed, I’ve gotten more experience and I don’t think I would make that mistake again.”
She explained that while she doesn’t have a formal mentor, “I always have my eyes and ears open” for important lessons and advice.
“When I was a student in college, a speaker came to talk to us. His advice was, ‘no matter what, don’t do anything that is dishonest’ – to ‘rigorously maintain the highest level of integrity.’”
“I took that with me.”