Closing the Leadership Gap for Women at PwC


By Jarod Cerf

According to Jennifer Allyn, the Managing Director of PwC’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, “The problem is not just about women or about companies. It’s an interaction between the choices that women are making and the opportunities that companies are providing. And the question is ‘how can we work together to close that leadership gap?’”

Sometimes, as Allyn explained, the right solution involves a combination of feedback, responsiveness, and adaptability. The Full Circle program that PwC launched in 2008, for instance, was developed to address the on- and off-ramping needs of high potential professionals at the firm who wanted to take a few years off to focus on parenting or elder care.

“Concrete programs matter,” Allyn stated. “They signal to people that it’s okay to take a non-linear path. Because if we want to retain talented people who want to step out for a period of time, we should be able to stay connected to them, keep their technical skills current, and when they’re ready, bring them back to the firm.”

She added, “In fact, we just had our first Full Circle participant admitted to the partnership: she took two years off, returned, stayed on the partner track, and was admitted in June.”

Advancing Careers Through Sponsorship
There is often a divide, Allyn remarked, between what is ‘easy to accomplish’ and ‘what should be done’ about the leadership gap. At PwC, the core issue was one of how to develop and enable talent, women included. “Talent is the firm’s primary asset,” said Allyn. To that end, PwC reinforced the importance of sponsorship by creating a mandatory program through which partners can preserve their individual legacy as well as the organization’s culture.

“Our partners are owners of the firm, and their legacy is the next generation of leaders,” Allyn affirmed. She added, “In their partner plans, which they fill out annually, each of them has to select three diverse professionals—women, minorities, LGBT—that they are sponsoring and investing in, and they have to list those people by name.”

By the end of the year, partners report back on the specific actions they took on behalf of their candidates, as well as the results of those actions. From there, partners adjust their plans accordingly, with particular emphasis on career trajectories for the upcoming year.

Advocating for Future Growth
“On the other side,” Allyn continued, “we have certain programs where we’ve identified our highest-potential and highest-performing diverse professionals and assigned advocates to them—a sort of super sponsor, if you will—who can act above and beyond the direct sponsors to look for opportunities and actively build a path toward them.”

“And often those people are not within your immediate purview,” she stated, “because opportunities can arise everywhere—say for a position in Los Angeles when you’re working in the New York office.”

It is these advanced sponsors, Allyn clarified, who are tasked with providing insight on deeper questions pertaining to their candidate’s career advancement, such as: “Is this candidate in the right practice, and working on the right clients? Does she have the right business case, potentially, for partner admissions? Are we addressing her needs and concerns? Does she know the right people and have the right networks? Have we introduced them to her?”

Turning Ideas Into Actions
“When you look at the big companies,” Allyn remarked, “in terms of the Diversity Inc. Top 50, in Working Mother, in the Catalyst awards, a lot of them have embraced and focused on excellence in diversity because it’s so clearly related to their bottom line.” Even at PwC, “turnover is a big cost”, she explained, “one that we’ve reduced significantly over time.”

“I think the business case is case is pretty clear for everyone,” Allyn asserted, “and I think that, in order to be competitive and anticipate marketplace demographics in the future, everyone should be investing in this.” Nearly one-third of PwC’s U.S. leadership team, for instance, is comprised of female partners.

As further proof of PwC’s efforts in diversity and inclusion, Allyn cited the percentage of women partners at the firm, and how this number has increased over the past decade, from 13 percent to 18.5 percent. “That may seem like a small number at first, but we have almost 2,700 partners in the U.S. firm,” she noted, “and they stay with us.”