Retaining Talented Women

From The Practice May/June 2015
Lessons from Ernst & Young

Deborah Holmes, ‎Americas director of corporate responsibility at Ernst & Young (EY), has unique insight into issues facing women in the legal profession.

In a recent conversation with The Practice, Holmes summarized the key lessons she’s learned running EY’s initiative to retain women at the large professional services firm. Her work at EY will form the basis of a future case study.

Deborah Holmes, Americas director of corporate responsibility at EY
Deborah Holmes

Holmes’ engagement with work-life issues began as a student at Harvard Law School, where she wrote a paper on women in large law firms that would become one of the seminal early examinations of the issue. After graduation, Holmes joined the Families and Work Institute and then Catalyst, think tanks dedicated to understanding the issues facing families and women in the workforce. She quickly developed a reputation as one of the top experts in the field—a reputation that eventually led the CEO of EY to recruit her to improve the accounting firm’s retention of talented women professionals.

Holmes accepted the challenge, and from 1996 to 2005 achieved remarkable success: the number of female partners at EY tripled (from 80 to 241), while the overall percentage of female partners doubled (from 6 percent to 12 percent). The number of high-potential women working on flexible schedules also tripled, from just over 300 when Holmes began her initiatives to nearly 1,000 by the time she left. When she joined the firm, just two women had been promoted to partner while on a flexible work schedules; by the end of her tenure, that number had jumped to 14 women and one man.

Below we share excerpts from our conversation with Holmes.

Using metrics to secure buy-in

EY knew that it was a business, and had no problem operating as such. This meant that senior leadership was comfortable making decisions on financial grounds. The primary metric we used to get buy-in was the cost of attrition, for which we used the now generally accepted (but then still brand-new) figure of approximately 150 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Because of the scale of the firm, we calculated that if we could reduce attrition of talented women by even 1 percent, we could save the firm $12 million annually. This made for a very compelling business case.

Defining the problem

EY’s size also made it easier for us to move beyond the individual issues that inevitably surround any given employee’s decision to leave (or be asked to leave) the firm. When you aggregate data across tens of thousands of employment outcomes, these individual reasons recede and large patterns begin to emerge.

One of the key things we did was to conduct a large number of focus groups with matched sets of women and men to understand the elements in EY’s culture that were hostile to the firm’s professionals in general, and to women in particular. We ended up with four big categories: mentoring, work-life balance, networking within the firm for professional opportunities, and networking outside of the firm for business development. For each of these topics, we set up a pilot program in a separate office to develop and test innovative solutions.

Change via rigorous measurement

For mentoring, we established a group-mentoring program, where a number of senior men agreed to meet on a regular basis with high-potential women to discuss career strategies for success.

To address work-life balance issues, we instituted telecommuting, casual dress, and flextime schedules, and we created a firmwide online repository of people already using flexible schedules (which had been individually negotiated with their supervisors, and—with a very few exceptions—kept hush-hush).

Our pilot on networking within the firm began rigorously measuring how opportunities for good work and stretch assignments were actually being allocated both within and outside of formal assignment systems. We maintained a detailed Excel spreadsheet that recorded every assignment given to every person in the office, to ensure that women received the same-quality work as their male peers. At the same time, we monitored all the work that was being done for each office’s top clients to see whether women were getting the same opportunities to work on these critical matters as men of similar age and ability.

Finally, to address networking outside of the firm, we created over 42 regional women’s networks to facilitate business development opportunities for the firm’s women professionals.

Enthusiastic commitment

None of this would have been possible without the active support of two EY CEOs. That commitment was evident from the start, when, two weeks after I accepted the position, I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child. I called the CEO to tell him that I would regrettably have to back out since I did not want to leave him in the lurch when I took my maternity leave. Not only did he refuse to accept my “resignation,” but he told me that I should be nothing but happy for this joyous news—and that he would see me on Monday.

For the next six months, we flew together to 19 cities, talking about the initiative and selecting the offices for the pilot projects. The CEO made it clear on these trips that I was his representative, putting my office on the same floor as his and eventually making me a partner in the firm. When I had my second child and told him I hoped to work from home one day a week, his answer was textbook supportive: “Do you really think I’m keeping track of where you work? I’m always somewhere else anyway!” The fact that the firm’s next CEO came from the office where we were piloting our group-mentorship initiative, where he was the managing partner who spearheaded it and remained an active participant, meant that there was no reduction in the commitment from the top for this effort.

View from the top

Needless to say, there continue to be challenges, and as I look from the perspective of my position as the firm’s Americas head of corporate responsibility (where I continue to work partially from my home office on a reduced schedule), it is frustrating that many of the issues that we identified in the mid-1990s continue to be a problem for women in the workplace. But I am proud of the work that we continue to do at EY on these issues and the progress we continue to make—progress that appears to be better than what I see reflected in most large law firms.


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