leadership

Deloitte’s boss on why the stakes are high for gender diversity

Engel Schmidl /

Deloitte Australia CEO Giam Swiegers knows the stakes are high when it comes to gender diversity.

Diversity is not something that can be designated as a project for the HR department to deal with. It’s not something you simply stamp a name on, and talk up in the marketing fluff that goes out with recruitment campaigns.

Nor is it something that relies on a one-size-fits-all approach: merely implementing a blanket-wide mentoring program won’t solve the fact that women still account for just a tiny number of partners in accounting firms (plenty of women don’t want to be mentored), no matter how much money you throw at it.

Deloitte Australia’s lost too many excellent women in the past to rely on antiquated measures for attracting and retaining the best female staff. Its previous long-term gender diversity program was killed in 2003, back when Deloitte’s graduate intake was around 50% female but women accounted for just 4% of partners.

Thankfully, the number of female partners at Deloitte has since grown, with the firm’s latest partner intake at 36% female, up from 24% in 2011.

In an interview with Women’s Agenda for The Agenda Setters series, Swiegers credits the change with the fact the firm completely overhauled its diversity strategy upon launching the Inspiring Women program in 2004. Sure, the cynics might call it another marketing ploy, but this diversity program’s got one significant advantage over its previous iteration: it was given serious buy-in by senior management, as well as by the then freshly minted CEO, Swiegers. It also covers a wide-range of initiatives.

The war for talent is especially brutal in professional services and Swiegers makes no secret of the fact gender diversity is a business imperative, rather than a feel-good strategy.

“When we started in 2003, we had 12 female partners. It was therefore clear that we needed to find a way to fast-track these people to partnership,” he told Women’s Agenda. “What we quickly realised was that not everyone wanted the same support.”

So one of the key aspects of the program is the multi-faceted approach, with an emphasis on the fact women do not share the same priorities, ambitions and challenges. Any initiatives designed to help retain and attract women must be adaptable to personal needs. The program covers flexible work arrangements, mentoring, an internal awards program that’s run specifically for women and the ‘Inclusive Leadership Program’, designed to assist senior leaders in managing diverse talent within their teams.

More importantly, the program saw diversity move from being a project, to a fundamental undertone of business at the firm that sits with the senior leadership team. Swiegers takes responsibility for its success.

So what’s been the result? An increase in the number of female partners at the firm and a board that’s now one third female. Deloitte took home the award for Inclusive Workplace of the Year by the Australian Human Resources Institute in May this year. The firm now has the highest percentage of female partners according to a survey by The Australian Financial Review, at 17.8% – although it only just nudges out its big four rivals: KPMG (17.3%), PwC (17.2%) and Ernst & Young (15.9%).

“Exactly which elements worked, we’re not sure,” Swiegers said. With 25% of female partners currently accessing flexible work arrangements, Swiegers believes flexibility has played a leading role, but that the value of mentoring cannot be underestimated. “Anytime I talk to any group of young people I always say that we recruit such talented people into the business and it’s so competitive, that if you try and compete without a mentor, you’re most likely to be competing with someone who has a mentor.”

There’s still plenty of work to do and Swiegers concedes that the firm’s still chasing the magic female partner number of 25% — a goal that’s similar to Deloitte’s key competitors. It’s a target that will signify a decade of steady progress, but one that still falls short of equal representation.

Meanwhile, there’s just one woman in Deloitte’s senior executive team. “I hope we can address that,” Swiegers said.

Continuing and expanding on a flexible range of initiatives that women can choose to access will help.

Click here to watch Deloitte CEO Giam Swiegers interview with Women’s Agenda.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.

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