Agnès Hussherr joined the French firm in 1989 and became a partner in 2001. She serves clients in the banking and capital markets industry and is the HR leader for Audit. Agnès also leads the French firm’s ‘Women in PwC’ initiative and is a member of PwC’s Global Diversity Council. PwC supports the Women’s Forum since its creation.
When did you commit to gender diversity first, and how did PwC set the issue?
At PwC the project started between 2004 and 2005 at European level, and has been launched in France in 2006 and structured at Global level in 2007. The female Territory Senior Partner of PwC Luxembourg had realized that she was the only woman in a management position on the European level. She thought that probably there was something at stake in the small number of women partners at PwC. She therefore decided to ask me, who was a young partner in France, to assess the question in more depth at European level. We started by centralizing statistics concerning the presence of women in the different European countries. We quickly assessed that PwC was losing its female talents: from 50% female associates at entry level to 8% at partner level.
There was also a crucial disparity between countries: in Ireland, we had 17% of female associates; in Sweden, only 12%. Rates were low also in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. In France, we reached the 15%. In the United States and the United Kingdom, where gender diversity was already a topic for long years, there were 15% of female partners. The combination between these variances and the overall scarcity of women at partners level confirmed that gender had to become a topic.
We also looked at some macroeconomic data and we recognized that there was some correlation between cultural context and political situation, namely concerning the family legislations in European countries. In France the welfare system helps mothers in the child-care; in Germany, by contrast, the school system is not quite adapted to the timetables of working parents.
How did you build the case study?
At Global level, our CEO took gender diversity as a strategic topic and created the Global Diversity Council. At European level, we created a community with representatives from each European country whose objective is to share best practices. In France, I commissioned a study to a male consultant who interrogated our young female employees just to see if and how they perceived the issue of gender equality. The result was very interesting and enabled us to build an action plan. It was also shocking for the female partners, who had a wrong image in the eyes of the younger women. We were seen as work-addicted. We also assessed that many young women envisioned quitting PwC once pregnant because they believed that it was not possible to raise children while staying at PwC, due to the difficulty to maintain a good worklife balance. The discrepancy between our perception and theirs was incredibly evident. There was the need to create role models in order to defeat these prejudices and to launch several programs.
What did your commitment focus on at the time and what is still at stake?
Since then, we promoted several workstreams. We worked on women’s networks and internal/external communication. PwC has always been a diverse place; it is part of its DNA and the key to recruit the best talents. We did not want to approach the topic with a feminist approach. We rather wanted to include women in our larger diversity values. Concerning the internal network, we organized events such as the play of Blandine Métayer “Je suis au top!” (“I am at the top!”) to make women aware through humor. With regard to the external network, we organized events (“Temps de femmes”) between our male and female partners and our female clients. For instance, one of the events was the exhibition “Marie Antoinette” that also allowed us to highlight the activities of our Foundation. In Lyon, our female partners are very active in promoting their network with female clients in a perspective of business development.
We promoted female leadership with the Women’s Survival Course where we first create awareness about psychological type preferences (masculine traits/feminime traits) and how it does translate into managerial behaviours, then explore the main roadblocks to women’s access to senior positions: stereotypes – like the inability of women to say no (“the complex of the nice girl”), the tendancy for women to wait until promotion comes to them (contrary to men who dare ask fearlessly for promotion), beliefs (including women’s beliefs about women). We finish with a list of golden rules : stop trying to please everybody all the time, stop striving for perfection (the ideal business), stop doing everything (all the time), stop expecting to be in demand, stop seeking a consensus at all costs, stop being discrete at all costs. The second Survival Course, to be planned in the next months, will address public speaking techniques for women.
We focused on parenthood rather than on motherhood, because having children regards both men and women and not only the latter. Promoting flexible work is one aspect. Then we offer our employees an insurance that provides them with baby sitters in cases of emergency: often, the morning of an important meeting, your children are sick and nobody can take care of them. We also organize an internal network of teenage children of our associates willing to baby-sit for the younger children. We have international exchange programs for teens: my daughter went to the United Kingdom, and we hosted her British correspondent, which was fun. Finally, we ensure equal parenthood leave for men and women: we maintain 100% of their salary. Nowadays, 85% of our men go on leave. Surprisingly enough, many big groups in France still do not give such benefits.
Now, what have been the results of your extensive activity?
The question of the results matters to me the most, because I think one must have the courage to ask herself: did I change anything? I think we did. We have today 20% of female partners, female partners represent 25% of our boards of direction and we coopt about 25% to 30% new female partners every year. We also see interesting evolutions such as partners working part-time or a client being served by two female partners. However, there are also things we could do better, like keeping our internal and external networks fluid and animate: this requires a lot of effort.
You already mentioned the idea of having a second Survival Course; can you say more about your future projects?
I plan to undertake another study similar to the one of 2005-2006, and the same consultant will lead the project. This time, I want men to be included in the survey: I think we need men’s views on the topic as well, to see how they receive it.
Then, I would like to open a club of extraordinary women. Usually, the role model given in corporate culture is that of women who made it in business. By contrast, I would like to extend this to other domains: women are also exceptional in sports, culture, arts and politics… Role models are important as they change the culture by undoing stereotypes women have on themselves and on other women. As women we value our personal lives, our ability to say no when we need to take a break, and the value of recreation. Two years ago, I obtained my pilot licence, I started playing golf last summer, and I want to go back to sports. With my leisure interests, my husband and three children, I have always been promoted and never took a part-time position. Women have always been able to handle different things, to anticipate and to find a balance in their complex lives, and I would like my collaborators to understand the importance of this value.
What is the future of gender diversity in your opinion?
We promote ourselves as gender diverse; nevertheless, I believe that the focus should shift to the overall corporate culture. PwC culture is that of valuing diversity at so many degrees that we need to be flexible, in our business and for our people. And this is even more important to our GenY people, men and women. This is why rather than speaking about work-life balance, I prefer to talk about work-life integration: nowadays, our private and professional lives are deeply interwoven and increasingly determined by technological innovation. The core issue is how to make this integration possible and improve women’s and men’s lives as a result.
New technologies have made us mobile, and at PwC we value flexibility as structure and model. We have autonomous and mobile populations within the firm, to which we propose the eworking (also called eflex), i.e. work from a remote location thanks to technologies. Hence, our employees can basically work from anywhere. They can work from home two days a week, when client presence is not required. This is a good compromise between improving flexibility and the importance of teamwork, which we value to a great extent. We have launched the eworking this September as a pilot for our Audit collaborators, and had mixed reactions at first. The younger employees were just enthusiastic, whereas the oldest (and not even that old!) seemed more reluctant. They feared change, as many French people do. In fact, eworking mobilizes organizational resources each of us had maybe not questioned before. It is true that it needs some self-discipline and the ability to be fully conscious of objectives and expectations. That said, I have always enjoyed this type of work and I think this is the future.
This is where integration lies: we should be able to intermingle the increasing mobility and flexibility of our lives with our work culture. Now, it is our managers’ task to mobilize their personal qualities to enhance confidence and promote flexible work. If we can make this happen, we will win the challenge and improve the lives of our people, women and men.