Date posted: 18/07/2018 15 min read

How women can climb in professional services

Why do so few women still reach the top in professional services? A new book by accountant Alison Temperley reveals how to climb faster and higher.

In Brief

  • Gender imbalance at the top of professional services firms is stark – only 15% to 20% of women become partners.
  • Women must actively manage their careers from the start by talking about achievements, being openly ambitious and getting a sponsor.
  • Alison Temperley is the author of Inside Knowledge: How Women Can Thrive in Professional Services Firms.

By Deborah Tarrant

An anomaly in the numbers at professional services firms has long captured the attention of Alison Temperley, a former PwC tax accountant turned management coach and leadership expert.

When equal numbers of men and women – the best and brightest graduates – are entering firms that purportedly operate as meritocracies, why do only about 15% to 20% of women ever reach the pinnacle of partnership?

What stops their career trajectories? How can women learn to work with structures, strategies and biases (unconscious or not) that pervade professional services firms and come out on top?

London-based Temperley’s three-decade career has given her a unique perspective on gender issues in the leadership of professional services firms. She spent 17 years at a leading global professional services firm and almost as long again as a coach to hundreds of senior executives and their teams from international legal, consulting and accounting firms and other global corporations. 

In 2017, when it rained for 12 days of a fortnight-long holiday, Temperley started decanting her wisdom into a book. The result, Inside Knowledge: How Women Can Thrive in Professional Services Firms, overflows with eye-opening insights, observations, opinions and advice. Temperley challenges women to speak up and step up, and fills her book with practical exercises to help.

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A former director of the Praxis Centre at Cranfield Business School, Temperley says she zoomed in on professional services firms because “the numbers are stark, and their business models are more opaque than corporates”. She says that women are drawn to these firms “because they are perceived as meritocracies that require the skills and intellectual power they have excelled at previously at school and university”. But she adds that the numbers show “clearly something else is going on”. 

The book aims to help women navigate successful career paths – essentially by boosting things they often don’t catch on to early enough, such as talking about their achievements, cultivating networks and understanding the less obvious challenges inherent in firms.

“Women still feel uncomfortable talking about their successes, because it may be seen as bragging, and they often discuss playing politics with their noses screwed up,” says Temperley. This needs to change. But at the same time she’s not letting firms and society more broadly off the hook.

Most telling for Temperley are reports from women who have been through her leadership courses. Often when they recount their revelatory learnings back at the office, their male colleagues are nonplussed to hear of career-forging tactics that to them have always been obvious.

So what do women in professional services need to know? With extra insights from Temperley, Acuity cherry-picks a few highlights from the book. 

Hard work is not enough

“It was enough at school and university, and if you have a fabulous boss and a brilliant system in your firm, it may be enough now, but time again I see hard working, really good women working away in a corner,” laments Temperley. “Brilliant work is a fundamental in every firm, but others need to know about it, so women need to talk about it.”

The people who are making decisions about women’s careers often don’t know what their successes have been or what they’ve been involved in – and there’s a joint responsibility here, she says. “Those partners should know what they do, but actually they’re incredibly busy, too.”

Women have a responsibility to give partners news of their achievements in a format that’s easy to understand and use. Temperley suggests a short factual email update each month. “It’s about providing information and telling the truth,” she insists. “Not bragging.”

Related: CA ANZ Library: Inside Knowledge: How Women Can Thrive in Professional Services Firms 

Provides practical guidance for women working in professional services firms. 

The art of sustainable equilibrium

Professional services firms are incredibly demanding on both intellectual ability and time, and many young women leave firms in their late 20s and early 30s. “It’s the time when female attrition rates are at their highest compared to males,” notes Temperley in the book. “It’s assumed this is something to do with having children, but often it’s about the incompatibility of the lives they want with the hours worked,” she says. 

“Many ask themselves if they will be able to maintain equilibrium with the additional pressures of being a partner.”

The results of a 2012 McKinsey study, which surveyed thousands of women in professional services firms, showed 71% believed work had to be their No. 1 priority to achieve partnership. On a similar theme, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg has noted many women “check out” before trying.

Don’t make assumptions, urges Temperley. Certainly, the traditional model of a professional services firm is not built for women’s biological phases, as the hard push to partnership happens in the mid-to-late 30s.

Temperley hears from women partners that the role holds more flexibility and autonomy than working in senior management for a number of partners.

“You owe it to yourself and the partnership to confirm that what you want is not possible before you leave,” she advises.

Conduct due diligence by asking partners what they enjoy about their role and how they find time for life. Is there an appetite in the firm to do partnership differently?

Both genders will soon be asking this question as millennials move up through firms, Temperley predicts, flagging a key area of change. 

Women tread a very fine line between being ‘not hungry enough’ and being seen as strident.
Alison Temperley author and leadership expert

Women – too ambitious and yet not ambitious enough

Women face an ambition double-bind. They are not perceived as ambitious because they don’t state their career goals as straightforwardly as men who talk about them from the outset.

Countless studies show men will apply for a new role or project when they have 60% of the requirements, while women tend to wait until they have all. Their hesitation is perceived as lack of ambition.

“Men are assumed by default to be ambitious, which effectively puts them on a superhighway to partnership, but women tread a very fine line between being ‘not hungry enough’ and being seen as strident,” explains Temperley. “In one professional services firm, I heard a woman described as ‘too ambitious’ with the inference she was pushy. When is a man described that way?”

Active career management means not waiting to be noticed. Temperley advises: “State what you offer, then what you want. Put a date on when you’d like to be a partner or take on a particular piece of work,” she says. The annual appraisal process is your forum.

Yes, you do need to play politics

Is your firm a pure meritocracy or political bear pit? It’s likely to be both, writes Temperley. In professional services firms, where every partner is an owner with an imposed management system, it’s like herding a bunch of bright entrepreneurial cats, she says.

In this environment, engaging with impression management and politics is imperative, but this does not mean practising “the dark arts of manipulation”.

Getting a proposal over the line may be simply a matter of ensuring people know what’s in it for them before a key meeting. It’s not Machiavellian, just common sense, Temperley insists.

The unique structure of firms requires you to understand where real power sits – and it’s not necessarily with the person who holds a particular title or role. The partner who set up that part of the business and held the role previously may actually be the person everyone listens to. Check who has the clout.

Promote commercial outcomes

The financial contribution professionals make to the firm’s bottom line becomes increasingly important as they move up the ranks, but this is another area where there’s a perception gap between genders. Cracking the Code, a 2014 report by KPMG, leadership consultancy YSG and the UK-based gender balance group 30% Club, shows that in development reviews, women are considered comparatively weak on applying commercial acumen. 

Temperley believes this is because women tend to talk about inputs – working hard and technical knowledge – rather than outputs. Women must be clear about the financial contribution they make at all career stages, she says, along with demonstrating awareness of what competitors are up to and what they bring to their firm’s differentiated offer.

In terms of developing business, the good news is that women tend to naturally have the increasingly critical skills of building trusting relationships and listening to clients. 

Create your own composite role model

In 2001, when Temperley left PwC, she berated a male partner about a lack of female role models in the firm.

“I was looking for someone exactly like me, an expert in personal tax, but a few years ahead,” she recalls. “I wish someone had told me that a more effective approach to finding role models is to take aspects from different people that you want to be like to create a composite role model for yourself.”

For a career-building network, role models, mentors and supporters are essential, but sponsors – who openly and strategically champion you and your achievements – are particularly vital. Unfortunately, sponsors are more challenging for women to find in firms, as male leaders predominate and tend to focus on protégés in their own image. It’s the “mini-me” factor. 

Women must ask for a sponsor, Temperley says, and, crucially, support other women. In the book, she quotes former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women.”

The extra hurdles women must jump

A series of interlocking hurdles clutter the path to success for women in professional services firms, observes Temperley. These include:

The social cost of success

Women “stand out in a sea of grey suits” in professional services firms and may attract media attention and consequently Tall Poppy syndrome. “They are expected to be brilliant at work, have the family totally sorted and look good all the time. The same standards are not applied to men, and that’s tough.”

Greater reliance on the firm’s formal career system

Men rely on informal networks, but women ask permission. One example is how women typically flex their time by asking for a formal arrangement. If a man wants time off to train for a marathon, he’s likely to put on his running shoes and go, observes Temperley.

Getting caught with the role of organisational dusting

These are tasks that are important but only noticed when not done and therefore unlikely to be recognised, such as developing junior associates, client liaison and notetaking in meetings.

Fear of failure

“I see a lot more perfectionist women than I do perfectionist men, and I don’t know why.”

Attributions of success

Women tend to credit external circumstances, like a great team, luck or an easy assignment, says Temperley, but men tend to claim good leadership and focus.

Navigating ambiguity 

Women often miss out on hearing about upcoming opportunities or being exposed to informal conversations in firms because they’re not part of men’s informal social networks, which often convene for a sporting moment.

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In the post-Weinstein era, Temperley is alarmed to think invitations for women to join such occasions may be less frequent than ever. In the book she references ambiguity in the male-female dynamic in several instances, such as when a woman from a professional services firm invites a male client to lunch. The solution to this one is easy. “Invite a colleague or partner along too – or go for breakfast,” she suggests. 

What concerns Temperley in the wake of #MeToo is that good men may cease to sponsor women because they don’t want their interest misconstrued. “How do we deal with that?” she wonders.

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, editor and editorial consultant.