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Big firms make 'family friendly' really work

Working mom.

Working mom. Credit: iStock

Rosters of chief executives continue to show that only a minority of women have risen to top leadership. So it was remarkable this year when two of the Big Four accounting firms -- KPMG and Deloitte -- named women CEOs.

Some observers noted that the women, who are both mothers, would champion family-friendlier policies. But that confuses the chicken with the egg. Accounting firms have promoted women CEOs because they've spent two decades investing in retention programs -- that is, making sure that employees, female and male, can experience parenting years without feeling their job commitments will deprive their families.

I wish more workplaces would understand this crucial juncture in life and imitate the policies that the big accounting firms came to out of necessity. Parenthood isn't only a female concern, of course, but the majority of parents who leave work to care for children are women.

Professions seem focused on building the ranks of women by recruiting them at the beginning of their careers. For middle school and high school girls, there are scholarships and internships for STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math. At medical schools, while more students are women, administrators brood over too few choosing the demanding specialty of surgery. Last fall, the University of Michigan rolled out mentorships and coursework to make women undergraduates aware of careers in finance.

But encouraging women to enter demanding fields without putting in place supports for parenting years will continue to lead to frustration all around. Crucial junctures for tenure for professors, for example, and partnerships for lawyers often coincide with childbearing years.

Accounting firms in the 1990s began actively trying to retain employees because business was booming. New rules, including federal Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for public company boards and managers, meant that public accounting firms expanded rapidly. Lynne Doughtie, the new U.S. chief executive and chairman of KPMG, and Cathy Engelbert, Deloitte's U.S. chief executive, began their careers in the mid-1980s.

One workplace innovation is a five-year leave of absence offered by firms including PricewaterhouseCoopers, where employees promise to return to the company. They're assigned a coach during their absence to keep their training and credentials up to date.

An executive at the accounting firm BDO USA told in 2008 that the company launched its flexible policies as a "women's initiative" in 2006. "But then we had an 'ah-ha' moment where we realized that flexibility is not a women's issue," said (now former) BDO partner Sandi Guy. So, the company relaunched its flex strategy firm-wide for everyone -- women and men, young and old.

As women and men start their careers, we as a society should be more explicit about which work is the most family-friendly. Maybe we could grade the occupations. Teaching: A. Engineering: B. MBA: C. Wolf of Wall Street: Don't ask. Such a system would give millennials the opportunity to vote with their feet for a value they claim to rank highly.

Even without a formal ranking, it seems the word is out about certain professions that require a "work-first" focus that makes a sane personal life impossible. In part, that's why STEM fields have to scrape for interested, talented girls.

Conventional wisdom has it that women are beset by a "confidence gap" and must be taught to "lean in." I don't buy it -- not fully. Professions that bend to allow for a rich family life at key points in a career will find plenty of self-assured, experienced women as leadership candidates.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.


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