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Winning the Talent War for Women

Nine years ago, professional services firm Deloitte & Touche set out to determine why so many of its talented women were walking out the door—and what could be done about it. One of the keys, writes Deloitte Consulting CEO Douglas McCracken in this excerpt from the Harvard Business Review, was to begin with dialogue as the platform for cultural change.

Winning the Talent War for Women

"Nine years ago, we came to grips with the fact that women at Deloitte were on the march—out the door," writes Deloitte Consulting CEO Douglas McCracken in "Winning the Talent War for Women." McCracken says that Mike Cook, then CEO of Deloitte & Touche, knew the high turnover among women was a problem of the utmost urgency that called for cultural change for business reasons—not just moral or emotional ones. In this excerpt, McCracken tells how a task force led by Cook began with dialogue as the platform for change.

The task force had found that women at Deloitte perceived they had fewer career opportunities than men, but no one could point to any specific policies as the culprits. We had to tackle our underlying culture to fix the problem. Accordingly, the firm held special two-day workshops designed to explore issues of gender in the workplace. We needed to begin a dialogue: In our view, the key to creating cultural change in the firm was to turn taboo subjects at work into acceptable topics of discussion.

During 1992 and 1993, nearly every management professional at Deloitte & Touche—5,000 people, including the board of directors, the management committee, and the managing partners of all of our U.S. offices—attended the workshop in groups of 24. Cook personally monitored attendance; as one partner puts it, "Resistance was futile." Many harbored doubts. I myself saw it as just one more thing to do, and I had always been skeptical of HR-type programs. I'm sure I wasn't the only partner calculating in my head the lost revenue represented by two days' worth of billable hours, multiplied by 5,000—not to mention the $8 million cost of the workshops themselves.

I was dead wrong. The workshops were a turning point, a pivotal event in the life of the firm. Through discussions, videos, and case studies, we began to take a hard look at how gender attitudes affected the environment at Deloitte. It wasn't enough to hear the problems in the abstract; we had to see them face to face. Sitting across a table from a respected colleague and hearing her say, "Why did you make that assumption about women? It's just not true," I, like many others, began to change.

The lightbulbs went on for different partners at different times. Many of us had little exposure to dual-career families but did have highly educated daughters entering the workforce. A woman partner would say to a male counterpart, "Sarah's graduating from college. Would you want her to work for a company that has lower expectations for women?" Suddenly he'd get it.

Case studies were useful for bringing out and examining subtle differences in expectations. Drawing on scripts provided by outside facilitators, people in the workshops would break into groups, discuss cases, and share solutions with the full group. A typical scenario would have partners evaluating two promising young professionals, a woman and a man with identical skills. Of the woman, a partner would say, "She's really good, she gives 100%. But I just don't see her interacting with a CFO. She's not as polished as some. Her presentation skills could be stronger." The conversation about the man would vary slightly, but significantly: "He's good. He and I are going to take a CFO golfing next week. I know he can grow into it; he has tremendous potential." Beginning with these subtle variations in language, careers could go in very different directions. A woman was found a bit wanting, and we (male partners) couldn't see how she would get to the next level. As one woman summed up, "Women get evaluated on their performance; men get evaluated on their potential."

Another scenario had two members of a team arriving late for an early-morning meeting. Both were single parents, one a father and one a mother. The team joked about and then forgot the man's tardiness but assumed the woman was having child-care problems. After the meeting, the team leader, a woman, suggested that she think seriously about her priorities.

Scenarios like these lent realism to the workshop discussions, and hard-hitting dialogue often ensued. One partner was jolted into thinking about an outing he was going to attend, an annual "guys' weekend" with partners from the Atlanta office and many of their clients. It was very popular, and there were never any women. It hadn't occurred to him to ask why. He figured "no woman would want to go to a golf outing where you smoke cigars and drink beer and tell lies." But the women in the session were quick to say that by not being there, they were frozen out of informal networks where important information was shared and a sense of belonging built. Today women are routinely included in such outings.

Work assignments got a lot of attention in the workshops. Everyone knew that high-profile, high-revenue assignments were the key to advancement in the firm. Careers were made on big clients; you grew up on the Microsoft engagement, the Chrysler engagement. But the process of assigning these plum accounts was largely unexamined. Too often, women were passed over for certain assignments because male partners made assumptions about what they wanted: "I wouldn't put her on that kind of company because it's a tough manufacturing environment;" or "That client is difficult to deal with." Even more common, "Travel puts too much pressure on women;" or "Her husband won't go along with relocating." Usually we weren't even conscious of making such assumptions, but the workshops brought them front and center.

The workshops also highlighted one of the worst aspects of these hidden assumptions: they were self-fulfilling. Say a partner gets a big new client and asks the assignment director to put together a team, adding, "Continuity is very important on this engagement." The assignment director knows that women turn over more rapidly than men and has the numbers to prove it. So the thinking goes, "If I put a woman on this account, the partner will be all over me—and that's who evaluates me."

In the end, John gets to work on the big account and Jane works "somewhere else." After a while, Jane says, "I'm not going anywhere here. I'm never going to get the big opportunities," so she leaves. And the assignment director says, "I knew it."

The task force realized the workshops were risky; the firm was opening a can of worms and couldn't control the results. Indeed, a few of the workshops flopped, disintegrating into a painful mixture of bitterness and skepticism. Some people dismissed the experience as a waste of time. But ultimately the workshops converted a critical mass of Deloitte's leaders. The message was out: don't make assumptions about what women do or don't want. Ask them.

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Excerpted from the article "Winning the Talent War for Women: Sometimes It Takes a Revolution" in the Harvard Business Review, November-December 2000.

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Douglas M. McCracken is the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, a global business of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. He is also chairman of Deloitte & Touche LLP in the United States.