I was enlightened about the need for gender equity thanks to a group of exceptional women who had the courage to “lean in” and flag what they felt was a gap in our promotion process.
It happened in the late 1990s, as women were just beginning to enter the leadership ranks in professional services. I was leading one of the largest business units in the Americas for EY, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services, and tackling a range of issues — but the pace of women’s advancement to partner was not initially on my radar.
It was a group of several female senior managers who opened my eyes. They boldly approached me — when I served as the managing partner of their business unit at the time — and expressed frustration about their prospects for the early promotion track. They cited parenting responsibilities and maternity leave as chief reasons because they led to taking time off. They challenged the notion of early promotion hinging on time served, when above all else it needed to tie to performance and achievement. They crystallized what this meant for their retention and beyond.
It was a breakthrough for me — and for my organization. I began championing this new point of view throughout the partnership — asserting that we had to remain focused on results over tenure, particularly for those who took parental leave — and had difficult conversations with some other senior men. Over time, perspectives evolved and, indeed, these women — and many thereafter — were promoted on the fast track. It had a positive impact on their retention, but it also inspired others. Younger women had new role models who reinforced the reality that success at home and advancement at EY are not mutually exclusive.
The lessons of working with these women have come home with me. My only daughter and the youngest of my four children just started her senior year in high school. She’s a high achiever in academics and sports who serves as the captain of three teams, and will explore the prospects of playing in college. When she’s come to me for advice, I’ve encouraged her to “lean in” with her coaches and take more leadership on the field, even as an underclassman. As recruiters approach her with college offers and she’s grappled with what to do, I’ve shared advice that I hope will help her throughout life: you don’t need to have all of the answers today, but you do need to create options for yourself now. Today, this means accepting informational meetings, gathering evidence of her performance, and pushing to maintain excellence. Now and in the future, she will take the lead in making her dreams happen.
In all aspects of life, I believe that speaking up for yourself determines the difference between success and stagnation. Outstanding women performers often want to trust the system — but they also have to stand up for themselves. Don’t assume that all of the right things happen. Don’t trust that your performance speaks for itself. Lean in and I believe that if you’re surrounded by the right people, they’ll do the same for you.
As EY's Managing Partner for the Americas, Steve Howe leads more than 51,000 people across 30 countries.