An interview with Moira Elms

IWE: You are Chair of the Gender Advisory Council at PWC and, in your profile, it says that the council recommends actions for the retention and development of diverse talent across all territories. Could you please give some examples of recommendations that have been made?

ME: At the start, we did some research focusing on successful women across the territories and we produced a report called The Leaking Pipeline. The research showed us where we lose women across the firm and where we experience a real loss of key talent. It demonstrated that retaining women would be beneficial to business. The report also told of experiences of women in the firm who had achieved important career landmarks, and what had given them the experience to ensure they had the capability to go to a senior level.

We wanted to help leaders think of how they can bring forward more good women to the top roles in the firm. The report made a good impact in terms of getting our leaders to think of the benefits to their business, to think of the benefits of retaining senior talent and of ensuring women have opportunities that may influence their careers.

We also put a Diversity & Inclusion toolkit together, which gave examples of best practices that different territories have undertaken and how they have made a difference. If people say ‘We have an issue with X’, they can look at what has worked well before, speak to those who found it worked well and find out how to do it. It helps people by showing them what Diversity & Inclusion initiatives have been successful and how they can be done.

We have also undertaken an in-depth review of our human capital processes (performance assessment, promotion). There are times when the system only goes so far and we needed to put processes in place to stop us going off track.

We also persuaded our senior leadership that key leadership teams should undertake bias awareness training. We need to recognise bias and make sure we take it out of our decision making. This review has had a big impact in terms of changing people’s impression of this whole area.

IWE: [We] saw some of video clips of the Women’s Forum in Deauville in October last year and watched what some of the delegates had to say. I know that you made a brief comment, but could you please elaborate on your thoughts of what women’s empowerment means for men?

ME: I don’t think women are looking to replace one unlevel playing field with another. They are looking for a level playing field all round. Regardless of their own career aspirations, some men feel a lot of stress in their need to be the bread winner of the family or the hero of the office. Women’s empowerment does not need to be seen as a negative issue for men. With a balanced workplace, it will be more acceptable for men and women to do all the important things in life. Men have personal or family choices as well and, when men and women share family life and earnings, men will be able to make the choices that will make them happier.

IWE: On the PwC Gender Agenda Blog, there is a brief article called High Hopes in High Heels. Some women have said that, in order to get noticed, it is important to wear high heels - that it gives them a sense of power. What is your view on this?

ME: I find that’s funny. But I recognise this and I talk to female friends who feel they do not have confidence without their six-inch heels. But it is not for me. I am not tall and, if I wear flat shoes, I do feel some men tower over me. If I was in a less senior position, I might well feel intimidated. For me, a modest heel gives me enough to feel good. Any higher and I would feel terrified of falling flat on my face! I walk too fast to be safe in high heels.

IWE: At the 2010 World Economic Forum’s Women Leaders programme, you participated in a session called ‘Achieving Gender Parity: What Works?’ What does work?

ME: What works is what is right for an organisation. One solution will not suit everybody. The thing that works best is starting with a genuine, deep understanding and commitment from leadership. Leadership need to understand the business case and need to want to drive it through. Leadership need to be committed, to have staying power and to have a plan. All this takes time. It is not just a question of looking at the next bunch of women leaders. Success requires a more holistic approach to bringing women up through the business.

IWE: Your profile states that you play an integral part in driving the creation of targets for women in leadership at PwC. Do you not think women should be appointed to senior positions from their own ability and merit?

ME: Yes, I do think you should appoint on ability and merit. But targets get people focused on the hard issues and they open doors for discussion on how to get diverse talent. Targets are a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Taking it further, one of the things I try to do is secure the right career cycle, by including women from an early stage. We need to look back 10 years and then develop women based on their experiences. We need to allow diverse talent to experience opportunities from the earliest opportunity. If we don’t plan well ahead, we cannot develop the talent and award on merit. So we need to go back and say to all those people who are bright right now that they need to undertake a number of different experiences to enable them to be credible in 10 years time.

IWE: Your profile is full of all things relating to gender diversity. Do you ‘live and breathe’ it or do you have other passions?

ME: I am passionate about my family. My daughters are keen horse riders and so I ride with them. They are better than me but I can hold my own. I spend time watching sport from the touch line. One of my daughters is very sporty and, when I am not at work, I am taxiing her around to different events. I am also a people person. I am fascinated by people, the things they do and how they interact. They could be babies or people in the boardroom. It doesn’t matter.

In the past, I was not as passionate about Gender Diversity as I am now. But I got to the stage where there were not many working women around me. Lots of talented women were falling by the wayside. That was when I became passionate about it. I felt I had to do something about it. I am lucky to be in a senior position in the firm and I feel it would be wrong if I didn’t try and help other women more.

IWE: What book is on your bedside table?

ME: I like holiday books and am happy to admit that I occasionally read trashy holiday novels. But my favourites are the classics, especially Charles Dickens. I must have read Bleak House about 15 times.

IWE: What would you say attracted you to the field of Gender Diversity and what made you want to go further with the cause?

ME: I was fortunate in that I started working in an office where the senior partner naturally understood Diversity. If somebody did a great job, he encouraged them, regardless of who they were or their background. When I moved to London and I worked for the head of the tax practice, my boss there also understood Diversity. So I was lucky as I managed to develop my career without some of the barriers that I know some people face. But it got to the point where there were not many women left and I was hearing that not everybody had it quite as easy as I did. You are proud of your organisation and you want it all to be perfect. I knew that we needed more women doing just as well as me. We needed to bring more women to the leadership team.

IWE: Thanks to all the hard work that people like you and companies like IWE and PwC put in to educating society of the need for greater gender diversity, it does seem that things are improving. How far do you think we have to go to ‘get it right’ and what else has to be done?

ME: It is moving forward. But slowly - too slowly. Everyday more people come up into leadership roles, which is good. But we need to have the energy to keep driving the business case that utilising talent and having diverse teams will make better business decisions and get better results. We need to keep on educating the next group of young talent and giving people ideas for solutions when they get stuck.

IWE: Many people remark that it is still (nearly) always men answering business questions on television. Do you think this is true and, if so, why aren’t women featured more?

ME: I think it is true and it is disappointing. I am not much of a television watcher but I do get annoyed. People such as the newsreader Moira Stewart being removed from our screens for being too old is annoying – she is first class. It doesn’t say much for television. Older men on television are seen as having gravitas. Because there is a minority of women business leaders, the safe option is to interview a man. People don’t want to take a risk. We need a campaign or more balanced journalism.

I do think we are making progress. I think things are a lot better in terms of the willingness to discuss this issue. We just don’t have enough results yet. Like any business problem, if we do not focus on it and get plans and targets in place, we will make little difference. We need to push harder for concrete plans to get results.