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Q&A: How one woman made partner at Deloitte while on maternity leave

Louise Brett, head of FSI Analytics at Deloitte in London, has been a partner at the firm for over 12 years, having started out in the City at Lloyds Bank during the male-dominated 1980s. She reached partner at the firm despite being on maternity leave at the time, and believes it is possible to juggle a career in finance with raising a family, provided you have the right resources and are willing to make sacrifices.

What made you want to work in finance?

I enjoyed economics, and had people in my family working in financial services, so wasn’t afraid of it, which I think was half the battle for women trying to break into the industry. I started in banking at Lloyds Bank in the early 1980s and, despite the perception of the industry being male-dominated, the graduate intake was relatively balanced even then.

The City wasn’t overtly sexist, but there were elements of a male-dominated culture – it was frowned upon to wear a trouser suit, for example, and you always had to wear a skirt. Later,  as a senior manager at Lloyds, I had a member of staff that called me ‘sir’, simply because he’d only known male senior management.

What advice would you give to women looking to enter the industry now?

There are few barriers to entry into financial services for women now – most firms are actively trying to increase the proportion of female graduate recruits, targeting subjects like History where there are a higher proportion of women undergraduates, for example.

The problem most women face is advancing their career to senior management – there’s still a lot of unconscious bias in financial services organisations. People tend to recruit in their own image and most people in the senior ranks are men, basing their hiring decisions on criteria that was compiled 20 years’ ago. It often takes some radical thinking to change this.

How did you make it to senior management? What was your big break?

It was definitely sponsorship and my primary piece of advice for women looking move up the career ladder is to find themselves a sponsor. If you’re not an alpha male type, and are relying on the organisation to recognise the work you’ve been putting in rather than championing your own achievements, then it really helps to have someone acting as an ambassador for you in the senior team. People who worked with me, and who were leaders and shapers in the organisation, were critical.

The biggest break I had was making it to partner when I was on maternity leave. My sponsor made a case for me, saying that I’d had a phenomenal year and the fact that I was taking time out to have a baby shouldn’t change that. At the time, I was the only female partner in the consulting business at Deloitte, so that was when I felt I’d arrived.

There must have been some challenges raising a family and having a high-powered career.

I was lucky because being a partner meant that I could afford full childcare. I had two nannies, because I couldn’t expect one nanny to work the hours required on my job. It meant that if I needed to work late, I could without getting anxious about childcare arrangements, but could also come home when the job allowed.

Both my parents worked, and I was very clear that I wanted to continue my career and have a family. Some people in the financial sector find the reintegration tough, and go take a lateral step into less intensive roles.

I find that clients are very understanding - and are grappling too with retention of senior female talent – so even though you may not always be available to meet face-to-face they are reassured as long as you’re contactable. The problem is when people want to be entirely cut off from work – as a leader of an organisation your responsibility does not end when your working hours finish.

What advice would you offer other women looking to advance their financial services careers?

Focus on creating a network from the very start of your career, and use it. Be very clear about what you want from your career and articulate it to others who are in a position to help you achieve those goals.

What are the main obstacles for women advancing their career in financial services?

A lot of organisations still have legacy behaviours and structures in place that haven’t really moved with the times.  If promotion points are  only once a year and if a woman goes on maternity leave at the wrong time, they could suddenly find themselves two years away from making it to the next level. This is just one example of unconscious bias in financial institutions.

Secondly, barriers are created by individuals themselves – research suggest that women typically only go for a role once they are 100% sure they’re the right fit, whereas men are willing to put themselves forward when they see a  60% fit. Women need to learn to put themselves forward because the men in the organisation certainly will.

According to its annual report, 24% of new partners, principals and directors Deloitte at last year were female. What is the firm doing to address this?

Our success at attracting and retaining senior female talent is an Executive priority and is championed by our CEO.

We want to show that it’s possible for women to reach senior leadership roles, while also being able to maintain other parts of their lives, so we’re telling stories of how women have juggled personal and professional life. We’re also ensuring more women make it to the upper ranks through increased use of sponsorship programmes and we are rolling out an inclusive leadership programme that has been successfully developed and delivered in Deloitte’s Australian business and is now being offered to our clients.

Ultimately, it needs to matter to the leadership and be a business priority. Our Board and CEO have made it clear that it matters at Deloitte.

AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • an
    19 May 2013

    I don't think she failed, like it was written in the comment above. It sounds like she grew up in a similar environment, and her parents worked long hours too. It seems she is happy with how her childhood went, that's why she got inspired to do the same - to succeed in her career and have a baby too. So, it seems, that for a child it's all about how his mother's routine is represented. If there are not so kind people, who keep moan to the child and say to him how poor he is that his mom doesn't spend much time with him, then he would definitely feel that way. And I aslo think it's not about the ammount of time spent together, but about the quality of that time. My mom stayed home while I was growing up, and my dad worked until very late. But when he came back home, he used to play the most interesting games with me, doing my home work with me and educating me. So, I got more childhood memories about my dad than about my mom, even she was around me all the time.

  • Sa
    6 April 2013

    Like others, I read this story hoping to find a role model of a mother working part time and/or flexibly, achieving work-life balance, and also achieving in her career. How sad that this is not the case. I wish Louise Brett every success and cast no judgement on her life choices. However, this story should not be held up as some kind of blueprint for balancing motherhood and a career. I see no balance in the lifestyle described.

    The first paragraph states that we women can all achieve the same if we make some sacrifices and have the 'right' resources - how utterly depressing. Please can we have a story about a successful part-timer next time.

  • Lo
    4 April 2013

    It is sad that to become 'successful' in this environment woman have had to become men. Organisations are simply ticking the gender box by promoting people who will deny large parts of what makes them different to the existing model. The two nannies point is the wrong approach and, from a different perspective, could be viewed as neglect. I hope it was worth it

  • La
    2 April 2013

    I read this hoping to find a story about a woman finally finding the elusive career/motherhood balance. This story is not about that and I actually find this article quite depressing...she had 2 nannies because she had to work ridiculous hours to be successful.
    Therefore she has probably missed most of her children's childhood. To me that is not an option and represents a resounding failure. Whoopee doo she has achieved becoming a partner, so what? She hasn't achieved the balance of being a mum AND a career woman. She has only achieved one of those things. Any woman can dump her kids on 2 nannies and go have a high flying career, but she is no role model for me!

  • Lo
    2 April 2013

    Very inspiring, interesting and informative article. You're right about fear being the biggest barrier. So many women and people from poorer backgrounds would never consider banking because, from the outside, the industry looks like an intimidating closed shop where unless you are a ruthless self promoter you will not survive.
    The sponsorship idea is excellent, as women are not brought up in a way that encourages self promotion. I read some research recently which showed that when people looked after an unknown baby, if they were told the baby was male they responded positively to demanding behaviour, yet if told the baby was female they reacted negatively to the same behaviour. Some forms of bias and conditioning are so deeply engrained in our society that they are invisible, so we need strong measures in place to tackle them.

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