The Big Four look embarrassingly male at their most senior levels. Although around half of their intake is female, that proportion shrinks rapidly as people climb the career ladder. KPMG wants women to account for a quarter of partners by 2010; Deloitte is aiming for a figure of 31 percent for its female partners and directors by 2009, up from 26 percent now.
To get to even these relatively modest targets, the firms must grapple with what Sylvia Hewlett, of the Centre for Work-Life Policy in New York, calls women’s “non-linear career paths”. According to her research, 37 percent of all professional women drop out of work at some point; even more will spend time working flexibly. Getting back into employment is not easy: only 40 percent manage to find full-time jobs. And those that do suffer a swingeing loss of earnings: a 38 percent fall for those who have been out of the office for three years or more compared with those who have stayed.
Smart employers are toying with ways to keep the door to “off-ramped” female staff ajar. The big accounting firms offer formal career breaks that allow staff to take unpaid leave from work. Booz Allen Hamilton, a consultancy, and Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, run programmes offering interesting project-based work to women who are not ready to take on full-time positions.
Flexible working can also improve retention, through options such as part-time work, compressing work into fewer days and seasonal schedules which can fit in with school holidays. Flexitime and home working are popular and help explain why more than 80 percent of the women on maternity leave at the Big Four return to work, which is a higher proportion than in other industries.
Child care is not the only issue such schemes address. More and more people look after elderly relatives — Ms Hewlett points to China, where women from the one-child generation will look after not just their parents but also their in-laws.