Knowing how to advance your career path in any industry can feel daunting. Knowing how to advance it as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated environment can be even more so.
You can’t, as the adage goes, be what you can’t see. And within the world of professional service firms, this could help to explain why so few women sit at the helm; according to one 2018 global study, only nine percent of senior consulting leaders today are women. Thankfully, PwC is one firm that’s helping women be what they can see, with an award-winning commitment to advancing its female talent — including a Top 10 spot on Fairygodboss’ Best Companies for Women ranking. The numbers are certainly in the firm’s favor; at PwC, 42% of managers and executives are women, and 100% of women employees participate in career counseling and mentoring programs.
We had the opportunity to speak with three women leaders at PwC about the ins and outs of their career paths, the ways they’ve been supported in advancing those paths, and their top pieces of advice to other women.
Secret to Advancing: Embracing Change
Xiaoxiao Xu’s career path hasn’t only crossed levels of seniority at PwC — it’s crossed continents.
Born and raised in Beijing, Xu first went to college in China before coming to the U.S. for her master’s in accounting at the College of William and Mary. After graduating, at a time when many of her peers were focused on finding jobs in a specific city, Xu says her focus was instead on finding a position that involved “the best platform and opportunities and client portfolio.” Many of the clients she wished to build key, foundational relationships with were back in Beijing; however, there was one problem with the idea of returning there.
“Back in China, it sounds really crazy probably, but because the job market there is really, really competitive, a lot of the job descriptions actually explicitly say that they’re looking for men and not women,” Xu, who noted that this isn’t specific to professional services.
That’s why Xu was thrilled to discover PwC’s office in Beijing, which she describes as being completely “gender equal.”
“I was very welcomed and also felt very comfortable about the culture,” she said. “They appreciate women and they care about people and provide flexibility to its people. I also wanted to work in one of the leading accounting firms, and that’s what PwC is. We have a great client portfolio, and I can learn not only from my colleagues, but from my clients as well.”
Xu had the opportunity to learn from her colleagues once again when the opportunity arose for her to relocate to a succession of PwC locations in the U.S., first in New Jersey, later in New York, and now in Boston.
“There were learning curves, because first of all English is not my first language and I’d been speaking in Chinese and writing everything in Chinese for almost 30 years,” she said. “The culture is different. This is maybe minor to people here, but I never drove in China… in New Jersey, I needed to drive 40 minutes each way to my client and I was terrified.”
Luckily, Xu found that she had a “strong backbone” in her family at PwC, who was there to help her every step of the way.
“With my work and with my team, I can ask any questions, about my life, too, like how to rent a car and how to do this and that, and everyone has been so supportive and so helpful; it’s not like ‘Oh, you’re just my colleague and I don’t care what’s going on with your weekend trip,” Xu said. “They’ve really brought me in. My coworker invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her family, and we all ordered takeout for Chinese New Year, which was my first takeout experience.”
The level of support she’s found at PwC has been instrumental not only as Xu has changed office locations, but as she’s changed roles — from assurance to advisory — within the company and advanced her career path, as well. Given the frequency of change within Xu’s path, it’s understandable some might believe achieving growth was difficult. However, she says this isn’t true at all — quite the opposite.
“Career change, in my experience, hasn’t dragged my career path, but on the other hand has actually helped me,” she said. “At PwC, we are a global network of member firms, and change has been beneficial in that I’ve developed unique skill sets and can provide a better service to my client, and I can also help my team grow different skill sets, as well.”
Secret to Advancing: Asking
Ilka Vazquez can easily identify the first move that precipitated her evolution to becoming a Principal at PwC. She asked for it.
“Something that women tend to miss is asking for what they want and articulating where they want to go,” Vazquez said. “The first step in my path to being invited to the Partnership was to let people know that this I wanted and saw myself as becoming one. Next came asking for the support to get there — who did I need to connect with, and who would help me make the connection?”
When it comes to finding and maintaining mentoring relationships, she recommends not hesitating to remind mentors of your achievements and potential.
“You need to communicate your value-add to people that are influential so that they can help pave the way for you,” Vazquez said. “If you want your career mentor to know how impactful you’ve been, document it for them so that it’s handy. Don’t rely on them remembering what you once told them over a cup of coffee or lunch; be proactive and show that you care.”
That’s advice that she gives to all of her own mentees today. And as a Partner sponsor for PwC’s Latino Inclusion Network, as well as for its Working Moms Group, the Puerto Rican born-and-raised Vazquez has the opportunity to mentor a not inconsiderable crowd.
“I’ve had amazing mentors, both male and female, Latinos and non-Latinos,” she said. “The Latino Inclusion Network has given me the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ and show our Latino staff that we really care about their personal and professional development and help them strive for greatness.”
As for her involvement with the firm’s Working Moms Group, Vazquez advises members to be vocal about what they need in order to find their balance with work and family — especially considering that in a supportive environment like PwC, where 70% of employees telecommute, stigmatism around flexibility isn’t a fear.
“Women should be proactive about communicating what they want and need,” she said, adding that there’s a “serious commitment” to wellness and balance at the firm. “You have to give yourself a chance in the first place.”
Secret to Advancing: Finding Champions
Elizabeth Diep’s roots at PwC run deep. Today a Partner, Diep got her start at the firm fresh out of college and on the heels of an internship at Morgan Stanley. Working at PwC had always “been an aspiration,” though she says she couldn’t have visualized back then that her path would eventually take her all the way to the top.
“Quite honestly, for my first couple of years at the firm, I really just wanted to learn a lot and deliver every step of the way; that was my focus,” Diep said. “It wasn’t until I became a manager that one of the Partners I was really close with, who was an early mentor, pulled me to the side and said, ‘Liz, what are you thinking about your career here at the firm? Is Partner something you have on your radar?’”
This wasn’t her only mentor at PwC, she said, who helped her recognize her own potential for advancement.
“The next thing I knew I became a senior manager, and I had a lot of wonderful people around me and a lot of Partners who I worked with that started to mentor me and say, ‘Okay, let’s think about what Partnership will look like for you,’” she explained.
The fact Diep had supportive peers as well as senior leaders invested in her at PwC was instrumental in pushing her path forward. So was, she added, her practice of conducting regular self-assessments.
“At different times in my career, I did honest self-assessments — what do I think my strengths are at this point in time, and what do I honestly think I need to work on?” she said. “Sometimes they were technical areas and other times they were about managing and deepening my client relationships. I would identify only two or three things to focus on at a time, and they were all areas I knew would get me to the next step on my path.”
Diep stressed the importance of utilizing the “thought leaders” around you — something she’s fortunate not to have a shortage of at PwC — at times of growth like these.
“There are many times in your career when you’re not going to have the answer, but you don’t have to — you just have to know who does,” she said, adding that the relationships she’s been able to build, both with clients and internally, are her favorite part of day-to-day life at the firm. “Make sure you have those experts in your speed dial.”
Of course, getting to the next rung on your career ladder only counts for so much if the environment you’re working in isn’t supportive. Today, as a mother to one and two year-old girls, Diep says she’s met with the same amount of support as ever.
“I’ve been so proud of PwC for providing me with so much flexibility in terms of how I work,” she said, adding that she’s often had the ability to work around her daughters’ schedules. “I’m able to do the quality of work I want to do, but just in a lot of different places at different hours. That’s enabled me to spend a lot of time with my children and still dedicate a lot of time to my work, as well, so that’s been incredible.” If you don’t feel like much change or growth is happening in your career, consider checking out the openings at PwC, where women are not only advancing, they’re supported.