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Boston firm figures out how to keep its talented women

It was never about whether they deserved it. It was about how to get it done.

A decade ago, the Boston office of PricewaterhouseCoopers identified a problem: Half of its young auditors were women, but too many were walking out the door once they decided to start a family. The national accounting firm's old-boy network, its sacrifice-all mentality and relentless travel schedules weren't working for the women. Few were making it to partner, which pays more than $500,000.

The firm or the women had to change. The firm changed.

Today, women are on the agenda in Boston. Since 1993, 29 have made partner, bringing their share to 18.4 percent, up from 13.4 percent a decade ago. Currently, 13.8 percent of the firm's partners nationwide are women.

"Women are not a hobby for us," said Ann Thornburg, who became Boston's first female partner in 1982 and was recently elected to the firm's board of directors.

Boston achieved its success by experimenting with a liberal version of the partnership track that let women work part time without derailing their careers.

A mentoring program also assigned women important clients, to showcase their skills and expose them to the firm's predominantly male network of partners. As they rise, senior women actively promote the careers of other women.

The Boston office stands out in the hidebound accounting profession. Its success is a model for the national office and one being pushed by chairman Dennis Nally, who recently set an ambitious firm-wide goal of increasing the number of women who make partner to 35 percent by 2006.

While Boston's record seems impressive, it's worth noting that half of college graduates entering the accounting profession each year are women. Change is slow, partly because it takes so long _ 12 years _ to make partner. But it is evident.

When Michael Costello moved from the New York office to Boston's in 1993, he said cultural change was taking root.

"There were already more women in partner and senior manager roles," said Costello, managing partner in charge of Boston.

Bernadette Geis made partner after Madeline, 8, and Peter, 6, were born and while she was pregnant with Matthew, 3. Baby Laura, not yet in the picture, was inevitable: Geis, one of four siblings, always wanted four children of her own.

"My life is pretty darn perfect," she said, driving a minivan filled with children home from summer Bible school. It is Friday, her day off. The cell phone rings as she rounds a corner. It's work. A 14-page document is being faxed home. "I'll take a look at it in awhile," she said into the phone. "Is that okay?"

Geis was part time when she earned partner four years ago. It was no slam dunk. She required intensive coaching by one partner who was brutally frank: Her people skills needed work.

"She said, "You need to fix it, and you need to fix it now,' " Geis said. In the final year of her candidacy, a stressful time for everyone, she became pregnant. "It was a nail-biting year," she said.

Geis, 37, works in Boston's financial-services audit group, the second-largest financial group outside of New York. Of the group's 28 partners, nine are women, three part time. Part-timers are encouraged to progress at their own pace.

Michael McColgan, head of the group, recently promoted one of the part-timers to senior manager, a step below partner. She recently had her first child and took three months off. She is now the No. 2 partner on a major account, National Life of Vermont.

"Ten years ago, we probably wouldn't have thought of that as being possible," McColgan said.

Changing corporate culture, as PricewaterhouseCoopers is doing, "is a lot of work," said Kristine Langdon, former chief executive of Thermo Vision Corp., now with executive search firm Spencer Stuart. "If you're not conscious of the issues every step of the way you can lose people, so it requires a lot of sustained effort on the company's part" to promote women, she said.

"This isn't about something that's warm, feel-good, the right thing to do," Nally said.

It is imperative, he said, that the firm grapple with getting more women into partnership and leadership positions to "ensure that, as a firm, we're not only attracting the best talent but also retaining that talent."

The genesis of change came in the early 1990s. Christine Brown, a human resources partner in Boston, said female accountants were snatched up by headhunters offering jobs that might better accommodate a family.

"For women thinking about having families," Brown said, "they were looking up and didn't see many women" role models at the top.

"The cultural change part of this is the real challenge," said Nally, a 30-year firm veteran.

Thornburg, 55, confronts the politics with both directness and savvy. Having spent her first six months at Coopers & Lybrand in the proofreading department, she later built the largest health care practice among the major accounting firms in Boston for Coopers, which merged with Price Waterhouse in 1998.

Thornburg is no rabble-rouser. She did not support a 1992 meeting of women partners to network and strategize during the annual partner meeting.

"Segregation isn't as effective as integration," she said.

But as she prepares to retire next year, she uses her clout to help women. Her first act on the board was to make women half of the committee that admits new partners. She once called a male manager to task after two women told her they felt their careers were hurt by "a little too much of an old-boy network" in his department. She plays the gender card sparingly and credits male managers who advocate for women.

"We wouldn't be able to do this on our own," she said. "We don't have the power."

Her stands are not predictable: She objected recently to a proposal to adopt quotas for women on the board of directors. Her reasoning: the perception would be, "you didn't earn it _ it was mandated."

Despite the changes, women express frustration about the slow progress at the top. Managing partners run the offices in 60 U.S. cities but just seven are women. Last month, Mary Ann Cloyd in Los Angeles became only the second woman on the 13-member board.

There was spirited discussion recently among partners about convening another meeting for women partners only. Nally was not keen on it for the same reasons offered by some men and women who objected to the 1992 meeting: It was exclusionary.

At the time, some felt, "If we're going to have a partners meeting we're going to have a meeting of all partners," said Vincent O'Reilly, Coopers' former chief operating officer.

It remains controversial today.

"Everyone wants more power," said O'Reilly, now a Boston College professor.

As women partners in Boston gain influence, they are giving younger women an equal shot.

Darlene Martin credits partner Maryann Murphy for playing an instrumental role in her rise to partner in 1996.

"I don't think I appreciated it as much as I should've," said Martin, 41. "She went out on a limb."

Murphy saw it differently. When someone like Martin comes along, "you grab them," she said. "It only helps you do your job better."

Martin showed promise early on. In 1990, she and her husband, Ted, also an accountant, accepted dual assignments in the London office. Back in Boston, she dropped to a part-time schedule after Alexandra, 8, was born. Six years after Edward was born, she is resuming a high-powered career.

Murphy pushed Martin to make a strategic change, away from auditing clients in the shrinking banking industry and into insurance, a stable industry offering more career opportunities. She sent tough assignments to Martin, who gained a reputation among senior managers for handling complex accounts and difficult clients.

Becoming partner made Martin acutely aware of being a woman in a mostly male world. At partner meetings, she's often in a minority of women attending, or the only one.

"It requires more courage," she said, "to make yourself heard."

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