Deborah Holmes

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–She knows the names of her team’s children, how old they are, whether they like dim sum. Between them, they have nine boys and four girls. She thinks they are changing the world, “one boy at a time.”

This is nothing new for her. Deborah Holmes started changing the world years ago, one company at a time. The petite, dark-haired powerhouse who rearranged major companies as aCatalyst consultant now leads the Center for theNew Workforce at the accounting firm Ernst and Young. This quickly expanding office creates flexible work schedules for Ernst and Young employees so men and women can balance their lives with their jobs.

“Hours and commitment are not the same thing,” says Holmes, who was promoted to partner while pregnant with her second son and working four days a week. “There are people who work fewer than full-time hours and are very committed to the job. They just have a life outside.”

There are novelists who take time out to write; Olympic athletes to train; artists to sculpt; but the majority of women on alternative full-time schedules take time out to parent. Through the Center for the New Workforce, they can take a more active role in raising their children without sacrificing career advancement.

So far, 30 people have made partner at Ernst and Young while working part-time schedules, bringing the total of women partners to 12 percent. In addition, women are well represented in every major leadership role in the firm, which grossed $10.5 billion in revenue in 2002. Although their numbers are on the rise, Ernst and Young still falls short of the national average of 16 percent female partners at U.S. accounting firms, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

“If you find an employer who is really good at making you feel valued and continues to give you good jobs at a part-time schedule, that will enhance your commitment,” Holmes says. “We found out that nearly three-fourths of the Ernst and Young people working alternate work schedules would have left us if we weren’t willing to accommodate them.”

At Harvard, She Developed her Checkerboard Approach

This search for balance has been the underlying thread of what Holmes calls a “checkerboard past.” As a Harvard law student, Holmes discovered what would be her passion in life: turning her dissertation on the structural causes of unhappiness in the law profession (lawyers spending too much time at work and not enough at home) into a career of promoting women’s advancement in business without sacrificing family. Armed with her law degree, Holmes launched into the law practice and hated every minute of it.

“I had all of these piles of work on my desk and every day I would take one pile and move it to the center of my desk and start working on it, and then push it to the side to work on it later,” Holmes says. “When I did that to every pile on my desk, I knew it was time to leave.”

Holmes traveled to Anchorage during the Exxon oil spill in 1989, and while there saw a news clip of a woman being interviewed about a company she’d just created called the Families and Work Institute.

“She described the mission as trying to help corporations and government understand how to support people in balancing their careers and lives outside work,” Holmes says. “And this is what I was passionate about–this is what I wanted to do.”

Holmes was so excited about the woman’s project that she called information in every major city trying to find the institute, but was unable to locate the fledgling company. Eventually her friend found the company on Long Island and Holmes flew out for a job interview with the small office.

“I came out of the meeting and it was as if my old life had fallen away and my new life had begun,” Holmes says. “I knew what I was going to be doing and they hadn’t even offered me the job yet.”

But they did offer her the job–as a senior research associate. Holmes stayed with the company, “bringing real change to real people” until 1995 when she joined Catalyst, the leading not-for-profit working with businesses for the advancement of women. Ernst and Young was Holmes’ second big client while at Catalyst. The top-ranked accounting firm was struggling to increase the number of women partners, just 5 percent of the firm’s in 1996.

Lured to Ernst and Young by Chairman Phil Laskawy with the opportunity to put what she had conceptualized for so many others into action, Holmes accepted the position at the Office of Retention, bringing with her the plan to change the way business works. But she had to start with her own work habits.

“I decided to take the job and then I got pregnant,” Holmes says. “I had to call Phil three weeks later and tell him I had really bad news. He said that’s not bad news, that’s the greatest news there is. He basically said, ‘I believe in you completely.'”

After three months of maternity leave, Holmes came back into a demanding position, where she has stayed ever since.

Oops. She Can No Longer Blame the Client

“My husband thought it was really funny, because I had been a consultant at that point for 10 years and now I had to put my money where my mouth is,” Holmes says. “We always tell these people what to do and, when it doesn’t work out, you can say that it was because they didn’t follow the recommendations. Now I am the one who has to implement it.”

But “it is working, it is definitely working,” as Ernst and Young women have been climbing the corporate ladder without bumping into that glass ceiling. In addition to the increased percentage of women partners, there are three women on the executive board, women representatives on every level with the biggest clients and an equal retention rate for women and men. There is no national standard for retention rate since each company computes it differently. However, Holmes said that creating equal retention was her primary goal.

One of the women she was able to keep was Kelly Dolson, a senior management professional (one level below partner) in the personal financial counseling department. Dolson has been with Ernst and Young for 10 years and said she knew she couldn’t keep working full-time hours after the birth of her third child. She has since tried three different flexible work schedules.

Dolson has worked an 80 percent schedule, or four days a week, on-and-off for the last year-and-a-half. “It’s helped tremendously having the one extra day–to get caught up at the house, doing things with my children like gymnastics or helping at their schools,” Dolson says. “Not a lot people do this in the office–just mostly women with children. But the firm, especially since Deborah, has done a tremendous job informing people what flexibility is and changing the attitudes about it. There is still some skepticism in terms of being promoted to partner, but in the most part people understand.”

Fourteen-year Ernst and Young employee Lori Okun didn’t feel that skepticism when she was promoted to partner while working an 80 percent schedule. Like most of the people on this flexible schedule, Okun reduced her hours after she started having children and has taken Fridays for the past six years.

“I can participate more with what the kids have going on and help them at school,” says Okun. “Everyone I work with is super about it. I don’t want to say it has become the norm, but there are tons and tons of people who are on it, which makes it very easy to do.”

This changing attitude within the company doesn’t stop at just rearranging work schedules, but extends to celebration in what Holmes calls her “favorite thing.” Each year, Ernst and Young recognizes employees who are improving the working conditions and status of women internally with the Rosemarie Mesch Award, named for the woman who spearheaded the diversity effort at the company in the 1980s. She died of cancer before these real changes started happening and this annual women’s leadership award was started to remember her effort.

Before a new work force was even a buzzword, Mesch started talking about a work environment where there would be no need to recognize female leaders because they would be everywhere. Two decades later, Holmes started saying the same thing, hoping someone would listen to her.

“The depressing thing is that it is 20 years later . . . and I have been trying to make change for [those] 20 years and we are still having the same conversation,” Holmes says. “I have come to believe that the kind of change I wanted to create in my lifetime I’m now going to have to leave it to people who are much younger than me. And they may have to leave it to their granddaughters to make that change.”

Julie Leupold is a freelance writer in New York.

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