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A path to progress

Nov 30, 2020
Rachel Hussey explains how well-defined and inclusive work allocation practices can boost your colleagues’ career potential.

One of the most common and unconscious ways in which old hierarchies are preserved in professional services firms is through the allocation of work, often at the early stage of careers. A well-defined work allocation process ensures a balanced portfolio of experience for future progression. But suppose a person is consistently allocated more challenging projects involving novel issues or premium clients. In that case, their career path is likely to take quite a different course to that of a person assigned more routine tasks, which can result in tremendous and unintended damage to the career paths of individuals.

Research conducted by McKinsey in the UK in 2012 across professional services firms found that a man was three times more likely to be made a partner in an accountancy firm than a woman and ten times more likely in a law firm. McKinsey made several recommendations to address the imbalance, one of which was that women have equal access to the right career development opportunities through a systematic work allocation process based on objective criteria, such as competencies or experience.
Work allocation goes to the very heart of the operation of a professional services firm. Changes to work allocation practices are hard to implement, but can have a considerable impact on the progression of female talent. McKinsey conducted follow-up research in 2015 and found that work allocation was an ongoing challenge. 70% of women in both law and accounting firms said that their firm’s work allocation process was unfair, and 86% of law firms had no formal work allocation process in place.

In the absence of a systematic process, work allocation is a subtle concept that can be difficult to do in a way that promotes diversity and creates a level playing field for men and women. In deciding to whom work should be allocated, partners can make assumptions about women’s desire or capacity to do certain kinds of work or transactions. The result can be to ‘kill women with kindness’ by allocating the more challenging work to men on the team so as not to put too much pressure on a woman. A woman can ultimately end up with less experience, weaker client relationships, and lower revenue – all of which are career-limiting in a professional services firm. This phenomenon is also referred to as unconscious benevolence.

Research conducted by the 30% Club in Ireland across 14 of the top Irish professional services firms in December 2019 contained some fascinating findings. For example, 21% of equity partners in accountancy firms are women, and that figure is 40% at the non-equity partner level. The research found that only four of the 14 firms that participated in the research had a formal work allocation process in place.

On foot of that research, the 30% Club recommends that where firms have not adopted work allocation policies, they should pilot the introduction of such policies. They should also review work allocation practices to ensure that equal opportunities to gain expertise and experience are available to all. Finally, it urges firms to ensure that family-related absence does not impact work allocation and recognise leaders who successfully manage work allocation on their teams.

Across professional services firms internationally, work allocation processes are becoming more formal and technology-enabled. Many resource management consultancies provide services and systems to firms to assist in this critical aspect of a firm’s work. Formal processes can have a significant impact on the development of female talent in firms and should, therefore, be considered as part of a firm’s diversity strategy.    

Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.