Women Have to Choose Between Motherhood and Auditing

Claire Dambrin, Professor of Accounting and Management Control and Caroline Lambert, Professor of Accounting and Management Control - October 15th, 2008
pregnant woman at work - Women Have to Choose Between Motherhood and Auditing

Key Ideas

• The ‘up or out ’model prevents mothers fro moving up in the company hierarchy

• Women follow a typical career paths to reconcile maternity with a career in auditing

• It is no longer a ‘women’s issue’, as young male auditors now want to spend more time in their role as fathers. 

Claire Dambrin ©HEC Paris

Claire Dambrin graduated from ESCP (European Business School of Management) and holds a PhD in Management from Paris Dauphine University. She taught accounting and management (...)

Caroline Lambert ©HEC Paris

Caroline  Lambert received a PhD in Accounting in 2005 from the Paris Dauphine University. She taught at HEC Paris from 2004 to 2013 and in 2006 she won the Francophone (...)

Although there are as many young female graduates as men entering auditing firms, only 15% of partners are women. Maternity is without doubt one of the main reasons for this, as the biggest gap between men and women occurs when employees are promoted to management positions. This usually happens around the age of 30, when many women choose to become mothers. What are the barriers that prevent women from moving up in the company hierarchy? What strategies do they adopt too vercome them? How do men cope with their own paternity? Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert provide the answers. They have studied the professional status of mothers in the Big Four in France: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.


The ‘up or out’ organizational model that exists in major auditing firms prevents mothers from reaching associate positions. Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert believe there are two reasons for this phenomenon:

• The loss of customers: pregnancy and maternity leave oblige female auditors to handover some of their customers to a colleague, with no guarantee of getting them back. The customer portfolio plays a key role in the competition between auditors andis a major factor in hierarchical progression.

• The absence of a time management policy: in the competitive world of auditing, auditors have to be able to work very quickly. Although women are offered opportunities to reconcile their family and professional lives, taking them upalways sends a signal that the person has limited career ambitions and immediately stigmatizes them. Would they consider a four-day working week? Evenin the best cases, they'd feel guilty and end up doing five days' work in four.


Many of them try to reconcile their privateand professional lives by ensuring that their maternity leave doesn't interferewith the company's operations:

• Before taking their maternity leave, they manage their customer portfolio by delegating their dossiers to trusted colleagues to increase the chances of coming back to them when they return. They very often leave their work with other women who will, at one time or another, face the same problems.

• They adopt practices that maximize their immediate efficiency, but don't spend time developing their network of contacts, which is an important factor in hierarchical progression.

• They bank on the sharing of domestic tasks at home. But in fact, things stay more orless the same.

• They have ‘audit babies’ by planning (in so far as this ispossible) their childbirth for the summer, thereby reducing the impact on theauditing ‘season’. And, all things considered, none of these practices encourageauditing firms to reconsider the employment of mothers. On the contrary,they're all aimed at achieving one thing: concealing maternity in the company.


The study conducted by Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert shows that it's also important to consider the interests of men. The ‘up or out’ model was developed for men who invest an enormous amount of time in their careers and depend on a housewife at home, or a wife whose professional activity isn't too time-consuming. But, a large number of men no longer identify with this model. Many of them want to spend more time in their role as fathers and don't want their partners (who hold similarly high positions) to have to give up their careers. The authors believe this is a positive change in mentality: if fathers face the same difficulties as mothers, they will no longer be alone in having to adapt to the model, and the ‘up or out’ model will—at last!—have to be changed. The ‘up or out’ organizational model that exists in the major auditing, consulting, and legal firms: the most promising employees are regularly promoted and follow alinear path up the company hierarchy, and the rest are encouraged to leave. 


For mothers who haven't yet become associates and who don't want to leave theirjobs, there's a possible alternative: getting out of the ‘up or out’ system,

• By specializing: acquiring a skill (e.g. technical or in taxation) provides more flexible working hours and a more sedentary activity.

• By joining the support functions: a lateral career, usually in the HR department,also offers such flexibility. Although these atypical career paths sometimes enablewomen to reach associate positions, they're still faced with a glass ceiling. Careers that don't conform to the standard model very often provide fewer opportunities for women to join the management committee. 

Based on an interview with Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert on their article "Mothering or auditing? The case of two Big Four in France"(Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal , Vol. 21 No. 4, 2008).


• In auditing firms: a glass ceiling that prevents women from moving up the corporate ladder is a crucial HR issue at a time when there's a shortage of talents. The problem of talent retention means that auditing firms (and consulting and legal firms) must review their talent management policies. Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert explain the need to review the point at which high potentials are identified, which is usually at the age when women think about starting a family.

• In all companies: the linearity of careers in auditing firms provides an analytical framework, which can be used to better understand the aspirations of working women whatever their sector of activity. Recruiting and retaining talents is a major challenge for many companies who can't afford to lose some of their staff under the pretext that they're women in their thirties. But, quite apart from gender-related (‘women’s’) issues, this article aims to question the stereotypes related to parenting in general: better meeting the needs of both men and women is a major challenge for HR 


Claire Dambrin and Caroline Lambert conducted 26 semi guided interviews in the French subsidiaries of four major international auditing firms (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers). Twenty-four testimonies from two of these firms (whose names aren't revealed) were eventually used to write the article in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal .