Women at BDO: A discussion with Jenine Waters

What is most rewarding about your role at BDO?

The opportunity to grow a business aligned with our client needs and the strengths of our team is amazing. More than that, though, you can play as a Partner to create career opportunities for the people in our team. It is wonderful to see someone come in as a graduate and grow and develop to become a leader in the organisation. It is hugely rewarding as a leader.

What progress have you seen on gender equality throughout your career?

In my first job out of university, we had to wear skirts to the office. It was very exciting when we managed to convince our (female!) leaders that pantsuits were ok. Being in HR was very much a female-dominated function which often meant that I had to fight to be recognised from a salary perspective. It wasn’t so much that men would be paid more than women, it was more that male-dominated functions tended to have higher salaries than female-dominated functions – so it was a more challenging argument to make than if it had been straight out inequity.

I had some amazing opportunities to work with incredible leaders as I progressed in my career. I started to see a shift in attitude about women continuing their careers after maternity leave and even working part-time. Unfortunately, it has often depended on the leader you have at the time, and there is still a long way to go to recognise that the hours you work do not directly correlate to the value you create.

BDO was the first organisation that didn’t make me jump through hoops to work part-time, balance my family commitments and continue to grow my career.

Why do you believe gender equality is so important?

There are so many talented leaders I have worked with in my career. To me it just seems ludicrous that we can still debate whether or not gender equality is important. The science supports that diverse teams are more successful. So it really isn’t about whether or not it is important, it is more about understanding what are the biases that keep us from achieving this?

What value do you think women bring to leadership?

I find that a difficult question to answer. For me, it is about everyone’s unique strengths. It makes sense that if women make up at least 50% of our population and have different experiences and capabilities, why wouldn’t you want to tap into that diversity of thinking and capability?

I want to have access to the best talent in the world, to work with them or for them. I don’t care if they are men or women. I don’t care about any other physical or social attribute. I care about their values; I care about their capabilities, and I care that they show up and do an amazing job.

Have you ever had to overcome gender bias? If so, how did you tackle it?

Many times. I think the biggest challenge was when I had a family. Part of the bias I encountered was that I was stepping off the career ladder because I wanted to balance my work and family. It didn’t mean I wanted to stagnate! I knew I could keep growing and add value. I think what I didn’t do well was back myself; I too often took a step back and questioned my own ability.

The most significant shift for me happened the year I joined BDO. It was fortunate timing. I had had my third baby, taken redundancy, and was trying to decide what to do next. I wanted to move into consulting, but I was scared. I decided to back myself and say ‘yes’ to anything I was excited about, even if I wasn’t sure what I was doing.

That attitude brought me into BDO as a contractor, had me accept an Associate Director role to start People Advisory, and followed me through to saying ‘yes’ to the Partner role, the Person In Charge for Consulting role, and the National Leader for People Advisory role. I may stop saying yes now for a little while so I can breathe a bit!

How has BDO supported your career journey?

I have found BDO incredibly supportive. From Sean Pascoe, who hired me as a contractor and pushed me to do work I had never done before, to Sebastian Stevens and Grant Saxon, who offered me the opportunity to start People Advisory and didn't blink an eye when I said I only wanted to work three days a week. I remember Grant saying to me – "I don't care how you work when you work or how long you work – we agree on the objectives, and then you can work in whatever way best suits you to achieve them." It was the most liberating career discussion I have ever had, and I had that same discussion with my team members.

What should be done to increase awareness of the need for equality in the workplace?

I think the need is a given. The issue is people don't know how to make it happen. Frankly, if we keep having to tell people why it is important, they don't belong in today's workplace. 

What do you think future opportunities look like for females in our industry?

I think professional services should be one of the easiest industries to succeed as a female. If you are good at your job, you should be able to deliver in your role in a way that plays to your strengths and ensures you can achieve the balanced career you want to achieve. It takes leaders who recognise the opportunities and individuals who don’t let current biases hold them back from asking for what they want and showing how they can deliver value.

How would you suggest workplaces break the bias against gender equality?

The first is about educating our leaders, ensuring they have the skills and capabilities to manage a diverse workforce. When a leader doesn’t understand ways of working that don’t align with their own, it can be challenging to help them develop a diverse team.

The second is an open conversation. Recognising there are as many different journeys to leadership positions and satisfying careers as individuals. We help our colleagues look behind what they think they see by sharing our stories. Instead, they can see the reality of how we all work so uniquely.