I met Elisabeth Layer as an audit partner of Deloitte. She was the first female partner of one of a “Big Four” audit firms I met personally, and I was struck both by her professionalism and by her young age. Being at that position at 35, she must not have much of a private life, I thought.
When I was fortunate enough to meet her sweet daughters Charlotte and Alice, my image (shall I say prejudice?) completely shifted. This was obviously a very happy and united family.
Now I needed to know more: how does a young mother do this? What does it entail for young people to find accomplishment in both their private and professional lives. I am very grateful that Elisabeth accepted to answer my questions and to address some of the important topics of gender balance in a very lively and practical way.
Elisabeth, thank you for being my conversation partner today. You are a 35-year-old mother of two young children, you have a happy family and you are a partner of Deloitte, one of the “Big Four” audit firms. That sounds very much like a perfect example of realizing the dream of “having it all” cherished by many young women.
(Laughs) I am just a normal working mother. To be honest, I’m not sure to understand what this talk about “having it all” really means. From where I stand, it is all about maintaining balance, both in your professional life and in your private life. I want a fulfilled professional life, but I will not accept that my work impacts me as a person in a way that is not compatible with my fundamental values. And it doesn’t depend on having kids. But … children are a great litmus test: when our lives get out of balance, they will make us understand immediately and very clearly that something is going wrong.
When did you decide to pursue both a high-level career and a fulfilled family life?
(Does not need to reflect about this) There was no such decision because I could never imagine a life without satisfaction in both the professional and the private realm.
This is really important to you…
…I think it is more obvious or natural than “important”. It feels like this need is part of myself.
Now that does not mean it comes from alone. Actually, it requires serious work. I had to learn to deeply know myself, my children, and also to develop a thorough understanding of the organization I am working for, of its culture, of my colleagues, … I had both to learn the rules of the game and set clear boundaries as to the extent I was willing to play that game.
Can you tell me more about that?
It is sort of a carefully measured adaptation to the culture of your company, along with the courage it often takes to set clear boundaries for ourselves and to communicate them in an appropriate way to people around us. It requires both self-confidence and a friendly environment.
Would you be willing to share with us which would be some of those boundaries?
I really much enjoy working but also taking care of my children. One of the rules I gave myself is to leave work at 6 pm each day (editor’s note: 6pm is a very early time to leave for a partner in the “Big Four” corporate culture. It is easily interpreted as a lack of commitment!) to spend two hours with my kids before they go to sleep. When my first daughter was born, it was quite a challenge for me to manage finishing my daily tasks on time and above all not to feel guilty about leaving when all my colleagues were staying. After having developed a kind of work discipline and gained some professional maturity as well, I discovered it is quite easy to do and I am not feeling marginalized by not being late in the office. Of course when it comes to working hard, I am part of it and I also travel for business when it is necessary.
Don’t you fear this may weigh on your further career?
No, because I am totally open and transparent about it. To everyone. I also encourage my teams to work “normal hours” by being fully efficient and having the ambition to reach a work life balance. The traditional evaluation schemes, like judging employees’ commitment by their presence in the office after 6 pm, are obsolete! And people increasingly understand this. Fathers of girls are the first to grasp it.
I also believe women like myself have a responsibility towards the next generation of women, to improve our work conditions. We also have an edge over men in this respect: a man who resists becoming “absorbed” by the current system has a much greater credibility problem that a woman.
Doesn’t this require an awful lot of courage from a young person?
I often feel like my work environment is a laboratory of modern life. Organizations are going through deep cultural change. I’m extremely grateful that Deloitte is very open to this change. They observe what is going on with curiosity rather than with apprehension. I believe that, if I were older, say 50, it would be much more difficult. Organizations are becoming sensitive to the problems of younger generations. They cannot afford to lose talents by staying attached to the old schemes. I find our society in general is pretty tolerant towards people having new expectations, proposing fresh ways to do things. Pretty open for change. I do not really see strong resistance. Most resistance is in ourselves.
I often hear about feelings of guilt women have when they feel they do not adapt to the “rules of the game”.
And I certainly had my dose of such feelings. It took long and deep work on myself to get detached from the old paradigm. But that’s not different for men. When it began, I was embarking on life as all young people do, and I have always been confident that I would find appropriate ways.
I believe not many people have reached that level of accomplishment at your age, or at any age!
That sounds a little bit exaggerated. I have many doubts. Balance is the result of work that needs to be maintained. It never ends. It must become part of your daily routine, a form of life hygiene.
Which was the most difficult experience?
When I was pregnant over my first child, I encountered some challenges. They started looking at me with different eyes. When I came back after maternity leave, I felt like having a different status. The status of a mother in a demanding environment. All the stereotypes surfaced. You know: she will work reduced hours, she will be less committed, her priorities have shifted, she will be on frequent sick leave both for herself and for her child, etc. Fighting against these assumptions was not something I could do – nothing I wanted to embark on. It would have meant asking so many other people to change their assumptions. That is something everyone has to do for themselves.
I was working then for a different company, but that doesn’t really matter. It was the change in my situation that was challenging for them and the topic was not openly discussed.
So I had my second child and then I came to Deloitte for a fresh start.
Of course, having children changes your every-day life fundamentally. It requires a totally different level of organization. Before being a mother, I thought I was organized. I had to think again. But that is all it changes from a professional point of view in most cases. I know many working mothers and I do not see much difference between our lives.
Which would be your recommendations for young women who want to achieve fulfillment in both their professional and private lives?
Women and men! – The pressure on women may be stronger, but it’s not fundamentally different.
I have two recommendations. The most important factor is confidence. Confidence in ourselves and in people around us.
The second is self-knowledge. We must be clear about who we are, what we want our roles to be, what we expect from our lives and what our values are.
Thank you very much, Elisabeth, for taking some of your precious time for this conversation.