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We recently sat down with our present and future leaders to discuss gender equity and diversity as it relates to the tax, legal and mobility landscapes, while also reflecting the most influential people in their lives, and the strategies and advice they would give to the next generation of women leaders.

Interviewed are Tushani Canute-Raja, Senior Manager, Tax, Global Mobility Services, KPMG in the US, Raluca Enache, Director, KPMG's EU Tax Centre, Shirley Fu, Partner at SF Lawyers in association with KPMG Law, Ija Ramirez, Partner, Tax, Global Mobility Services, KPMG in Germany,  and Melissa Geiger, Partner, Head of Tax Policy and UK Board Member, KPMG in the UK.

How do you feel the tax, legal and mobility professions are doing in terms of gender equity and embracing the power of diversity?

Tushani Canute-Raja: As a woman leader in KPMG's Global Mobility practice, I take great pride in our team fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment where people are recognized for their capabilities. I am proud to say that the Global Mobility Services practice of 50 in Seattle, where I am located, represents 16 countries and has 14 women in management positions.

While women and other diverse groups are the norm in mobility management, these same populations are underrepresented as a percentage of those going on assignment. The core challenge I hear about is the difficulty in tracking and measuring data around diversity in order to provide insights to leadership. I am now working with many of my clients to tackle this challenge and put diversity and inclusion at the helm of their global mobility programs. It feels good to be part of this change.

Raluca Enache: I could write a paper on this topic, but the short answer is that I think the tax profession is making progress in terms of gender equity and embracing the power of diversity, despite the fact that we still have quite a way to go. In my experience, having worked or studied in four different countries in Europe, some countries are better than others in terms of embracing diversity and ensuring gender equity, and this is reflected in the tax profession in each of those countries as well.

For example, my home country of Romania has the second lowest gender pay gap in the European Union, which would also be obvious to anyone attending a tax event in Bucharest, where more often than not the majority of participants (heads of tax, CFOs, finance directors, etc.) are women. Indeed, the Managing Partner of KPMG in Romania is a woman, which I think speaks volumes. The story is quite different in other countries in Europe, where it’s not unusual for me to be the only woman sitting around the table in a discussion among tax professionals.

I do see progress, however – more and more people are noticing imbalances, where they exist, and are making efforts to address these issues by putting gender equity and diversity at the top of their agendas. I don’t think change happens overnight, especially when the problem is systemic, but it does seem to me that we are taking steps in the right direction, albeit sometimes wobbly.

Shirley Fu

Partner at SF Lawyers in association with KPMG Law

Shirley Fu: From a legal perspective, I am seeing a trend of increasing awareness on gender equity.  Many law firms are making progress and have implemented gender diversity policies, such as paid paternity leave and flexible work schedules. More women now have supportive employers and colleagues who are willing to embrace and invest in female leadership, as well as partners who are willing to share family responsibilities. Women are not only more prominent in law firm partnerships today, but they are also increasingly attaining senior and powerful leadership positions.

Ija Ramirez: I do see progress, but we need to remind ourselves of the antagonism and rejections Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the brightest and greatest minds of our time, was facing only 60 years ago when she applied for a job after her academic studies. When putting this topic in context, we really see progress, but a closer look into today’s situation shows that there is still a lot of work to do. I am glad to see that more and more people are recognizing the potential imbalances, and treating the topic of gender equity and diversity as an urgent one. We as professionals and advisors know that breaking down of systems cannot be repaired by only case-by-case fixes – systemic failures require changes of the system itself. For the issue of diversity and gender equality, this means a change in mindset. This takes time.

Melissa Geiger: From my seat the tax profession is doing really well at embracing the power of diversity. While I don’t like to lump women into a category of sharing the same traits, the tax profession is a good fit for many of the qualities women are credited with having natural talent for. It’s primarily brain work. You need to be good at applying technical expertise and sound judgement to evaluate, anticipate and respond to issues and opportunities with insight and precision.  Tax is also a communication business. Against this backdrop it’s no surprise to me that there are so many talented women in tax.

In your experience, what do you think makes a great leader?

Tushani Canute-Raja: Three leadership traits that speak to me strongly are authenticity, empathy and the ability to motivate and inspire others. I try to engrain these qualities in my communication style, behavior and actions. When I make a genuine impact on those I am leading, seeing them succeed is pure joy for me. It is when I feel the most empowered as a leader.

Raluca Enache: Vision, authenticity and empathy are the main qualities I look for in a leader. An inspiring leader, in my view, is someone who has a clear vision that stems from passion for their work, and the drive and genuine wish to make a positive difference – someone who fosters a culture where people feel empowered to bring their best, authentic selves to work.

I also find that the ability to communicate clearly and with empathy, as well as the availability to listen, are very important. The great leaders that I have had the pleasure of working with are all great communicators as well as good listeners, open minded to new ideas and empathetic towards other people’s needs, even if different from their own.

Shirley Fu: Leadership is essentially one’s ability to influence others to achieve common goals. In my experience, a great leader always understands that people are the key to success. They should have the ability to show respect, empathy, and care to those who report into them. Leadership researchers have decades of data to support that women are just as, if not more, effective than their male counterparts in leadership positions. 

Tushani Canute-Raja

Senior Manager, Tax, Global Mobility Services, KPMG in the US

Ija Ramirez: To me, it’s clearly passion and courage. A great leader is passionate about what they are doing, but they also have the ability to inspire others. 

Moreover, in this rapidly changing environment, to lead also means to transform. We need to adapt our operating models, but also ourselves in order to adequately respond to the needs of our clients. Great leaders see the opportunities that come with change and overcome the challenges surrounding this change, and this includes a large deal of braveness.

Melissa Geiger: The best leaders inspire others to achieve great things. Great leaders do this in many ways but for me it’s sincere enthusiasm and integrity.

What do you think women leaders today will look back on and wish they had known or done differently five years from now?

Tusani Canute-Raja: I think that women leaders today will look back and wish that they had not foregone the opportunities they had in the past to speak up and be heard. In looking back at my own experiences, I recall a time earlier on in my career when I had the opportunity to lead a large engagement but decided not to as I did not think I had the required experience and qualifications. In hindsight, I would have nailed it! It made me realize I had to get outside my comfort zone, which eventually led to a switch in my career as I moved into the Mobility space. I feel more confident now navigating through complexities and taking on new challenges.  

Raluca Enache: Maybe that it’s okay to be outspoken about the issues that are important to them, including gender equity, if that is on their list. Very often women are labelled as aggressive or pushy when talking passionately about their values, but I don’t think labels should stop us from advocating for what we believe in. People are listening, so it’s a good time for women to speak up and I hope we don’t miss this opportunity. If anyone is apt at delivering a strong message in an inclusive and empathetic manner, that would be women.

Shirley Fu: Life doesn’t just happen, but is made up of choices, and the choices are ours. Every moment provides a new choice, which gives us the perfect opportunity to do things differently and produce more positive results. Women should be proactive and work together to create the life we want to live. Sometimes it can be easy to take the freedom to raise our voice for granted, but there are millions of women and girls without that luxury. Women leaders should use their voice to advocate for change relating to the issues that are of importance to women.

Ija Ramirez: I hope that when looking back five years from now, we wonder why we were even debating issues around gender equity and diversity in the first place. From each and every situation in our life, we take our lessons. What makes us stronger is when we turn them into learnings and make the most of it. What brings us to the next level of development is the success combined with the lessons learned when we failed.

Melissa Geiger: I hope they won’t be looking back; I hope they will be looking forward!

Raluca Enache

Director, KPMG's EU Tax Centre

Who was an inspiring woman leader to you growing up and who inspires you now?

Tushani Canute-Raja: I would have to say my mother. She is the epitome of leading by example. She is a pillar of strength in pushing me to go beyond boundaries, instilling confidence in me and teaching me what resilience is about. Simply put, it doesn't matter how bad her day is she brings positivity and cheer to all around her. Most recently and like Shirley, the public figure who has inspired me is Ruth Bader Ginsburg or "the notorious R.B.G", which is quite the appropriate nickname. We could surely fill an entire page on why she is inspiring but her progressive voice paved the way for the contemporary life that Americans live today. Her bold words that come to mind are, "I struck out on three grounds. I was Jewish, a woman and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible".

Ija Ramirez

Partner, Tax, Global Mobility Services, KPMG Germany

Raluca Enache: This will probably sound cliché, but I have to say that the women in my family have been a source of inspiration for me growing up. My mother and both of my grandmothers have been constant presences in my life and role models for me throughout my journey. From my maternal grandmother’s fierceness to my paternal grandmother’s ever-present smile and my mother’s power to adapt and make friends in any circumstance, each of them has inspired me in many different ways.

Now, I draw inspiration from all the women I interact with, whether in my work or personal life. I think we have something to learn from everyone whose path ours intersects with and I find inspiration every day from the women I am lucky enough to call friends or colleagues, no matter their age, position or background.

Shirley Fu: There are too many awe-inspiring women all over the world, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been one of the most inspirational woman leaders to me. Her work in gender justice has inspired future generations of women to break barriers. Another woman leader who inspires me now is Malala Yousafzai. She is already changing the world through her words and actions at such a young age .  I have learned so much from them.

Ija Ramirez: Oh, there are many of them, and not only woman leaders, but to name just two of them: R.B.G and Hannah Arendt. The strongest inspiration and enablement I had in my life came from my mother though. She taught me that there are no boundaries to achieve my personal goals as long as I am determined and brave.  

Personally, I can recognize the influence that leaders have had on me and my career so far, through the professional behaviors and attributes that I implement throughout my day-to-day professional life. This reminds me of the fact that leaders serve as a role models too, and therefore need to interact carefully and consciously.

Melissa Geiger: Growing up I thought women really did rule the world, as we had the Queen and Margaret Thatcher running the UK when I was a child. Now, I am really inspired by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She is clearly an authentic leader.

What are some strategies that you think can help women grow within their organization? Is there a single piece of advice you would give to the next generation of women leaders within tax, legal and mobility?

Tushani Canute-Raja: I would encourage every woman to take the time to create a plan on how she can grow her influence at work. Whether your strength is your technical expertise or your communication skills, cultivate those assets and use them to get a seat at the table. I encourage every woman to be courageous, take risks, and have a growth mindset.

My single piece of advice for the next generation of women leaders is to find a sponsor to support their careers and in turn be an ally, mentor or sponsor for other women in the workplace.

Raluca Enache: I am not one for personal strategies – I think growth comes naturally in the right environment, but if I were to offer one single piece of advice that would be to stay true to yourself. While we all evolve into better people and professionals, nothing is worth compromising who you are at your core and what you believe in. If your current environment does not suit you, look for one that is a better match for your qualities and aspirations.

KPMG offers many opportunities across different sectors and areas of expertise, so there is a large variety of options to choose from and there are many wonderful leaders within KPMG, both men and women, who are keen to help young women find their path in Tax. Look for the ones that recognize your value and celebrate what you bring to the table, and keep an open mind to what you can learn from them. The sky is the limit for anyone with strong wings and a good flight instructor!

Shirley Fu: Women need to feel supported and be part of a community that understands the challenges and opportunities that come with being a female leader. Organizations should create a culture that truly empowers, supports and invests in female leaders. Organizations must realize the enormous untapped potential of female leaders and the power of capitalizing on it in the early stages of growth.

Melissa Geiger

Partner, Head of Tax Policy and UK Board Member, KPMG in the UK

I am so fortunate as inclusion and diversity are important priorities for KPMG, and also a strategic priority for our law firm. The founding partners of the KPMG affiliated law firms in Hong Kong and Shanghai are both female, and over 50% of our lawyers are female.

One of the reasons why women are underrepresented in leadership positions is that women often underestimate themselves. My advice will be to always dream big, believe in yourself and reach for opportunities.  We must live our lives to the fullest potential and fight for our dreams. We all deserve the opportunity to make the best decisions we can for ourselves, our families and our lives. I truly believe that women can do anything if they work hard, believe in themselves and never give up.

Ija Ramirez: There is no recipe on this, I am afraid. When I recall my very first year in a leadership role, I had a list of the ten most important things I was determined to obey. Over the years I shortened this list to three topics that I consider essential for myself – turn conflicts into relationships, get the job done (and your own hands dirty), and let people lead from each chair at the table. One single piece of advice? Be brave and try yourself.

Melissa Geiger: Treat your career not as a marathon, but as a series of chapters. There are key hinge moments – first rejection for a job, first big success, first child. How we respond to those moments is decisive. And that’s where hearing the voices, stories and advice of others (men as well as women) who came before or are running alongside us is so valuable – listen and learn.

In line with this year’s International Women’s Day campaign theme, how will you #choosetochallenge in calling out gender bias and inequality as a whole?

Tushani Canute-Raja: I realize that I could do much more that I am currently doing in my pledge to call out gender bias and inequality. One immediate action that I plan to take is to host an International Women's Day celebration at work to raise awareness on the issue. Building on the journey, I would like to make two long term pledges towards the cause. One is to continue to be a coach and role model to my mentees on an ongoing basis and two is to make a conscious effort to recognize and constructively call out unconscious bias whenever it presents itself to me.

Raluca Enache: As anyone who has worked with me for any length of time can tell you, I am very outspoken about inequality in general and gender bias in particular. The most common way I #choosetochallenge is by highlighting those instances where women are under-represented, whether it’s public or internal events, leadership meetings or engagement teams. In my experience, a shift in mindset is inevitable once the need for change has been emphasized enough times and by enough voices.

Shirley Fu: Women in this generation are better off than ever, but we must not take it for granted. We owe it to the generations that came before us and must keep fighting for true equality. We still have a way to go but we are on the way.

I will do everything I can to support other girls and women.  I am very proud to be one of the female partners at KPMG, as it’s provided me with a platform to mentor girls and women, and help them navigate their paths to success.

Ija Ramirez: My personal contribution to challenge gender bias and inequality is through my personal behavior. In my leadership role, I exemplify diversity and gender equality through my own life and actions. Moreover, I deliberately choose to work with and for leaders who think alike on this topic. If all of us stick to such behavior, we will collectively and naturally end up in a working environment where diversity and gender equity are the basics and not questioned even for a second. There is still way to go to achieve this, but we are on a good path. As we look back, we need to recognize that we have achieved a lot in the last couple of years already. We just need to stay strong and carry on.

Melissa Geiger: I will #choosetochallenge by being completely honest about the challenges and the joys of being a working parent of young children. Role modelling isn’t just about getting it right, it’s about acknowledging the challenges and how you have dealt with them.

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