Aoife Flood: ‘When we are not afraid to be ambitious, that trumps any barrier’

Aoife Flood: ‘When we are not afraid to be ambitious, that trumps any barrier’ Aoife Flood: 'I was completely underqualified – but I just knew in my gut that I could do the job.'

We were thrilled when senior PwC manager Aoife Flood sat down with us to talk about how she got where she is, what's holding women back and what can be done to help.

Do you consider yourself an ambitious person? If so, how has this shaped your career path?

Yes I do.  But I think the best way to describe it would be ‘varying’ ambition.

What I mean by that is that sometimes it’s soft; so for example at the moment I feel that I am in a really good place in my career so I am not overtly talking or thinking about the next step.  But the absolute certainty is that I know there will be a next step.  At other times my ambition has been much harder – I have been very explicit in chasing an opportunity, a role, or a promotion. 

The latter type has probably been strongest in shaping my career path. When I began my professional career as a very junior administrator (straight from school) I definitely didn’t have half the ambition or self-efficacy that I have now.  But when I was 25 I showed my first sign of hard ambition.  I applied for my first global role with PwC having worked with the Irish firm for five years.  I was completely underqualified by way of the required tenure, seniority, technical expertise, but one thing was certain: I just knew in my gut that I could do the job. 

I was brave enough to apply.  Given we know there is lots of research telling us women nearly need to feel over qualified for a role before they apply this might not have been the case for every 25-year-old female professional. I think my ambition came to the fore during this experience in that I recognised the gaps that would be glaring on my standard two-page CV so I created a CV appendix.  A portfolio, so to speak, that showcased every piece of work I had ever been involved in that linked with the requirements of the role. 

During the first interview the interviewer explained I was the least experienced of all those who applied but as a courtesy he wanted to interview me given all the work I had put into my application.  What he expressed would be a 30-minute interview lasted two hours, and another three interviews later I got the job. If it wasn’t for this first bold step of ambition during my career, who knows where I might be career-wise today. It has definitely made me more courageous in bringing my ambition to the forefront throughout my career since – during both my soft and hard ambition phases.

What role do you see for large employers such as PwC in making the corporate workplace more accessible to women?

PwC is a network of member firms with nearly 190,000 people in 157 countries.  Half of our workforce is female.  For years now we have been recruiting in the range of 18,000 graduate hires annually – half of whom are female. Our workplace is without doubt accessible to women and it has to be noted that this is an achievement.  However, where we are challenged perhaps is in driving a more inclusive workplace culture where everybody can succeed.

Historically our industry was male dominated and this combined with societal influences presents us with a culture that could still be considered as more ‘male orientated’.  We are working hard to change this, and we’re focused on explicit priorities and actions to drive the behavioural, process, and cultural change we want to see take shape to get us to that end game.  For me, this is what is important when it comes to large employers like us. 

It is essential that organisations have leaders who understand the diversity business case and who are willing to take on, support and advocate for hard change management, so that we capitalise on the value diversity offers while creating a more inclusive workplace for all talent – not just women.  At PwC we are lucky to have a Global Chairman who does all of this.

I also think it is important that organisations look beyond their own sphere of influence to create momentum on this topic in the societies in which they operate.  This April PwC will be doing just that as we drive a university-based global forum on women and their aspirations in collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In organisation entitled: Aspire to Lead, The PwC Women’s Leadership Series.  We hope to touch female students from all over the world with this series in a bid to inspire them to lean in to their ambitions.

What do you think (if anything) is holding women back?

Unfortunately I do believe there are factors holding women back, predominantly societal barriers, organisational barriers and self-barriers. We need to see societal changes, we need to see organisational change, and as women we need to have the courage to empower ourselves more.  The last is the piece we can most influence ourselves – and I honestly believe that when we are not afraid to be ambitious, that trumps any barrier and the world is our oyster.  

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

When I look in the mirror I am challenged with all of the personal hang-ups I’ve no doubt every woman has. But I also see someone who has surprised herself by achieving much more than she thought possible when she started her career.  It is this that gives me my energy and pip and helps me to think less about my hang-ups and more about the opportunities and challenges I’ll get to conquer on the road that lies ahead of me. 

Aoife Flood is Senior Manager of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Programme Office for PwC International Limited, and co-author of PwC’s Global Gender Agenda blog.  She is based in Dublin, Ireland.


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