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Inclusion in our DNA: How Jennie Palen shattered stereotypes

In the early 20th century, there were only 100 female CPAs in the United States. Jennie Palen was one of them. Palen, who became a principal at Deloitte legacy firm Haskins & Sells in 1935, was the first woman to run a department at a leading accounting firm. She paved the way for generations of women in accounting.

Palen graduated summa cum laude from New York University in 1919 and became a certified public accountant in 1923, the year she began working at Haskins & Sells. By the end of her 30-year tenure, Palen had penned a number of books and articles that helped cement her position as an authority in the accounting profession. She was a member of the American Institute of Accountants and president of the American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants, where she served as editor of its journal, The Woman C.P.A.

Deloitte leaders of today stand on the shoulders of the leaders—including Palen—who came before them.

Deloitte has come a long way since Palen’s tenure, but we know there is more work to be done. In the spirit of continuing to push the organisation forward, Deloitte professionals are championing diversity and inclusion initiatives that increase leadership opportunities around the world.

“One of the things about which I'm most proud of with our firm is the undertaking of our initiative for the advancement and retention of women” in 1993, said Sharon Allen, Board Chair, Deloitte LLP, 2003-2011. “That initiative literally changed our firm and the profession and a lot of other firms in the business world. We were the first to make the commitment that we did. The net result was that it made it a better place for men and women alike to work.”

“The [US] Women's Initiative . . . started out as an initiative to focus on advancing women to leadership roles, and giving them the opportunity to retain them and to reduce the gender gap,” said Barbara Adachi, former managing director in the Deloitte US Human Capital Consulting practice. “Now it's just a part of our brand and our identity as an organisation. [Deloitte] will always be known as being a pioneer when it comes to advancing and retaining women.”

Deloitte became the first of the “Big Four” professional services providers in the U.S. to have a female CEO when it appointed Cathy Engelbert, who served in this capacity, on behalf of Deloitte LLP, from 2015 to 2019. Additionally, Sharon Thorne, who served as an audit partner in the UK for 20 years, is the Deloitte Global Board’s first female chair.

The Deloitte Women’s Leadership Launch, a Deloitte LLP initiative that creates networking and professional development opportunities for women pursuing advanced degrees, illustrates Deloitte’s continuing commitment to the coming generations of female leaders.

The most recent expression of this commitment launched in fall 2018. ALL IN is the global strategy for all diversity, inclusion and gender representation initiatives across the organisation. “As we journey toward undisputed leadership in professional services globally, we aim to leave behind a path that the next generation of leaders can be proud to travel,” said Michele Parmelee, Chief People and Purpose Officer, Deloitte Global. “It’s the path of diversity and inclusion, one that is rooted in our shared values.”

As of 2019, 44 percent of Deloitte professionals are women.

“Supporting women to serve in leadership positions has helped us create working environments that elicit and benefit from diverse perspectives and experiences,” Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen said. “As a result, we are better able to make a difference in our world.”

It is not a field for the lazy or incompetent man and still less one for the lazy or incompetent woman. It is a difficult career, full of hard work, hard thinking and heavy responsibilities, and its rewards are only for those who enjoy meeting the challenge.
- Jennie Palen, principal, Haskins & Sells