Gender and leadership within tax

Melissa Geiger, Global Leader, Strategic Corporates, Tax & Legal, KPMG International, and Partner and UK Board Member, KPMG in the UK, is a leader in connecting international tax communities. With a career spanning various industries and backgrounds, Melissa’s focus is on strategically bringing together services for KPMG firms’ clients and prospective clients around the world.

We recently chatted with Melissa to learn more about becoming KPMG partner at 31, and how she balances a busy personal and family life, with a demanding job that can make a big impact on gender equality in the tax function.

Melissa Geiger and children

Melissa Geiger and children

What trends have you seen within tax over the past few years in relation to gender parity and equality?

A positive trend I’ve started to see is women occupying senior roles without it being deemed newsworthy or unusual. Gender parity and equality is becoming more and more baked into everyday corporate life.

I think that other social movements like Black Lives Matter, and the increase in organizational programs surrounding diversity, inclusion and equality, have brought a broader set of issues to leadership agendas. It’s much clearer that all people need to be given the chance to climb the corporate ladder. This is an excellent example of the progress being made globally.

I’m also seeing and support more emphasis on inclusion overall, and diversity of thought, which I think is particularly important. I believe that diversity of thought will be very important for the tax environment moving forward given recent challenges, including the pandemic, and an ever-changing international tax system.

In your current role, it’s clear that you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. Did you experience any gender-related challenges along the way? If so, how did you overcome with these challenges?

Unfortunately, there have been a few instances where I’ve experienced gender-related challenges. I once wasn’t promoted in a job with a previous employer because I was about to get married. My boss suggested that I might be soon having children, so therefore couldn’t be promoted. I voted with my feet and left the company!

Now that I’m in my 40s, I don’t have the same gender challenges I did when I was younger. Earlier in my career, I looked quite young, and was blonde, and it often felt I had to prove I should be taken seriously intellectually. I think, though, that in your 20s and 30s, it’s more difficult, especially being a woman, but now that I’ve gotten older, I’m more comfortable in my skin and it’s easier to be taken more seriously.

Gender equality can lead to a more sustainable future, across professions, industries, and more. How have you seen tax functions adapting to create more gender equality as a profession?

The key to a sustainable future is diversity of thought and perspective, and gender is just one strand of that effort. This then leads to how to recruit, retain and develop talent in a way that keeps gender parity and equality in mind. You don’t want to lose talent after they’ve had children, you want to bring them back into the workforce because they’re so well qualified. There is a war for talent in tax functions currently, so it’s critical to emphasize the importance of retaining people and providing opportunities for growth and flexibility, even if marriage and children, and the responsibility that comes with it, is on the cards for your talent.

Luckily, what I’m seeing overall aligns with this, as tax functions are increasingly looking at how to create an environment where people want to stay, develop their skills, and find valuable work even as their lives change. In my view, the tax functions that are doing this successfully are retaining the best people, and the ones that are retaining the best people are getting the best results.

The key to a sustainable future is diversity of thought and perspective, and gender is just one strand of that effort.

Melissa Geiger

What are some strategies that you think can help women grow within their organization and, in turn, help to create a more sustainable future for all?

There needs to be a very clear process around how you promote and reward people. Although I’m not always the biggest fan of process, in this instance, I think it’s so important to look at people fairly and objectively. It’s easier to see the talent and potential in people that are most similar to you. What a good promotion process or talent review can help you see are the strengths in other people that are different to you. The more senior I’ve gotten, the more aware I’ve become of the importance of that, and of the importance of understanding people who have different backgrounds than you.

How do you personally balance your work life and personal life? As a woman with children, how do you balance being a successful tax professional and mom?

I don’t really know or remember what it is like to not have a family and a demanding job, but I would say that it was much harder when my children were little. It’s gotten easier as they’ve gotten older and as I’ve become more senior in my work and more able to control my diary and deadlines.

What I would say though, regardless of whether you have children or not, balancing a lot at work and in your personal life requires some coping strategies. These are a few things I’ve learned over time that have been helpful in balancing my work and personal life:

  • I prioritize ruthlessly. My diary is meticulously managed, organized and color-coded. There are several things my children need me for, and that time is massively protected and prioritized over everything else.
  • Finding great people to help you, whether that is domestically or professionally. I have a great team of people around me and we support each other.
  • Accepting that something is good enough, rather than dying from exhaustion in pursuit of perfection. It’s something that I’ve gotten better at over time, understanding I don’t need to be a perfect businesswoman or mother, I just need to be doing a good enough job at both.

I think having children, especially a daughter, has given me added purpose. I enjoy the financial independence and the emotional confidence that success at work gives me. I want my daughter, and my son, to be inspired to do the same. I want my children to see that I work hard and that I am committed to my team and my job, and to them.

My advice for the next generation of women in tax is the same as my advice for all professional women at every career stage: when in doubt, be bold, speak and act.

Melissa Geiger

As more and more women pave their way within the tax profession, if you could give one piece advice to the next generation of women within Tax, what would it be?

My advice for the next generation of women in tax is the same as my advice for all professional women at every career stage: when in doubt, be bold, speak and act. Whether you’re deciding to comment in a meeting or apply for your next job, you will regret what you don’t go for much more than the mistakes you might make along the way. Don’t wait for an invitation or permission to say and do things, and don’t wait for perfection. Men remain much better at women in believing they can do a job they may not be 100% ready for. If you want to be fully baked, you will miss out. Do it now.

Looking back, when I was first offered partner at KPMG in the UK at 31, I wasn’t sure if it was right to go for it. Luckily, the partner I was working for at the time told me, “if you’re on a roll, keep rolling.” So, despite maybe feeling I was too young, I kept rolling, and this is a big reason why I am where I am today.

How do you plan to #BreakTheBias in the work you do?

When dealing with bias, not being guilty of it oneself isn’t enough. To break the bias with anything, you have to call it out whenever and wherever you see it. You must sweat the small stuff. Whether it’s the off-color joke made in a meeting that doesn’t go unchallenged, or the inappropriate behavior towards women that would never happen to her male equivalent, the actions you take to address bias set the marker for what’s acceptable and what isn’t. You have to be focused on making sure you call bias out, because when you do, the majority of the time it wasn’t intentional.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share, specifically around innovating for a sustainable tax function of tomorrow through gender equality?

Tax professionals have a chance to influence policy and address the gender inequalities that exist in the system. Who gets taxed, what gets taxed and how it gets taxed are massive drivers of change in human behavior. I want tax functions to be the engines behind tax policy and major forces in driving gender equality. Tax is one of the drivers for settling inequalities. This is what drives me. There’s so much more to be done, not just for women in tax functions, but overall, for how tax can shape society.