Paying it forward: Joanna Santinon

Joanna Santinon, partner, EY, dedicates much of her life to fighting for gender equality. She is partner sponsor for EY Women's Network; runs a group for female FTSE directors and female entrepreneurs, and is a member of the 30% Club steering committee. In the Financial Times’s 2018 HERoes list (champions of women in business) Joanna came in at number 41.

Twenty years ago, however, Joanna thought it was a level playing field out there, and gender was no barrier to success. So what changed her mind?


You started your career in accountancy 30 years ago, after graduating with a law degree ­– why did you make this decision?

The thing I loved most about my degree was debating whether the law was right or wrong. For the same reason, I couldn’t see myself pursuing a career in it – how could I apply the law every day, regardless of whether I felt it was right?

I was pretty lucky because around this time, when I was wondering what to do, Arthur Anderson was directly targeting Sheffield University ­– where I studied – for their tax graduate scheme. I decided that a qualification in accountancy would be a good idea because if I didn’t enjoy it, it would probably open more doors than a law qualification.


And did your career progress in the way you envisaged?

Well ironically, I’ve never left accountancy. On one level, I am sure it might sound incredibly boring to have practised tax for 30 years, but in reality, the Big Four professional services firms offer such a breadth of experience. I have done so many things in my career – helping to sell tax software to corporates, developing internal software, interviewing and recruiting hundreds of people, plus I have had the opportunity to work with many businesses from small start-ups to billion-dollar companies. Most importantly, I’ve had the high-quality training to allow me to do all those things.


You’ve been a partner for 21 years – was that something you specifically set out to do?

I remember applying for a job when I was 20 years old, and saying then that I wanted to be a partner. The interviewer asked me why and I can’t remember what I said, probably something to do with ‘success’. But as I came through the ranks, the desire became genuine – I felt I had something to contribute, in terms of the way we operate and work with our clients. We are a people business and that can be forgotten.


You joined the EY women’s network nine years ago – what inspired you to join?

At first, I wasn’t inspired! It came about after I was asked to help with the company’s peer mentoring circles. I’d been partner for 10 years by this stage, and thought it was a good opportunity to give something back.

During these mentoring sessions, it was observed that I challenged the other women in a positive way, and so was asked to be the formal partner sponsor of the EY Women’s Network. My response was: ‘You’ve got the wrong person. It’s not my thing.’

But I thought about it and looked at the stats – we had just 16% female partners at that time. I had never felt held back by my gender, but I thought that maybe there was more to this imbalance than I realised, and this was one way I could potentially help.


Since you joined the helm, the network has grown from 1500 to over 3000 members How did that happen?

When I first took over we needed to grow the leadership team, so I asked for nominations of talented women from across the partnership.  Then I took a risk, and – I know this is ironic, given my own hesitancy – but at our first meeting made it clear that there was no point in being part of the network unless you were passionate about its growth. The work is voluntary – something you do on top of your core work – and I reasoned if you didn’t really care about the cause, the network would be the thing that didn’t get done. About half the women said this wasn’t for them, but those who were left were talented and passionate and drove the network from something that had around four events each year to 60-100.

I also had to make the network relevant to senior partners in the business and to do that I had to show there was a business benefit to it. That’s how we came to have the external pillar, through which we run initiatives for our clients, such as events for female entrepreneurs and FTSE directors.


How has the working landscape changed for women over the last 30 years?

There were no female partners at Arthur Anderson and not only did I accept that as normal, but I accepted the argument that as they’d only recently moved to 50/50 intakes, it would take a while for that change to come through at the top.

As time has gone on, however, it’s clear that while we do have many female partners in professional services, we are still significantly short of the 50/50 mark and it will take more than just time to solve this. It’s glacial progress and people are frustrated it’s not moving faster – myself included.

But in other ways, we’ve moved on an awful lot. Most women who have worked in the eighties will have experienced what women today would not accept, and men today would not do. I was told I couldn’t wear this or that suit; instructed to wear a skirt to see a particular client, and it was commonplace for a woman in a meeting to be assumed to be the secretary. 

Today, there is a real desire to achieve gender parity and significant cultural shifts that have come with that.


So what does need to happen to see more women at the top?

A lot of women today feel like I used to: that it’s a level playing field out there and the firm and senior individuals want everyone to succeed on an equal basis. And that is absolutely true on a conscious level. What I realise now though, is that there is so much happening on an unconscious level, both for men and women.

So for instance, one of the women I mentor said she didn’t want to ask for help as she didn’t want to receive special treatment, just for being a woman. My response was first to question the notion that men don’t get help – a lot of the male partners I speak to say men are better at blowing their own trumpet and asking for assistance. But I also asked her to imagine for a second that she was in a firm where 80% of partners were female. How much more would she feel that that was the place for her? And that she had a good chance to succeed and make partner in her firm?

She said, “Yes I’d feel much more like I could make partner than I do today.”

Role models are important and, in general, men are often in a place where the bosses look like them, and that does have an impact on their confidence and performance. These things are imperceptible but they add up.


Lastly, what character traits have led to your success?

Curiosity and openness to a challenge. Doing different things has meant I have grown, my skill-set has grown, and my network has grown. I agonised over becoming involved in the women’s network, but through it, I have met so many interesting men and women and it has really opened doors for me. I advise other women to not over-plan their career – if something comes up that looks like a good opportunity, take it.