A little ignition: empowering women lawyers for leadership success

GC speaks to female lawyers who have organised to support and empower women to succeed at the highest levels of the legal profession in Latin America

‘The number of women lawyers continues to increase. Now, almost half of all the students in law schools in Mexico are women. But there are no women in the high positions,’ says Tere Paillés, partner at SMPS Legal.

It’s a sentiment echoed throughout this report: in Lati America, it remains that case that women are underrepresented among the top echelons of the legal profession – in both branches.
It mirrors a wider corporate environment in which the female share of board seats in the largest publicly listed companies falls far below the male share. Of the OECD Latin American countries listed (plus Brazil), Mexican women had the smallest share of board seats at 9%, while Brazilian women had the highest at 13.7%, with Chile and Colombia at 9.9% and 12.5% respectively – well below the OECD average of 26.7% (itself hardly an indicator of parity).

‘It is important to emphasise that, today, Brazilian women have a higher level of education than men, with more access to universities, but this is not reflected in their careers within organizations. Those who are in the labor market earn up to 34% less than men in the same position, and are still a minority in leadership positions,’ says Leila Melo, general counsel at Itaú Unibanco in Brazil.

‘I see that the legal and corporate universes have a lot in common regarding the challenges for gender equality,’ she says.

The women interviewed in this report reel off the causes of gender inequality in the legal and corporate workplace – unequal distribution of domestic tasks, a culture of ‘machismo’, unconscious bias. Even harassment was cited as a feature of the professional workplace, at times.

But some Latin American women decided to make their own luck: to forge opportunities, bolster their networks, and empower themselves into a force to be reckoned with – top lawyers but also agents of change.

Like Jurídico de Saias, or ‘Lawyers in Skirts’, a group of female Brazilian in-house counsel formed in 2009. Originally part of an in-house counsel committee of the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil (Amcham), the group evolved into an assembly for the exchange of ideas and experiences under the initial leadership of Josie Jardim, now assistant general counsel of Amazon in Brazil.

Erica Barbagalo, head of law, patent and compliance Brazil and LatAm BP for Crop Science at Bayer, was one of the founding members.

‘We realized at the time that the majority of companies’ legal leadership – general counsels – are male and there are few women,’ she says. ‘We found that the leadership of legal in-house was so alone, because we are just lawyers at the company. You don’t have peers to exchange ideas within the company when it comes to legal aspects.’

OECD Latin American countries by women’s share of board seats

Over time, the group came to focus on the professional development of female corporate counsel and the creation of female leaders in law. For the more than 3,000 women who subscribe to the Jurídico de Saias app, that means access to information-sharing, job opportunities, mentoring programs, training and events. One such event is ‘De Saias Para Saias’ (‘From Skirts To Skirts’), a monthly live session on Instagram lead by senior speakers. Recent topics have included ‘thinking less like a lawyer’, and ‘the lawyer as business partner’.

‘It’s a collective, it’s a group, it’s not a legal entity, it’s not an NGO or association or anything, it’s just a group of people that benefit from this support for fostering women’s careers within legal,’ Barbagalo explains.

‘It’s not our target to be enormous, or to have thousands of subscribers, but to be effective and make a difference in the lives of women in-house counsel.’

In Mexico, the story of Abogadas MX began eight years ago, explains Paillés, who was recently elected president. Former president and founder Valeria Chapa (then general counsel for Latin America at Honeywell) returned from a Leadership Council for Legal Diversity (LCLD) fellowship program in the US, and questioned why there was nothing similar in Mexico. So, Abogadas MX was born.

‘We had very big dreams, we wanted to change everything,’ Paillés recalls.

The group started with a pilot mentoring program, where 20 senior lawyers mentored 20 younger lawyers. From there it launched an annual workshop with guest speakers – ‘we bring in people who make some sort of change in the minds of our members,’ says Paillés – which has been a virtual conference since 2020, enabling speakers to reach women outside Mexico City, in areas where equality and inclusion are scarcer.

From its beginnings as a group of 30 women lawyers, Abogadas MX is now an NGO with 700 members.

‘We have been very successful in gathering interesting people and working towards not necessarily information about law or technical information, but about soft skills that are required for women lawyers to succeed in these big law firms or international law firms or corporations,’ Paillés explains.

The organization is passionate, ambitious and structured. Four years ago, Antonia Rodriguez Miramon was hired as executive director, working with a council of senior female lawyers both in-house and in private practice, and a president.

‘We firmly believe that speaking about inclusion, diversity and leadership within the women’s sector directly translates into the development of our country,’ she says.

Through initiatives like the workshops, she adds, the organization provides a place ‘to be part of important topics to do with human development, professional development – not only legal things, but things that can nourish you as a person and help you grow.’

The work is built around four pillars: ‘support model’, where the organization provides courses, workshops, talks and networking opportunities for personal and professional development, including soft skills to hone leadership and networking skills; ‘impact on the environment’, which includes diversity and gender perspective masterclasses for law school students, and scholarship opportunities; a mentoring program; and the annual leadership and professional development workshop.

Advocacy is a key part of the Abogadas MX offering and, together with 38 law firms in the country, it has developed the ‘Mexican Standards of Diversity and Inclusion’. This takes the seven UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles as a basis for a framework of principles to be applied to the legal profession in Mexico, and adds two more, regarding workplace sexual harassment, and gender and pro bono work.

‘We focus on being a community of women, or men allies, that know the importance of supporting gender and diversity in every place of their personal and professional lives,’ says Rodriguez Miramon.

For Barbagalo, the benefit of groups like Jurídico de Saias is precisely that sense of community. She describes her own experience of feeling alone and unsupported when returning from maternity leave and, for her, Jurídico de Saias fills a need that is especially powerful among outnumbered senior corporate counsel.

‘It’s to feel that you belong, to see that you have others like you, and to have support. Sometimes you don’t even know you have a problem if you don’t talk to others, and then you see, “Ok, there are more like me.” It is especially that you feel supported, that you have a place for equals to help you,’ she explains.

‘Being a young lawyer and having that kind of support from a group definitely would have helped me. When I got back from maternity leave, or in situations when I didn’t feel supported, I wouldn’t know there were more women like me. I wouldn’t know that I could be myself and could talk, and I could go to that group and say, “Am I crazy?” and feel ok to do that. It’s very common that people come and say, “That happened to me, is that ok, what should I have done, how should I react?” If you don’t have one formal group to do that, you don’t feel like you can look for this information, or you don’t feel confident in sharing, because it’s feels “gossipy”. But if there is an environment of openness and sharing, you see that what happens to you happens to others, and you can learn from that, and evolve, and feel empowered.’

At Women in Leadership in Latin America (WILL), that conversation takes place on a regional and even international level. Formed not only for lawyers – though managing vice president Leila Melo is one – WILL is a São Paulo-based non-profit with advisory boards in Bogotá, Miami, New York, Washington and London. Since 2013, it has supported and promoted the career development of women in Latin America, encouraged Latin America-based companies to implement programs for women in business, and promoted the exchange of best practices between national and international organizations.

Melo describes initiatives such as the annual Women in Leadership Survey – a free personal and professional development course for cisgender and transgender university students to encourage female leadership in finance, called the Dn’A Women – and the Empower Black Women to Senior Leadership mentoring program.

A wide network of women at all stages of their careers can function as a discussion forum to take stock and also move the conversation on – considering the spectrum of perspectives from generation Z, raised to expect, not request, equality, and of more seasoned women who are still fighting for it. In both Jurídico de Saias and Abogadas MX, that forum is cross-generational and both organizations have found making an intergenerational link to be fundamental in achieving sustainable empowerment for women.

‘We are very happy to see younger women looking for change, and the extent that they understand that change starts with us. Even though we need to have organizations, and men, and everybody else, involved in changing their bias, there is a little ignition, I would say, that is taking place within a lot of younger women, who want things to change,’ says Paillés.

‘We need to include younger women to see what they want and where they want to go, and how they are seeing these changes within their own organizations. You see it a lot with social media, and women doing things very differently than was done 20 or 30 years ago. Women on the board of directors of the organization are a little bit older and went through different things. I think we need that link, because the firms and the companies are controlled by older people, so we need to get that mix in place,’ says Paillés.

Adds Rodriguez Miramon: ‘We are living in an era with a lot of changes, and it’s really interesting how not only women but also men are interested in improving their way of working, the way they feel, their paternity leaves – and that finally is like a perfect match in getting our mission across faster and to talk about what we see as societal development.’

With the entry of new groups into the conversation, Barbagalo has found that a greater, and more evolved focus on inclusion and diversity is emerging, together with more understanding of intersectionality, in areas such as gender and race, but also in terms of considering all professionals as individuals with unique needs.

‘Different ways of working have a lot to do with diversity and inclusion because what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for me,’ she says.

For her, inclusion is an all-purpose tool, to be used beyond traditionally underrepresented groups, to improve the workplace as a whole. She puts this in the context of the pandemic:
‘I’m dying to go back to the office because I get distracted at home. Other people would prefer to be at home because they have a different routine. So how do we deal with that? We exercise our muscles of inclusion. I don’t look at this as a gender problem, or a race problem, or whatever problem. I just look at the different perspectives, a different person than I am, a different reality than I have.’

At WILL, Melo is conscious of the need to guarantee the rights of all vulnerable groups, not just women, and sees equality in terms of political action, health, security and education as well as the labor market.

‘When we look at the representation of women or black people in our society, or when we study the indicators of violence against the LGBTQIA+ population, or the access of people with disabilities to inclusive education and the labor market, the data show that we still face a serious situation of vulnerability and inequality,’ she says.

She believes it behoves private organizations to promote the inclusion and development of underrepresented groups in the corporate environment – and the lawyers within those organizations can play a key role.

‘Knowledge of legislation and legal issues contributes in an important way in proposing affirmative actions in the corporate environment and in private social investment, promoting advocacy for the creation of public policies that contribute to the guarantee of rights and the consolidation of a more inclusive society,’ says Melo.

Lawyers are well-represented on the board of WILL for this reason, she explains, and function as another voice in an organization which creates space for exchange between different agents of society.

In another effort to broaden the conversation, WILL has sought to involve men, with initiatives like its ‘Inviting Men to the Debate’ panel event, where leaders from national and multinational companies exchange views and experiences, and the ‘Homens da Nossa Época’ (‘Men of Our Time’), a series of interviews with male executives, who share and discuss their experiences about what it means to be a man in their time, along with conversation about diversity and inclusion.

‘For gender equality in the corporate environment, I see that organizations like WILL have been playing an important role in mediating this agenda at companies and engaging in dialogue with men, who still occupy most of the leadership positions, so that they can also understand that gender equality is also their responsibility,’ says Melo.

Abogadas MX has taken the step of admitting men as board members, mentors, workshop participants and allies – and has discovered that their presence brings the opportunity for a synergistic learning experience.

‘Maybe men don’t understand how important it is for certain skills to be there in order to succeed [in the workplace], and they think it’s a challenge where you have to run to do the best work. And it’s not that you don’t need to do the best work, it’s just that you need some additional things within your persona,’ says Paillés.

‘When they come out of these workshops, young [male] associates from law firms are amazed, because they really get touched by our analyses and it’s broadening their minds. Even the older men, when they go into this 450-woman meeting and they are a minority, just by being there they see how women feel when you go into a meeting and there’s only one of you.’

As the reach of Abogadas MX grows, so has its influence as a pressure and conscious-raising force in the industry, its leaders believe.

‘We started in a niche of high-end law firms and companies, and I think that we have become some sort of itch in every place that we’ve touched, and they know that they’ve got to change,’ says Paillés.

‘We believe that women at that level are getting stronger at requesting that their rights are met and that they are given what they deserve, and that they need to be in the same competition as men – because it’s not a matter of just “giving me things because I’m a woman”, but that we need to be at the same level. In that niche of law firms and companies I think we have made enough noise for there to be a small change.’

But there is much work to be done. The organization is working to extend its influence beyond elite law firms and corporations, to reach legally qualified women such as notaries public, or growing its program of classes at public universities, broadening its socio-economic reach into corners where bias might lurk.

‘It’s really important for us to start talking about mobility in terms of social mobility and in terms of opening our network,’ says Rodriguez Miramon.

The organization is also expanding beyond Mexico City, building on its chapters in Monterrey and Puebla.

‘It’s a matter of conscience, and we need to open up and touch more people so that the conscience of everyone starts moving. It’s a matter of making clicks within the minds of more and more people,’ says Paillés.

Systemic cultural change needs broader action than solely that of underrepresented groups. But women themselves are creating momentum to raise their own tide, lifting not only their own professional presence, but that of generations to come.