Turning of the tide

Each year, we see more representation, more women role models, and more organisations turning their words into visible actions. While there is still room for progress, real change is coming.

Research continues to show the positive correlation between a diverse and inclusive workforce, and an organisation’s bottom line. In response, there has been a sharp increase in C-suites giving strategic priority to diversity and inclusion (D&I) challenges, and there has been a significant rise in roles dedicated to it. There has also been a significant increase in the number of initiatives and training sessions aimed not only at increasing minority representation, but also tackling the underlying culture, which frequently prohibits inclusion.

But many times, these initiatives don’t work – and sometimes achieve the opposite of what is intended. It is a sad fact that, despite the substantial number of programmes in place, equality isn’t improving. Or, at least, it isn’t improving at the pace one would hope. So, what elements need to be in place for a D&I initiative to work?

Through a series of in-depth conversations with senior in-house counsel across Latin America, GC magazine looks at some of the D&I challenges the Latin America legal industry faces, the common elements that make for successful D&I programmes, and offers advice for how to effect real change – now and in the future.

Legal industry challenges

The perception of the legal industry as – in the English phrase – ‘pale, male, and stale’, is not new and is, unfortunately, only too applicable to Latin America as well. ‘Latin American law firms are, generally, predominantly male and conservative environments; that is, not inclusive towards minorities,’ says Publicis Groupe’s LatAm regional legal director, Véronique Ramon Vialar-Déchelette. ‘This is perpetuated not only by a traditional men’s club perception of law firms, but also by women’s unconscious self-discrimination and behaviour.’

“It is easier and more comfortable to deal with people of the same gender. Because, historically, the majority of CEOs are men, it is easier for them to deal with other men.”

Women are also much more likely to adapt their behaviour to fit in to this environment. ‘Even today, in traditional law firms, many women do not dare to ask for salary increases or more senior positions, they are scared to compete “as men”, and frequently prefer to resign rather than to ask for flexible working arrangements when they have children,’ Vialar-Déchelette continues. ‘As a young lawyer in a law firm, I was often very careful regarding the way I used to dress (to avoid being considered too feminine or sexy), or the way I expressed myself about work situations or problems (to avoid being considered as less capable by my male colleagues). I also avoided being too friendly or empathetic in certain situations to avoid being considered too soft, too “woman-like”.’

Of course, the problem doesn’t only exist in law firms; those ingrained biases still exist and need to be challenged in corporates as well. ‘The biggest barrier is confirmation bias, rather than unconscious bias,’ says Valéria Camacho Martins Schmitke, Zurich’s LatAm regional general counsel. ‘It is easier and more comfortable to deal with people of the same gender. Because, historically, the majority of CEOs are men, it is easier for them to deal with other men. They go to have lunch together, they talk “man talk” – they care less about words and feeling comfortable with each other. Many times, this is not conscious, but it prevents many women being promoted or hired for key positions.’

Against this backdrop, effecting real change might seem impossible, but of course, it’s not. We are seeing a slow, positive evolution across the industry. Law firms and corporates alike are committing to strategies and programmes that go beyond lip service to embed D&I into their corporate DNA.

Positive reinforcement

One of the key elements in ensuring a D&I programme or initiative is successful is positive messaging and positive reinforcement. In their 2016 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail’, authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev assert that most executives ‘favor a classic command-and-control approach to diversity’, which often leads to extensive lists of dos and don’ts. This approach, though, ‘flies in the face of nearly everything we know about how to motivate people to make changes… You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and re-education. We can’t motivate people by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t.’

This is especially true of lawyers, who can often be resistant to the idea that they might behave unfairly. Bias is often linked to being unethical, and it is ingrained in lawyers that their job is to be advocates of justice. Where companies start to see positive results is when they employ tactics that do not focus on control. When messaging is positive, involvement is voluntary, and there is social accountability, willing participants will come forward.

“People need to be conscious of their biases, and conscious of their lack of diversity. And then you can move to implementation of D&I policies, pillars, and training.”

For a D&I strategy to be successful, it must go through three phases, says Schmitke. First, awareness; second, training and development; and third, monitoring. ‘People need to be conscious of their biases, and conscious of their lack of diversity. And then you can move to implementation of D&I policies, pillars, and training.’ Once those are in place, you can start to monitor the success of your various programmes.

Policy change

Law firms and corporates are seeing their biggest successes when specific initiatives go hand-in-hand with actual policy change, and where D&I policies ring true with the employees they most affect. Matt Krentz, who leads Boston Consulting Group’s diversity and leadership efforts, wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article that women employees seek policies that allow them to balance career and family responsibilities, and in particular ‘practical tools that would help them progress, regardless of their family status: parental leave, appropriate healthcare coverage, childcare assistance, and flexibility programs’.

The law firm perspective: D&I at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

At Willkie, we believe everyone benefits from a diverse workplace, and we are firmly committed to creating and maintaining a diverse environment by recruiting and retaining people of all backgrounds and cultural experiences.

The firm has several active committees that focus on the recruitment, retention, and promotion of our attorneys and, in particular, our women and diverse attorneys. These committees’ initiatives include expanding mentoring programmes, improving communication between partners and associates, recognising the contributions and accomplishments of our attorneys, offering insights from our clients on best practices for associates, and providing opportunities for attorneys to connect in informal settings.

Our Women’s Professional Development Committee (WPDC) was established more than a decade ago to offer professional development programmes and guidance to women attorneys. The WPDC is comprised of partners (including a member of the Executive Committee), counsel, and associates, and receive support from our chief human resources officer, chief marketing officer, chief diversity and inclusion officer, and associate director of professional development. The WPDC highlights the accomplishments of our female attorneys, providing opportunities for networking at the firm and with other successful women across industries, and ensure that they are positioned to assume leadership roles during their careers.

In 2019, Willkie also introduced a Parents Group for associates at the firm. The group provides a forum for attorneys to share strategies and ideas about parenting and work-life integration. The Parents Group is planning programming to hear from experts on topics ranging from financial planning for families, time management, and talking with children about sensitive topics.

Long-term goals

We are particularly committed to continuing and further developing strategies to D&I on a long-term basis, including in the leadership ranks. In fact, today, 40% of members of our Compensation Committee are diverse and 40% are women. In addition, of the ten members of our global Executive Committee, 20% are women and 10% are diverse. Moreover, seven women and five diverse partners serve as department or practice group chairs or co-chairs, five women and three diverse partners or counsel lead firm committees, and three diverse partners and two women serve as office managing partners. Finally, from 2016 to 2018, our partnership classes have averaged approximately 36% women, respectively, and of the thirteen global attorneys elected to the partnership in 2019, five (or 38%) are women and four (or 31%) are diverse.

Willkie is deeply committed to creating and maintaining an inclusive environment by recruiting and retaining people of all backgrounds and cultural experiences. To that end, in mid-2016, the chairs of the firm charged the chairs of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Professional Personnel Committee, and Women’s Professional Development Committee to create the firm’s Task Force on Retention and Inclusion. The task force meets on a bi-weekly basis to collaborate on initiatives designed to retain, develop, and promote attorneys, particularly with respect to diverse and women attorneys at the firm. It focuses on an array of topics, including mentoring, work assignments, integration, partner accountability, annual reviews, and inclusive programming and reports regularly to Willkie’s chairs on progress and initiatives.

Working with clients

We welcome opportunities to partner with clients on D&I initiatives. In May 2018, we partnered with a client to host a panel on the business case for D&I. The panel was moderated by our chief diversity and inclusion officer and consisted of several of the client’s top female executives. In February 2018 we partnered with a client to host a panel on diversity, as well as a networking event for diverse law students in Willkie’s Washington, D.C. office. In addition, we presented a CLE on LGBTQ immigration rights at a client’s offices during Pride Month 2019 and we are currently partnering with a client to mentor foster children aging out of care.

Additionally, we’ve hosted programming that facilitates relationships between our women and diverse associates and clients. As an example, we partnered with four clients and invited diverse associates to host a Build-a-Bike event in our New York office, resulting in the presentation of new bicycles to 50 underserved children. In addition, the WPDC hosted a client networking event on International Women’s Day with women attorneys and clients.

We are always happy to share ideas with clients interested in our diversity and inclusion efforts. We welcome meetings to discuss our initiatives and how we can help clients implement them.

by Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza

‘My company has a very active diversity and inclusion group, with many different focus areas, one of which is women,’ says Erica Barbagalo, Bayer’s legal, patent, and compliance lead. ‘The aim is to enhance women’s participation in the company and in leadership positions, but mainly to ensure equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of gender. As such, our company has extended maternity leave, and also an extended paternity leave policy. Both offer more than the statutory minimum. We also offer flexible working hours.’

Anabell González Nava, legal director, North Latin America division at Arcos Dorados, agrees: ‘We implemented a programme, “Red Mujeres”, aimed at increasing the equity with women in our company. The programme focusses on developing initiatives in which we see opportunities to increase the number of women in key roles within the company, which has included implementing policies that ensure women have equity in salaries and compensation at the same level as men with the same responsibility.’

Schmitke, who was the first local leader on Zurich’s ‘gender pillar’ (part of their overall D&I programme, which started four years ago), points to several policy changes that have helped the insurer to attract and retain female talent. This includes extended parental leave (for both women and men), a milk room, and changes in the hiring process. Policy change and diversity ‘occurs in the HR function,’ she says, but ‘inclusion has to occur through the entire company, with all employees.’

Mauricio Rosillo Rojas, corporate vice president at Bancolombia says that companies are increasingly developing more policies favouring inclusion: ‘At Bancolombia, we are working to transcend the corporate environment in order to impact social structures through a transformation in our organisational culture, strengthening the competences for women’s empowerment, and providing support from the financial business to give a boost to the economic capabilities of women. We have set up a committee in charge of gender equality, and Bancolombia has also signed an agreement with the United Nations to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.’

Training and culture change

When approached in a positive way, formal or informal training can change how employees interact with each other, and in essence, change a company’s culture for the better. ‘To really implement D&I in a company or law firm, all employees must be educated and trained. It is pointless having more women on the board and more minority people in the company if they do not feel respected and included by their peers,’ Schmitke says.

“It is pointless having more women on the board and more minority people in the company if they do not feel respected and included by their peers.”

‘We are part of a global organisation, and we are subject to a set of global training, one of which is called “Be Bold for Inclusion”,’ says Guillermo Castillo, chief compliance officer at AFP PlanVital. ‘The objectives of this programme are to build an understanding and commitment to making progress on diversity and inclusion, increase insight into the beliefs and behaviours that are the main barriers to inclusion, and to increase confidence in how to lead change and walk the talk. Unconscious bias can be a huge setback in creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. We need to understand that employees need to feel comfortable and empowered to discuss diversity and inclusion in order to be more productive.’

For Castillo, this has positively affected how his team works together: ‘The rule is that everyone gets a fair hearing and has an equal chance to give their opinion; everyone can speak out if they notice bias in the team; and, most importantly, offer an apology if they get it wrong. We can only really deal with bias if we’re honest and admit our mistakes.’

Training is also an essential ingredient at Bancolombia, where women represent 67% of the workforce, and 57% of senior positions. ‘We want to ease conversations about the experiences and day-to-day life of women in corporate environments to define what gender equality means, what decisions we have to take, the behaviours that need to change, and all the processes we must change,’ says Rosillo. ‘In our organisation, we run a programme called ‘Me la creo’ (I believe it), which is focussed on removing bias and stereotypes and promoting female empowerment. Under the initiative, we provide online and onsite training for every team member, as well as a toolkit for those in leadership positions.’

Creating spaces where employees are comfortable enough to call out the bias they see is important in moving things forward. Barbagalo points out that she has ‘often seen unconscious bias in action – for example in several situations of performance evaluation, or promotion discussions’.

‘Sometimes I have had to point out that the “aggressiveness” identified in a woman professional was the same “straightforwardness” valued in a male professional. I have been able to point out on several occasions the fact that women are generally not well versed in self-promotion. I have also been able to point out the bias in women themselves – they don’t believe in their own capabilities, and don’t apply for more senior positions.’

Training in the form of mentorship is one of the most valuable ways to educate and effect change. Every lawyer we interviewed for this publication pointed to mentorship as a key element in their success. A lack of formal mentoring initiatives is not a barrier, however, as Ana María Delgado, vice president of corporate affairs at Corona in Colombia, explains: ‘At Corona we have created and actively promote spaces for women to share their experiences with other women, and I have personally committed to mentoring several young women with great potential.’

Bancolombia has developed a training programme with CESA, a well-known training institution in Colombia that works with high-potential women for boards of directors. It also uses its ‘Me la creo’ initiative to invite women in high positions in other local and regional companies to join them in the mentoring process. ‘It is important to us that our mentors and mentees have a safe space for the mentorship to occur, and where there is a certain level of affinity, comfort, and familiarity between them,’ says Rosillo. ‘We provide several open spaces where top management executives (both women and men) and other relevant attendees address their experiences, obstacles, fears, prejudices, challenges, and misconceptions surrounding this subject. The dynamic of these events is meant to be sincere, open, and without a hidden agenda because the purpose is to start creating an environment where this subject is addressed by every employee within the organisation, to make the whole workplace a safe place to raise your hand and discuss pros and cons, and have an open discussion without feeling threatened or constrained.’

Be the change you want to see

Barbagalo believes it is vital to act as a catalyst to hear the challenges coming from other women and to ‘voice them to the leadership. It is important not to lose opportunities, and to point to all the things that could be different to improve inclusivity, no matter how hard or how challenging. If it is the right thing to do, then it has to be done.’

The legal industry as a whole has a long way to go before equity and equality are achieved. There needs to be more women in leadership positions – both in private practice and in-house: that is undeniable. What we are beginning to see though, is the turning of the tide. With each year, we see more representation, more women role models, and more organisations and law firms turning their words into very visible actions. While there may still be a lot of room for progress, it does mean that, from here, the only way is up.