Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to have a job that would allow me to help others, and, like most law students, I wanted to be part of the dream of ‘justice’. When I graduated from high school, I immediately enrolled in one of the top law schools in Colombia, and ever since, I have not stopped learning. I declare myself an eternal student! I am convinced that one should never stop learning, because law and life are in permanent transformation. You have to be ready to reinvent yourself every day.
After law school and at the same time that I was working, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies with various universities in Colombia. I first studied commercial and corporate law, then financial law, and finally international law. I also wanted to expand my horizons, and so I knew I had to leave my country and travel around the world. I am convinced that this is the only way to understand other cultures and ways of thinking. First I went to France to study international law before moving to Berkeley in the United States to study international trade and commerce. From there, I was awarded a scholarship to study in Spain, where I did a master’s degree in corporate law and an international master of business administration at IE Business School, one of the top five ranked schools that year. I wanted to get an MBA from one of the best-ranked universities because I wanted to fight the stereotype that women and lawyers are ‘not good with numbers’. I was tired of the prejudices of my colleagues who graduated in engineering or financial areas. Also, I wanted to give them better advice by speaking their ‘own language’.
I started my professional career in private practice, before leaving to work for several years in financial institutions both in Colombia and in Europe. Those positions then led me to my current role, as legal director of an infrastructure company in Colombia (Odinsa S.A.). I decided to take an in-house role rather than to continue with private practice for many reasons.
First, I believe that working as an in-house lawyer allows me to have a better and more complete knowledge of the business. I enjoy working more closely with the financial and commercial areas, and being surrounded by people of different professional and cultural backgrounds. I am convinced that this kind of diversity is much easier to find in a company than in legal private practice. I also believe that working as an in-house lawyer makes me a more rounded lawyer and human being, since it allows me to hear and discuss different points of view that do not always coincide with my owns views. One of the other reasons I prefer working in an in-house role is that it allows me to have a better balance between my personal life as a mother of two, and my professional life. This is due to the fact that companies are more prone to provide flexible working than law firms.
Of course, all professions are affected by gender inequalities, but I do believe the legal industry is still one of the more male-dominated industries, probably because of its patriarchal tradition. Even though there is a larger proportion of women law students, after they graduate men are offered better job opportunities than those women. It is a paradox that the profession that should be in charge of providing justice is so full of inequalities. The patriarchal configuration and structure of the legal industry moves law away from its social function and its task of contributing to equality.
Unfortunately, this means there are still many barriers for women in law. During my career I have seen several examples of this:
Co-workers and bosses usually assume that if you are a woman, you are not going to be able to take charge in big cases or projects. Women have to prove their value before they are granted trust and confidence.
Women in law are judged by first impressions. As a woman, I definitely feel I have been compelled to dress in a certain way – to ‘dress as a lawyer’ – to be taken seriously, which simply does not happen to male lawyers.
Salaries are not equitable between men and women. Women lawyers are paid less than their equally qualified male colleagues.
Women are usually in middle management roles, but they hardly get to leadership management positions.
It is very difficult for a woman who is also a mother to become a partner in a law firm or to have a post of responsibility in a company, because it is not easy to find balance between personal and professional life. Moreover, our culture tends to dictate that the woman is the one who is expected to take a step back from her career to raise children.
Legal work usually requires you to attend social commitments in addition to your office work – this is always a challenge when you are a mother.
Women in law also usually have to face sexist conversations and jokes from colleagues or clients.
I have seen female lawyers sexually harassed by their bosses.
From my own experience, I would say that the main challenge I had to overcome was to stop my career when I became a mother. I knew that I wanted to spend several months with my newborn children and I was sure that this would halt my career progression – which is exactly what happened. After spending one year with my two children (who are now six and seven years old), it was very difficult to find a job with the same level of responsibility to the one I’d had before. The salary was also an issue, and I was not able to get a job with a similar or higher salary than the one I had before I was pregnant. In fact, I had to start all over again, with a job and a salary at a lower level. Even now, my former male colleagues have better salaries. This was, and still is, the cost of being a mother.
As working women I believe that we all have responsibility in closing the gap between men and women. Being the mother of a boy and a girl, I want them to have the same opportunities. There are many actions we can take to help other women to reach the full potential of their careers:
First, education is fundamental. We need to teach our girls that they can be whatever they want to be. There should not be professions reserved only for men. We are equally capable of performing any job. When boys and girls are equally confident in their abilities, and are given equal opportunities, the gender gap narrows.
Second, women must support other women. Build networks, promote each other, and demand equality in salaries.
Third, we must vocally support policies that promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Fourth, we must adopt flexible working policies that allow women to have a real balance between their family and professional life.
And finally, we have the responsibility to make the problem of gender inequality visible to society through publications, forums, and seminars. Be vocal about the need for equality.
I believe that quotas may help and may be a first step to working towards gender equality. However, I am convinced that they don’t always translate into more power or gains for women. For me, quotas are only one of the tools that can help to solve the problem, but they are not the only tool. Other mechanisms, such as the ones above, are also necessary to achieve equality.
I am also profoundly convinced that as women leaders, we should build teams that are diverse in every sense. We need different genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds present in our teams so that we can get to better solutions. Different opinions and points of view add value, reinforce the commitment and pride of belonging to a team, improve the richness of the analysis and therefore, the decision-making, and increase the creativity and innovation that support the sustainability of the company. I try to promote these kinds of teams in my work. For any woman considering a career in the legal industry, I would give the advice I gave myself: ‘Dream big: everything is possible. You are just as qualified as any man to perform any job you want. Don’t accept stereotypes, fight inequality, and don’t ever let anyone else tell you what you can or cannot do’.