GC: Please tell us a little about your pathway into law. What made you move from private practice to in-house roles?
Brenda Puig (BP): I spent my first years as a lawyer in a law firm. It was a large and prestigious law firm in Buenos Aires. I worked long hours and I really loved my job. After some years working for this law firm, I got married and became a mother, and balancing my career with my personal life became a challenge. At that time, at least in Argentina, there was not much debate about these issues. Even though both the law firm and I made great efforts to make it work – I actually became the first part-time attorney – after my second son I felt the need to make a change.
I joined Walmart 14 years ago. I found in the corporate world – and especially Walmart – a much more favourable environment for my personal needs. I also found a completely new way of being a lawyer. The in-house world is so different from private practice, and I just love it. I have been very lucky to experience both sides of the profession, and have learnt a lot from both. I believe this combination has made me a better lawyer.
Carmen Roman (CR): Although I started my professional career in a law firm, what made me move to an in-house role was the opportunity to know about the corporate world, to understand its dynamics, its strategic role, its contribution to different stakeholders, and at the same time interact with different professionals in the same ecosystem. I feel that in the in-house role I have been able to maximise my abilities, improve my strategic thinking, and achieve a work-life balance.
GC: What do you believe are the biggest barriers to women progressing in the legal industry? Are the challenges similar across private practice and in-house, or have you seen differences?
BP: There are many different barriers, which I believe are common to so many other professions, not just the legal profession. Work-life balance is an issue for many women, and even more challenging for mothers of young children. Lack of adequate networking opportunities and visibility is another factor; men tend to have better opportunities for this. The fact that there is a much higher percentage of men in leadership positions plays a role as well – there are fewer women role models for emerging talent. In my personal experience, even though law firms have evolved over the past years, I would say that on average the in-house world is more advanced in designing strategies for solving the gap than law firms.
CR: Yes, I agree. Although we have seen some progress in law firms, I believe that there is more flexibility and career development in the in-house world. There are still large barriers for women in private practice. Even though we see the number of women lawyers growing in private practice, they don’t have equal access to senior positions. The working environment and the long office hours in most law firms are still more suitable to male lawyers compared to their female counterparts. The lack of work-life balance is one of the major obstacles that female (and male) lawyers face. A majority of law firms are reticent to innovate or change with the times, meaning in general that the legal profession lags behind other industries in terms of senior women reaching the top. Law firms should adopt different, realistic working options for parents and actively remote working or a flexible-hours system.
GC: What challenges have you specifically faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
BP: I have faced many challenges over the years! If I were to find a common ingredient in how I overcame them, I would say that attitude is the key. Whatever challenge you face, having a positive mindset and self-confidence is essential. Believe in yourself and try to find what you can learn from each situation. Also, team-work. No single person on this planet knows everything: we need to rely on our teams, peers, partners, mentors, family and friends. Working collaboratively is a great virtuous circle – help whenever you can, and you will be helped whenever you need.
CR: I am the opposite in that I have never experienced an obstacle that was solely the result of being a woman. I have often been the only woman in the room and almost always the only woman at executive level, but I have never viewed that as an obstacle, because of my attitude. I think the biggest challenge in my career is maintaining a good work-life balance. Progressing in your career while having time for family, friends and hobbies is a constant struggle.
I have always expressed to my different bosses how important family is to me. I request certain benefits as non-tradable. For example, to be able to do school pick-up and drop-off with my children once or twice a week. I make sure this never interferes with my results, and it also has the effect of making my commitment to the company stronger.
GC: Walmart has a strong commitment to empowering women (working with women-owned businesses in its supply chain; the establishment of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum). What success have you seen with these initiatives? What metrics are used to measure their success?
BP: We are very much focused on developing our female talent internally and supporting women externally. We truly believe in the power of diversity and inclusion and we put a lot of work and effort into this. We have consistently been working on initiatives for the past ten years. The Global Women Leadership Council was first appointed in 2008 at our US-based headquarters and is an advisory council formed by female business leaders, reporting to our global CEO. This was replicated in each market and we work both locally and globally. I have been part of this council since it was first formed in Argentina in 2009, and I currently serve as its chair. The council is not only focused on the legal department but on the whole company. We have several lines of work and KPIs. I believe that seeing more women in leadership positions as well as in our talent base is the best indicator.
We do awareness activities with men and women: specific training targeted to specific needs of specific groups; mentoring; policies that assure equal representation in recruiting and development; and policies for enabling work-life balance. And we also have an active voice externally. We believe that being such a large company comes with a responsibility because we can inspire change in other companies. We share our best practices and encourage others to have the courage to give it a try. Companies must play their role in improving the work environment and therefore our society.
Our initiatives are both global and local. We have a global framework and there is a lot of market freedom within that framework. We do have company-wide goals and objectives, but challenges around how to tackle those goals and objectives might vary from market to market – the fact is that cultures and realities are different across the region. Each market needs to find the solutions that best fit their specific needs in order to make it locally relevant. And each market can also benefit from benchmarking with other Walmart markets. We like to call it ‘powered by Walmart’.
CR: Yes, that’s right. At Walmart, we know that our people and culture help to make Walmart successful and that different perspectives lead to innovative solutions for our business. Developing inclusive leaders is the key to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. To develop inclusive leadership at Walmart, the executive team has inclusive leadership expectations as part of their annual performance evaluation, and this means (i) participate in at least one approved inclusive leadership education offering such as unconscious bias training, LGBTQ+ training, or sexual harassment awareness training, among others, and (ii) actively mentor two associates, host a mentoring circle, or participate as a mentor in a programme such as our Lean In Mentoring Circles.
In terms of gender, we are focused in developing female talent under the Global Women Leadership Council that Brenda mentioned. We also have a local Diversity and Inclusion Council in Chile; I’ve been a member since 2009 and I’m also currently its president. We are constantly measuring the female participation at leadership level and the programme effectiveness. In addition, I was also part of the International Diversity and Inclusion Council for two years.
Our recent statistics show that 57% of our 51,000 employees are women and 25% of our frontline positions are held by them. At Walmart, we believe that men and women should have the same opportunities, and we ensure internal wage equity with a compensation policy that does not discriminate with respect to gender. We have a range of programmes that promote the development of female leadership within the company:
- Empowering: Development acceleration programme for women executives with high potential, helping them prepare for the challenges of executive positions in the company.
- Women in Retail: Development of leaders for the retail of the future through training, networking, and empowerment.
- Wired Chile: Development, empowerment, and promotion of female talent at Walmart Chile Real Estate through mentoring, conversation sessions, and workshops.
- More Digital Women: Courses on web development and digital marketing, to contribute to women’s development and empowerment through digital training and employability.
We also have several support programmes for women outside Walmart, because our ethos is about making improvements not just for the women who work for us, but for the communities we serve as well. Some of those programmes include:
- Women for Chile, developed with the support of ONG ‘Mujeres Empresarias’ (Women Entrepreneurs). Women for Chile seeks to strengthen women-led enterprises through personalised training, boards, and mentoring, with the possibility that some of the selected enterprises will become Walmart Chile suppliers.
- Solidarity Spaces for women entrepreneurs. These are spaces located in our Leader and Leader Express locations throughout the country. This initiative is developed in partnership with the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity. The women entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to sell and publicise their products in different parts of the country.
GC: Do you think the growth of international companies expanding into Latin America is having a positive effect on LatAm domiciled companies and their D&I initiatives?
BP: Yes, absolutely. We live in a global world today – everybody and everything is connected. Local markets benefit from the influence of international companies that bring best practices. And, likewise, global companies benefit from the local wisdom and practices that can be taken to other geographies. That is the beauty of this synergy.
CR: Definitely. Multinational companies have had more time to develop their best practices, and that is having a positive influence on local markets. In addition, because they are willing to share these good practices with other companies, we are starting to see major cultural changes at the country level.
GC: In what ways do you work with your panel firms to improve representation of women in the legal industry?
BP: This is, again, just using our influence. We look favourably on firms that foster diversity and inclusion, and we give them priority. There are more structured ways and there are other informal ways, such as mentoring other women working for law firms.
CR: We also have ‘Walmart’s Outside Counsel Guidelines’, which establish the expectations the company has of its outside counsel. We expect law firms to stress excellence, integrity, and provide value in resolving legal problems, while also honouring the company’s culture and principles. One of those expectations is to demonstrate commitment to diversity, respect flexible work schedules, promote work-life balance, and to have women as senior partners. We take time to talk about it, and recognise the law firms that advance this cause. Ultimately, we give preference to law firms that foster diversity and inclusion.
GC: You have both been commended for being active promoters of female empowerment and leadership in the workplace. Can you give any specific examples where you have helped other women to reach their full potential and progress in their careers?
BP: I believe that the first thing is to walk the talk. When you reach a leadership position, you need to be aware that people are looking at you. In a large organisation, the few women who reach those positions must be good role models. It is not enough to talk about work-life balance or to talk about supporting and empowering women; you need to live it every day and actively show it. If any young talented woman with the ambition of growing within the organisation looks up and sees that the few women who made it have a miserable life, they will not feel inspired to get there. And, of course, mentoring and sharing one’s experiences is very powerful.
CR: I am counsellor of the Chilean NGO Comunidad Mujer (Women’s Community), and for 12 years, I have been mentor of professional women who seek support and guidance in their career development. This activity has given me much satisfaction, and is also something from which I have benefitted greatly.
Ten years ago, I was the first woman to become part of Walmart Chile’s executive team. I believed I opened the door to other female executives. Today we are four women from ten executives.
I have also supported the career development and promotion of a female lawyer from my Chilean team who is now general counsel in Costa Rica and Central America. I’m so proud of her growth.
GC: How do you go about building a diverse team and leading by example?
BP: Of course, recruiting is key, but also important is the way we form teams for specific projects, the way we manage our team members’ requests, the way we act in every day decisions. For example, a team member who has a sick child will feel more confident in being absent if they see there is an understanding environment for family needs. And the way this is shown is by actions, not words: they need to see that such absence is accepted, that their supervisor shows interest in the child’s health, and that the supervisor also takes leave for family if needed.
CR: I consciously aim to recruit different types of talent. I listen, and try to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of the team members by having deep one-on-one conversations with them, identifying their biases, and helping to mitigate discriminations.
I am a promoter of career development for men and women, and I’m particularly vocal in promoting both maternal and paternal responsibilities: for example, I always encourage my male lawyers to take on childcare responsibilities during the week (e.g. dropping children to school, or picking them up, etc).
In 2014, we launched a special diversity and inclusion programme, developed with the support of Walmart Legal International, where we assisted law school students (selected by gender, ethnic background, and socioeconomic vulnerability) during their third year. We helped them obtain tools useful for their future professional activities such as English language, mentoring (provided by us or our external law firm partners), and advance networking. This has been a very successful programme.
GC: There is quite a divide between those who believe in quotas to address gender imbalance in the workplace, and those who don’t. Do you have any specific thoughts on that?
BP: I am personally not a fan of quotas, and think they may be very harmful. If you force somebody who is not ready into a leadership position, the probability of failure is high. That failure will not only damage that person and may damage their career, but it also sends the wrong message to the organisation. It can be seen as a counter-example and even limit future promotions. What we need to foster is more talented women in leadership positions, although of course this is not just about gender – it is about talent, and generating the conditions for both talented men and women to reach their full potential. Having said that, sometimes an organisation might need to force things a bit to make the wheel start moving. If that is the case, it has to be done very carefully. In my organisation we do not have quotas, but we have mechanisms in place that seek to ensure that opportunities are equal. Let’s say there is leadership training with open positions for a limited amount of people and that a certain business area only presents male candidates; we would challenge that leader to re-visit the list, to look harder and see if there are any women in whom they see potential and wish to invest. The answer might still be no and that is ok; remember, we look for talent, not just gender.
CR: For me, over time, I have become convinced that quotas are necessary to level the playing field. Sometimes, you have to push for things to happen and quotas are certainly one way of achieving more equal representation of men and women. There are plenty of examples of women who are better qualified for senior roles and have more experience, but aren’t being promoted to top positions because of their gender. I think appointing women to senior positions would create greater confidence among other women.
However, the quotas must be essentially transitory to cause the change; later, when the reality has shifted and equality has been achieved, then quotas will no longer be necessary.
GC: If you could give advice to yourself at the start of your career, what would it be?
BP: I would say to enjoy the ride and each experience. I am more experienced and seasoned now; when I was younger, I was tougher on myself. Now I see my life and career from a different perspective. I am very grateful and feel blessed for the life I have and for the opportunities I have been given; and that includes my career. Sometimes we forget to take the time to stop and appreciate what we have; or we fail in finding the time to support others, which I personally find so rewarding.
CR: My advice would be:
- Feel passion for your work;
- Your mistakes are learnings and without them, there is no growth;
- Do not rest until you find the workplace where you feel comfortable and valued and where you can develop your strengths;
- Be curious about the opportunities that come your way;
- Take care to always integrate new knowledge and experiences;
- Find strength in working collaboratively.