Denise Guillen Lara

Legal vice president and integrity leader, LatAm, The Nielsen Company

Roman jurist Dompia Ulpianus defined justice as ‘the continuous and perpetual willingness to give each one his own’. This concept of justice has always resonated in my heart; I have always seen justice as the solution to avoid conflict in a large community. This belief was especially relevant to me when I was growing up, given that I was part of a large family consisting of three brothers, one sister, and of course my two parents. For me to survive in this large community, justice had to be implemented amongst our group so that each of us received what it was of our own! I believe it is very important to acknowledge that everyone has a place in their community; my place was as the ‘confrontational member’, always trying to assert and achieve justice. It is no wonder, then, that I decided to study law! I paved the pathway of my profession out of my passion.

Like many other lawyers, I have been both in-house and outside counsel. I started my career working in a big law firm, which allowed me to learn the fundamental skills that have helped me along my career: thorough thinking; in-depth analysis; problem solving; network building; technology tools usage; courage to take new opportunities; understanding of and exposure to international markets; and business ethics. I was also lucky to learn from several role models who showed me how important it is to ‘walk the talk’.

I am an extrovert by nature, and this was particularly useful in my private practice career. It allowed me to confidently interact with senior partners, and to learn from them and their experiences; I emulated what they did to achieve a similar result. After several years working in private practice I took my first in-house role – as general counsel of General Electric (GE). Key to my decision to move was the opportunity to acquire new skills and to learn from new role models. In fact, a big motivator for me when I consider taking on new roles is the leader who I will report into. I look for someone who will support and encourage my constant professional and personal development. Also hugely important to me is that my employer fosters a culture of inclusion and supports the development of female talent. Specifically, I look for programmes and policies that allow women to have a work-life balance, for example remote working and maternity leave.

I have been extremely lucky not to have experienced gender-based barriers during my career. I have never suffered harassment; my bosses have been my biggest sponsors (I have been part of several mentoring programmes); and I have a good work-life balance. I was even once hired during my last month of pregnancy. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all female talent in Mexico. As demonstrated by a 2018 study developed by AbogadasMX jointly with CIMAD and Marea Consulting, there are both internal (personal and unconscious bias) and external barriers (organisational structures) that women face in progressing both in private practice and in-house roles, and that organisations and law firms must do better to create equal opportunities for women. That should start with those who are in leadership positions.

Ultimately, all organisations should be a reflection of the people working for them, and it is the responsibility of leaders to build a culture where the success of the company is intrinsically linked to its inclusion of female talent and to creating equal opportunities for all talent. Implementing programmes and policies that allow for this to happen are vital in eliminating both the internal and external gender-based barriers. When I think of my own experiences I would say that for women in the legal profession, companies (i.e. in-house) are doing a better job than law firms. While law firms most commonly implement special considerations for women at a senior level, in-house counsel seem to have the same opportunities at every level.

One final observation, though, is that neither law firms nor companies tend to have formal mentoring programmes or networking opportunities. The biggest barrier for women in Mexico, I believe, is the perpetuation of ‘machismo’ culture, something that even women seem to believe in and uphold. Approximately 95% of the women lawyers who participated in the AbogadasMX study still believe that they should be the ones taking care of the children and the house. Women lawyers who become mothers often decide not to continue working after having children, or if they do decide to continue, they decrease substantially the amount of hours they work and do not take on further responsibilities. This strong internal bias was shown to be almost equal in private and in-house practice; there was a slight trend towards private practice, mostly due to the need to demonstrate long hours worked because of the hourly billing structure.

“It is the responsibility of every woman in a leadership position to help other women reach their full potential.”

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I was hired to hold the position of LatAm regional counsel was the constant travel. I needed to make sure that my two daughters were taken care of, that they were safe, happy, and attending school. I was able to overcome the obstacles by building a support network (my sister, the nanny, school parents) to help me with the day-to-day duties. All of them have been amazingly empathic and have given me support when I needed it. I have also been able to work remotely, which allows me to compensate for the time that I travel by staying at home with my girls while I work. It’s also really important for me to communicate to my girls that I have to travel as part of my job, but that when I do they will always be well taken care of.

In my current role at Nielsen I help to promote diversity in many ways. Alongside my role as legal director, I am also head of the compliance and integrity programme. It is my job to make sure that no one is discriminated against in any way. I manage all harassment cases and impose penalties, and I make sure that all employees are treated equally and fairly. I am part of an Employee Resource Group (ERG) called WIN (Women in Nielsen), and participate in different activities to help more women achieve leadership positions. I have been invited to share my experiences with other women globally to inspire them, and am currently participating in Nielsen’s global mentoring programme, acting as a mentor for a female talent based in the US. It has been a real thrill to be able to influence the personal and professional development of another woman.

External to my role with Nielsen, I am a board member of AbogadasMX, an association dedicated to helping women lawyers achieve leadership positions. I am also part of the board of INCAM, the longest-running bar association in Mexico striving for gender equality. I am convinced that it is the responsibility of every woman in a leadership position to help other women reach their full potential and progress in their careers. We need to ‘send the elevator down’ to new talent, and we need to see diversity and inclusion of female talent as a competitive advantage.

We are lucky at Nielsen that our CEO is also our chief diversity officer, because he believes that diversity and inclusion are inextricably linked to the overall success of the business: to drive systemic change, we look for diversity in people and thought, and aim to be consistent with our operating principle to engage, include, and decide. We have identified the need for accountability; by this we mean that every Nielsen associate owns diversity and inclusion efforts, and their involvement is linked to performance processes. This helps to ensure that every one of our associates is able to reach their full potential. The entire leadership team now serves as sponsors for ERGs; they are personally accountable for how they are driving diversity and inclusion and Nielsen expects that all people managers become active participants either in ERGs or as mentors. We are also working to achieve gender equality in top leadership positions.

It is important to me to build a diverse team. I lead by example, because I have learned from the example of the leaders that I have reported to. I am also in favour of hiring outside counsel that have diverse teams, because outside counsel should be a reflection of the in-house culture of diversity and inclusion. I need to lead by example in hiring providers that have diverse talent in leadership positions.

I am 100% in favour of gender quotas, but I also believe that positions should be occupied by the best talent. There are always excuses that quotas limit to hire/promote the best talent, but in my point of view this is only an historical excuse not to move forward with quotas and achieve gender parity.

If I could give advice to myself at the start of my career I would say ‘count your blessings every day and appreciate what you have achieved. However, don’t ever think that you’re at the finish line. There are always new opportunities for achieving new goals and it is more important to enjoy the process of achieving the goals than achieving the goal itself. Constant improvement of yourself will produce happiness, pride, joy, and self-accomplishment.’ n