María Gabriela Alvarez de la Fuente

Regional legal director (Southern Cone), Colgate-Palmolive

I began my career as a legal assistant at court while I was still studying law at Buenos Aires University. After graduating law school, I spent three years in private practice before moving to BASF Argentina S.A. as an in-house corporate lawyer. In 2003, I had seen a job advertised at BASF and I found it really interesting. While I had really enjoyed my experience working in private practice, I wanted to feel part of a company. I applied for the role, and thankfully was successful! The switch from private practice to an in-house role was not a difficult one for me, and I found that I really enjoyed working with people from across the different departments, getting to know what the business was about, and contributing to its success. Since then, my experience has been solely as an in-house lawyer. I spent 12 years at BASF, during which time I received several promotions, and then followed that with a shorter stint at adidas as their director of legal and compliance (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay). I then joined Colgate-Palmolive in May 2016 as its regional legal director, Southern Cone. Colgate-Palmolive, the US worldwide consumer products company, focuses on the production and distribution of household, healthcare, and personal care products and operates in Argentina through its subsidiary Colgate-Palmolive Argentina.

In my current role, I have simplified several processes within the legal department, and have also worked hard to bring the legal team closer to the rest of the company – and the rest of the company closer to the legal team. I encourage colleagues from other departments to feel free to contact our legal team early, believing they will receive good advice from us, not just as lawyers, but as business partners. I believe that my attitude of openness and transparency has definitely proved successful. In the past three years, I have built up a rich portfolio by supporting projects that involved the launch of new products and technologies, facing challenges from competitors regarding product claims, as well as handling various business restructuring and litigation cases that are still ongoing. At the heart of everything I do, I aim to show that lawyers are not just a cost centre, but are creating value for the businesses in which they operate. I lead my team by example, and concentrate on providing commercially astute and solution-focused advice that enables the business to be successful in the marketplace while also protecting its business model.

While I have managed to build a strong reputation at Colgate-Palmolive for being committed to my vision, I believe I am also known for having a strong focus on people and being passionate about developing a diverse legal team to deliver results.

At Colgate-Palmolive, we are a small team of three people – all women. However, I have always managed very diverse teams during my career in private practice, and in-house at BASF and adidas. Diversity for me, though, is not only about gender; it is about embracing all the different ways of thinking. When I worked for BASF and adidas, I had teams that were very diverse: different ages, sexes, social backgrounds, and points of view. The more diverse a team is, the more creative it can be.

“Diversity for me is not only about gender; it is about embracing all the different ways of thinking.”

As well as being responsible for building my own diverse legal teams, I also promote gender equality across the business. I feel as a leader I have the responsibility to promote diversity. Within Colgate-Palmolive, I am the internal sponsor of the Colgate Women Network in Southern Cone territories, which is the region under my scope (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay). The Colgate Women Network is a global initiative that fosters an inclusive and diverse environment, and different activities are carried on in every country around the world. But the initiative has local implementation too. In Southern Cone, we organise activities and lectures and try to develop policies in order to help women grow in their careers with Colgate. For example, we organise inspiring breakfasts with women leaders in the region. These are often in an interview format, so that attendees can get to understand their experiences, the obstacles those women had to deal with while they forged their careers, and how they have managed their work-life-family balance. In 2019, we organised lectures on topics such as leadership, personal branding, and personal finance.

I am also committed to promoting gender equality outside my work environment, and I am currently involved with organisations such as IDEA to help promote diversity and inclusion in law firms and companies. While there is certainly a long way to go before there is gender equality in the legal industry, it is not the only industry in which it is more difficult to be listened to and to get ahead if you are a woman. I used to have that feeling – of not being listened to – especially when I was younger. But, the world has changed a lot… and it is still changing. Fortunately, in my current job, I don’t experience this anymore, and I’ve certainly been able to move ahead with my career. What I have observed, though, is that in private practice, the pace of change is much slower: the number of female partners is still much smaller than the number of male partners.

Quotas, of course, could go a long way towards solving the gender imbalance in the legal industry, but I do have mixed thoughts about them. In some cases, I believe quotas could be a good way to help those women who could not have got to a certain place without that kind of help; and I believe they can be helpful, especially in industries in which there is still a lot of work to be done with gender equality. However, using quotas to simply make up the numbers won’t work – for true equity and equality to take hold, there has to be a cultural shift and a change of mindset about women’s place in the workforce.