Mariana Olivares

Legal director and corporate affairs, Sodexo

I decided to become a lawyer when I was in high school. I am the very first lawyer in my family, so I cannot say it came from a sense of family tradition. However, my parents instilled in me from a young age the importance of justice and values, to do the right thing, and to always be ethical, no matter the consequences. From my very first class at law school, I was incredibly passionate about it; I knew I was in the right place.

Like many lawyers, I started my career in private practice, and had not really planned to move from private practice to an in-house role. But when the opportunity with Sodexo came about, it was too good to turn down. I remember that when I first started, I felt very strange! I was used to managing many different corporate legal accounts, and not ‘only one’. But I soon realised that, in fact, an in-house legal department also has many different clients – all the company’s other departments!

I believe that as an in-house lawyer it is very important to be involved with the strategy, the company’s business: you cannot be unaware of the core business units and interlinked functions. The legal department’s decisions affect the entire company: our shareholders, providers, employees, and community. Our mission is to provide high quality services – with high ethical standards – in order to contribute to the accomplishment of the corporate mission and the company’s objectives as well.

If we compare women’s progress in the legal industry, we can see that the situation is the same in different countries. In the majority of cases, the positions of equity partner and managing partner are held by men. Is this a coincidence? Absolutely not.

Put simply, the ‘rules’ have been made by men: that is the reason why most of the top positions are occupied by them. I strongly believe that had those rules been established by women (or, at the very least, in consultation with women), the reality would be different.

For me, it is very important that men and women work together in order to achieve gender equality in organisations. But how can this be done? First, review your hiring and promotion process; second, train your lawyers regarding unconscious bias and stereotypes in the legal profession; third, empower your women lawyers; and, finally, always review whether the conditions for men and women are both equitable and equal. This last one is very important because, while the aim of equality is to promote fairness, it really only works when everyone is starting from the same place (equity).

In the case of in-house lawyers, you do see more women in leading positions (e.g. legal director, general counsel) than you do in private practice, however there is still much to be done before there is true gender equality and representation. The individual challenges might be different, but, in essence, we are all supporting the same cause. We are all working to obtain equitable conditions for women in the workplace. We have to ensure that not all the leadership positions are for men. And we must always remember that, just because we do not see women in those positions that there are not talented women lawyers. It means the system is broken, and needs to be fixed. We have to empower women and make visible our capabilities. We must take action.

In my career, I have faced the challenges that most women have – not only because I am a woman, but also because I am a mother of two wonderful children. I got through those challenges with work, work, and more work.

“I feel a responsibility as a woman to help other women reach their full potential and progress in their careers.”

I am also lucky because my husband and my family have always supported my decisions and my career. In addition, my company and my colleagues really do believe that businesses with gender-balanced teams do better, not only for company results, but because it is the right thing to do.

Working in a global company such as Sodexo has given me several opportunities to grow and develop my career in many areas, not just in legal. For example, a few years ago I joined Sodexo’s leadership programme for women, based on development opportunities for women in senior management positions. Then I passed to the second stage of the programme: mentoring sessions.

I am also now responsible for the D&I strategy in my country. Along with other members of our D&I local committee, I work every day to reach gender balance in our company. In August 2019, we launched Sodexo’s ‘So Together Peru’, an internal network that seeks to promote the development and empowerment of women in open spaces, in which women and men participate equally to build a true culture of gender equality.

Sodexo also encourages us to volunteer with a worldwide programme (Stop Hunger) to fight hunger and malnutrition. I am the leader of this programme in Peru, and we work for a hunger-free world in three fields of intervention: support to local communities in need, women empowerment, and emergency assistance. We are convinced that providing women with better education, training, means of production, and financial resources will maximise the possibility of eradicating hunger from the world by 2030. Our commitment with Peru’s gender balance is also as a corporate citizen and this year, I was proud to receive recognition of our work from CONFIEP (The National Confederation of Private Business Institutions). This recognition motivates me to continue working on gender equity.

Beside my role at Sodexo, I am member of WIP Peru (Women in the Profession), an initiative from the Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice. I am part of the leadership committee, and this year I am a mentor in the mentoring programme. This initiative is only for women lawyers. I feel a responsibility as a woman to help other women reach their full potential and progress in their careers , but I also encourage other women in leadership positions to be role models for others.

Sodexo is strongly committed to advancing gender equality. As a world leader in quality of life services, the company fosters an open, inclusive culture where everyone can thrive. The global gender balance strategy is a key driver in ensuring that both men and women have equal access to growth and opportunities in our workplace.

Sodexo’s research shows that gender-balanced teams perform better, and so we are working globally to have women represent at least 40% of our total leadership by 2025. This goal will not be met overnight, so the company has established a specific gender strategy to help to achieve this.

Not only do we have cross-border initiatives, but we also develop many local initiatives. Last year we published an inclusive language manual that we now use in all our communications. We trained our senior management regarding unconscious bias and stereotypes and promote campaigns about gender balance. We also participate in panels, forums, and committees with other companies, and last year Sodexo Peru was considered first in the Aequales Ranking as the company with best practices promoting gender equality (category more than 1,000 employees).

Of course, multinational companies such as Sodexo that have strong D&I initiatives positively influence other companies and they set a good example. However, local leadership is very important to implement D&I initiatives and adapt them to a country’s culture. In our case, the issue of gender equity is balanced against things such as violence against women, which in our country reaches high percentages. So, while the global initiative is fundamental, local leadership is necessary to develop a D&I strategy that is aligned with the country reality.

With every day that passes, I am more convinced that we need quotas to achieve gender equality. Working to a ‘best efforts’ rule is not enough: we need quotas in order to achieve our goals. Once we have equity in leading positions, we can change our mindset, trust in a meritocratic system, and talk about equality between men and women without the need for quotas. In the legal function at Sodexo, we have a diverse team, but we are now working on developing capacities, nurturing talent, and empowering women so we can grow under the same opportunities.

It is important to always follow words with actions. While there are specific challenges faced by women in the legal industry, unfortunately gender imbalance is a global issue and one that needs to change. If I could give any advice to those women who are just starting out on their career path, it would be this: What you see as your weaknesses are your greatest strengths. It is what it makes you unique. Your youth is an opportunity to see the world with a fresh new eye. Never give up, fight for your ideas, and for what you really care about. Be ethical. This is the best gift you can give.