When I immigrated to Canada 18 years ago, my South American university degree was of no value to the Canadian market – the firms in Canada wanted Canadian experience. Thankfully, I managed to get into a small boutique firm and from there a bigger firm. When I entered Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, everyone had graduated from the University of Vancouver – and most of them were men. There weren’t many women lawyers in general, but even more scarce were female lawyers from the international jurisdiction. At that time, I was quite ‘exotic.’ Not only was I an immigrant, I was a woman, and not being the same as everyone was a challenge. I started at Fasken as an associate who spoke two languages and who also had two master’s degrees. Despite my high level of education, the first thing I encountered was people telling me ‘oh good, you speak two languages – so you’re the translator’. And I accepted this, thinking that it wasn’t too bad as an immigrant, as a woman, and as someone who didn’t have the same social exposure as my colleagues. I had to prove myself twice as much.
I gravitated towards corporate law because I liked trying to figure out how to make a difference with respect to how society is impacted by corporations. I’ve also had a keen interest in international human rights law since I graduated, and in my current role at Ecopetrol, I’m lucky that both of those aspects of law combine. I’m leading initiatives related not only to corporate governance but also to corporate communications and corporate responsibility. The latter looks at the standards to which the company complies and this includes going the extra mile – it’s more than revenue, it’s about being a good corporate citizen. In that area, we also look at a lot of human rights matters.
The role I have relates to both consumers and stakeholders of the company. This is where the idea of corporate responsibility comes in; we need to look at the standards that must be applied. Ecopetrol, with its 22 affiliate companies, is trying very hard to modernise, especially in relation to the politics of gender diversity and inclusion. Our goal is to find a common denominator within all our companies with respect to diversity and empowering different groups, including women. We’re partly a state-owned enterprise and this is a great thing because the government that’s in office right now is very strongly orientated to gender diversity. You can see this in the government’s cabinet, its politics, its vice president, and its first lady. So, not only do we, as a company, follow and implement what our government is doing, it also allows us a head start with diversity-based initiatives that we decide to implement at a corporate level.
We have two different levels in our company: operational and corporate. The operational level includes women who are working in the oil fields, the corporate level includes the actual recruitment process, but both levels empower women. I travelled to an oil field where I came to witness two very interesting examples of how we were hiring women. The first was an initiative where we are building a solar plant: there are many communities that are looking for jobs because right now there’s a blockage and our economy is suffering. So, Ecopetrol directly responded by hiring a group of women, some of whom had never had a job before, to work on this solar plant. We found that when we looked at the population of women working there, many of them were heads of their families – the breadwinners – despite never having had a job before. What we’re trying to do is find ways to provide jobs for those women while acknowledging that this is not common in a country where men are usually the breadwinners. We’re trying to find ways to educate these women and provide them with technical skills so that they can work on additional projects.
I discovered the second example when I began to talk to with some of the other managers in that region: the area where they were hiring women the most was in security personnel. My first thought was that if you were going to hire women in the middle of the night for security, they might not be as strong as their male counterparts if, for example, someone was to steal something. Actually, it’s been going very well. These women feel empowered, and are extremely vigilant. Despite historically being in a very male-domiated industry, we’ve found our women excel at these traditionally masculine roles. It’s a matter of being open-minded about business operations.
At a corporate level, there are six diversity initiatives that are being built and implemented right now, and for all of them we use both a top-down and bottom-up approach. The current board of directors is very keen and sensitive towards these initiatives and it understands that you get much more value with a diverse workforce. This can be seen in our recruitment process. Potential future employees are told why diversity and inclusion is important, why there is value in looking at everyone’s CVs, and the importance of not having unconscious bias towards women. One of our aims is to educate and eradicate this bias. For all our recruitment processes we require that for every three candidates, one of them must be a woman. Obviously, you cannot hire a woman just because of her gender – you have to make sure that she has the skills, merit, and will. However, it is about giving women that initial opportunity.
There’s a specific initiative at Ecopetrol that addresses how to prevent gender-based violence. This becomes really important when you get women in at an operational level and you have that traditional male role destroyed. One of the first practical steps we took was to build another bathroom and lockers for the women. Most of the operations only had male bathrooms and no places to change your clothes because women had never worked there. But now you’ll find not only bathrooms but lockers and changing rooms for both men and women. This is a huge thing, because no matter how many laws you put in place, if you don’t have the right operational set up for women, it’s never going to be realistically implemented.
Ecopetrol is taking action to address the gender pay gap. Rather than do things intuitively and assume that we are doing a really good job, we look at the statistics. We have looked at women at different regional, operational, and corporate levels in relation to their job description. We looked at how we valued each job description and then came to a conclusion on how much each particular job should be paid in comparison with another. We then matched the salary directly to the job description, without regard to gender.
We also have general regulation that includes ideas stemming from #MeToo. We have a Code of Ethics that everyone abides by, from the board of directors down to every single worker. Where there is inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment, Ecopetrol has many ways of addressing that. You can file an anonymous complaint which will be investigated until we find a resolution. We have special areas where you can speak about such matters without having to file a complaint, if you’re uncomfortable with that. We tell everyone that nothing is too small to merit a conversation. We have an ethics line, for women and men, where you can talk in confidence.
There has been a lot of action taken by the government itself. A lot of women in leadership positions have been given the same power as men and have made a very strong stance. However, I think that the most valuable way to change these traditional gender roles is to empower women: women must change their mind set with respect to who they think are, what they can actually do, and what they can truly ask for. I was at a public speaking engagement about international arbitration, and there were a lot of women in attendance. Having worked in this for the last 18 years, I have come to know that one of the myths surrounding it is that to get into international arbitration, you must be part of a very small club-like network. One of the women asked me how I managed to get into the ‘club of international arbitration’ as a woman? I turned the question on her and asked how many of the women had written an article on international arbitration or anything related to it in the last three years. Not one woman raised her hand. I then asked how many women had actually tried to apply or gotten into the international arbitration chamber of commerce; again, no hands were raised.
What I told them was that we know that being a woman is sometimes difficult and we need to work our way through with more effort than men. But, if we are not strong enough, do not take chances, and don’t do things for ourselves then we cannot expect things to change. That’s step one. Step two is sponsorship. There are excellent mentors out there, and you need other women to champion you so that you can be brave and take these chances. You need to apply to that job, write that article, speak publicly – and not be apprehensive about it. If you don’t do this, it is going to be difficult to move ahead.
I have a great female mentor in Canada who told me it was never going to be easy and that there was always going be an imbalance, but as a woman you need to make that a safe and healthy imbalance. Sometimes you might have to travel and miss time with your family, but you can make that up next week. That teaches you to get rid of guilt. That’s another problem that women face – we feel guilty about everything we do! Once a month, I have informal dinners with executives and professional women in the Colombian industry. We have so many different conversations: you’ll find out if someone is looking for another job, or if someone is asking about the strategy on topic X. It’s a very informal network where anything can happen. You don’t realise that women are going through exactly the same issues as you if you don’t talk to each other, and that’s very common. Many of us have the same issues; we just forget to talk to each other. It’s also very refreshing when you find men who understand these issues and why they matter. I had a male mentor in Canada, when things were a lot more difficult for me because I was younger. I’ve never met anyone who was so generous and who took the time to be brutally honest with me. They’re out there; you just have to ask!
I am a lawyer and I am also an ambitious woman. But before having children, I was afraid of having them. This wasn’t because I was unclear of what I wanted, but because of the bias I knew I would face from people. For me, the first key to success is finding the right partner who will support you. If you don’t have a partner who supports you, it doesn’t matter how many mentors you have, or how many other women want to help you. It all starts at home. If it wasn’t for my husband, I would not have been able to work in such a demanding and fast- paced law firm or take on a leadership role at Ecopetrol.
When it comes to women with families or women about to have children, in Colombia we have 18 legal weeks of maternity leave. This is incredibly insufficient. And the expense of giving birth in Latin America is very high when compared to other nations. Companies need to find ways to provide better benefits to women when they’re on maternity or raising a child without making it too expensive. At Ecopetrol, we have looked very closely at our maternity policy. While it is currently extended to a little longer than 18 weeks, we are looking to see how this can be extended further, because it will benefit women greatly. In Colombian cities, breastfeeding has almost disappeared because it is very tough to breastfeed when you’re working. We have maternity spaces in our buildings and regions for our female employees to breastfeed, but there’s still such a long way to go. What is important is that we lead as a company and we are modernising: we want to do this. I am very proud to work for a company that takes women’s issues so seriously.