Patricia Barbelli

Legal and corporate security director (Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay), Diageo

My decision to pursue a career in law was driven mostly by the male role model I had when I was teenager: my father. He has always shown strong passion, commitment, and energy. He was also very dedicated to his legal career, having been an executive of a large bank and a Judge for some time. I was inspired by him to also follow a career in the legal industry.

I completed my undergraduate degree in law, my postgraduate degree in contract and tax law, and then completed an MBA. Unlike a lot of lawyers, who often begin their careers in private practice, I have always worked in in-house counsel roles. I began my career as a lawyer for PepsiCo before moving to Bayer, where I was promoted to the role of senior legal manager. After six years with the company, where I was also a member of the executive team (as corporate secretary to the CEO), I became a GC for the first time at Pirelli. I then moved to Whirlpool as their legal director of Latin America. I was at Whirlpool for almost four years when I was contacted by a head hunter to speak about an interesting opportunity at Diageo.

There are many reasons why I decided to move to Diageo. The main reasons, though, were its reputation (in having strong governance, values, and compliance); its solid and remarkable brands; its leadership in the spirits industry; and, finally, its bold diversity and inclusion agenda.

For me, the role of the legal department is so much more than simply a business partner – we are a business peer. The legal department must, fundamentally, help the business to do business. At the end of the day, in-house legal teams must consider themselves as a department that helps to sell and helps to deliver the company’s goals and strategies. We are not a support function for the business. Legal is a role that thinks not only for the consumers, but also for both the stakeholders and shareholders. It is important to challenge the often-held belief that the role of the legal department is to say no! We are there to ensure legal compliance, and to find solutions, always bearing in mind the consumer, stakeholder, and shareholder interests, and to help the business to grow.

This belief is very much reflected in how my team is structured and how our work is done. My team and I typically have very intense work days, which usually involve business meetings, discussions, projects, and deliverables that link to the company’s strategy. And, of course, we are responsible for all legal matters across the business. This involves various kinds of litigation, including tax, which is a complex area of law in Brazil. Our litigation work is not limited to liability but also includes asset litigation, contract litigation, environmental law, data privacy issues, real estate, mergers and acquisitions, antitrust, brand protection, and corporate security.

I believe it is very important to emphasise the different roles men and women may (and often do) play at home and work. It is even more important to establish limits when necessary in order to support the work-life balance, for both genders. This is where we must count on mentors or leaders within companies and organisations to support diversity and inclusion initiatives. Alongside this support though, it is just as important to lead by example.

Since the beginning of my career, I’ve personally faced many challenges as a woman. But I overcame these by being professional, resilient, and by showing my commitment and capabilities. I can recall many business meetings in my career where ‘manterrupting’ and ‘mansplaining’ were commonplace. I overcame this by being respectful, while also creating a space to put across my point of view. More importantly, I stood up for myself, and was not afraid to show my points of view and capabilities.

“The role of the legal department is so much more than simply a business partner – we are a business peer.”

Some years ago, I joined the executive team of a multinational company (a more traditional business) and I was the only woman to occupy an executive position. The other executives were much more senior than me and had been working for many years for this company. In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to gain their trust, their attention, and to be included in the most important discussions, to really ‘sit at the table’. I faced challenges to build the relationships and get closer to them, but I am glad to say that they have turned into very nice colleagues… and one of them is currently my mentor!

In my opinion, the largest barrier facing women in the legal industry – and particularly in the in-house profession – is not getting women in, but the promotion of women to the top levels . This is because many companies are only starting to discuss diversity as an important issue. Unfortunately, from a practical point of view, this means that women tend only to occupy some levels in the hierarchy of organisations, and often only up to managerial level. While this is true to some extent in the corporate arena, it is especially prevalent in law firms. Senior leadership positions in companies and most partner positions in law firms are still occupied by men. Often this is because a lot of women give up their careers when they have children. This is not due to their skills, capabilities, or desire to return to work. This is, more often than not, due to the lack of flexibility from companies and law firms in helping women to continue to grow their career while also being a mother.

I certainly faced challenges when I had my daughter. Although I was lucky in that I found several supportive executives (both male and female), I was surprised at the low level of support I received from some female executives (some of whom were already mothers). It can be very tough without the right support. Taking lessons from my own experiences as a working mother I am, as much as possible, very supportive of my colleagues, my team, and other women who are pregnant or returning to work from maternity leave. I strongly believe that, as women, we must support each other because we all face similar challenges in life (in work and at home), and have the same aspirations and ambitions as men do.

With that in mind, and alongside my role leading the legal team, I also sponsor Diageo’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. This was created in order to address matters concerning women’s participation in the workplace, people with disabilities, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and support them with initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion. I am also a board member of WILL (Women in Leadership Latin America), an international organisation with chapters in São Paulo and New York and an advisory board in London. The aim of the organisation is to share best practice, aimed at closing the gender pay gap, promoting women in leadership roles, and helping organisations to establish career development programmes for women.

As a company, Diageo is very open and transparent in having conversations regarding female advancement in the legal profession. Gender equality remains a major issue in most organisations and there is still a gender gap in the vast majority of companies in Brazil. Despite the relatively slow progress in Brazil, Diageo has an impressive track record in advancing women (without having laws in place) and being a benchmark for companies in Latin America. For example, females in senior leadership positions has increased from 22% to 50% in the last two years.

If I could give one piece of advice to myself at the start of my own career, it would be to have a mentor and to make connections with a diverse range of women. It would also be to share my own experiences more, learn with other women, and count on their support. Mentorship is very important for young aspiring female leaders. Having a mentor may help the young woman to share their own experiences while learning from others’ experiences and counting on their own mentor’s support during their career.

I am fortunate in that I have had the pleasure of working with many admirable women in my teams throughout my career. Some women who joined my team in junior roles have progressed to being mothers in senior roles. I also have mentorship sessions with women who are new, or may not be on my team, to help them with their respective careers. I always try my best to teach, discuss, and give feedback to my mentees. I try to motivate them to keep focussing on both their career paths and own life aspirations, despite any challenges that they may encounter.