Valéria Schmitke, Regional general counsel, Zurich Latin America; co-founder and president of Idis

Valéria Schmitke is co-founder and president of Idis, an institute to develop diversity and inclusion in the Brazilian insurance sector. She discusses the personal importance she places on creating a legacy of diversity and inclusion.

Three years ago, I was discussing how the insurance sector was behind in terms of D&I with three company lawyers who were senior managers in legal departments (Ana Paula de Almeida Santos and Vera Carvalho Pinto). We decided to create Idis, an institute to improve that, so we gathered some volunteers, and we work on awareness, we do events and training and we help companies to implement their D&I programs.

Nowadays, we work across five pillars: gender, focusing on women; LGBTQIA+; race and ethnicity; generations, focusing on people above 50; and people with disabilities. All the leaders have experience in that area of diversity.

But I want to create a pillar about other areas of diversity, as well. We work a lot on the traditional pillars for D&I because we still have a lot to do. But there are many other biases that people have, and we need to at least make them aware that this can prevent some people truly contributing to the company. For example, I talk a lot nowadays about ‘fat phobia’, because some companies don’t hire overweight people. They think they are slow, or they are lazy. But actually, when we do very intellectual work, such as in financial markets, we are not running a marathon!

Finding your cause

We now have 35 volunteers, and the companies sponsor us. It has been quite a journey – very rewarding. I believe in voluntary work because it’s important to dedicate yourself to something bigger. It’s not about forcing anyone to engage in any voluntary work – I always say, for example, if the company had a program of “let’s do exercise, let’s go biking”, I would not engage in that because it’s not my cup of tea, it’s not what sparkles for me. What makes me willing to engage is D&I or social responsibility or environmental issues. This sparkles for me. If the company offers employees some possibilities for voluntary work, this creates more loyalty to the company, because even if I receive an offer from another company, I will not go because I will lose that part of my life that is important to me.

For my personal development it has also been great because I am learning to lead by influence, not by power. My team knows (even though I don’t tell them) that I will evaluate them and I can dismiss them. But when you lead an organization of volunteers, it’s all about influencing, recognition and supporting. For me personally it has been quite a journey. All of them are very much engaged and I’m proud of this thing – it’s probably the best thing I ever had in my life.

We all went to law school searching for Justice with a capital J, and D&I for me is a matter of Justice more than anything, and of respect. I think legal departments have a key role in diversity and inclusion, because we search for Justice.

Influence in action

Secondly, we are consulted about everything, including internal policies. When you are looking at a hiring policy for example, you can influence to have more rules about D&I. I’ll give you an example. If you are hiring a new lawyer, you can ask for résumés of both genders. I’m not saying that you must hire a woman, but at least you have to interview a woman. And you can try to have blind interviews, not knowing if it’s a woman or a man. When interviewing someone, I try to not open the camera – I say let’s talk by phone, because then I will not look at the person. If the person is good-looking or not good-looking, if they are black or white, I will not see.

Everybody has biases. Everybody. So, first of all, we need to be aware of our biases, and secondly, we need to try to avoid our biases. I was talking with a general counsel before the pandemic and there was a very important congress in that country, where it was a form of recognition to send someone to participate in the congress. I said to him, “What about this lady?” And he said to me, “Oh no, she has a baby, I think she won’t go, even if I give her this recognition.” And I said, “Did you ask her?” “No, I didn’t.” “So you ask her. Because whether she will go and leave the baby at home, or go and take the baby with her, it’s her decision, not yours. So if she deserves to receive this recognition, the mere fact that she has a baby is not something you need to take into account.”

We need to be vigilant. This is the point. If you are in a meeting and someone cracks a joke or makes a comment that’s offensive to any person – even if there is no one of that group there in the meeting – you need to point it out. You need to educate people. This is something that has changed over time and, I must tell you, for me it has been a journey as well. Many years ago, I would not be concerned about that. But now, I am a different person.

What corporate lawyers, more than anyone, need to be conscious of, is that we are not there to be popular. We are not there to be friends of everybody. We are there to be the annoying person that tells the truth. We need to point it out when someone is wrong, when they are going down a path that’s not the correct one. It’s our mission, including about D&I. It’s not only about law, it’s about ethics – and D&I is part of ethics.

Closing the gap

In Brazil we have economic inequality which is very much connected to ethnicity. Brazil was the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery and even nowadays, in Brazil, to be Black is almost to be poor. So, when you have a proactive action to have more Black people in your company, you need to close the gap. You don’t demand a first-league university, you don’t demand English is used, you don’t demand the full package in terms of knowledge. You need to hire people and close the gap.

It’s the same for people with disabilities. In Brazil, there is a law requiring companies to have a percentage of their employees with disabilities, and the spirit of the law is that the companies help to close the gap of those people – sometimes, perhaps, they could not go to a particular school for example. So, the company will hire them and give training to them. But, often, the companies are not so eager to do that. But big companies have a responsibility, and legal departments have to influence in this direction.

If I can work 10 years more in diversity and inclusion, I will work. I believe this will be my legacy. More than making money and have wealth, I need to leave something behind. I will be happy when 56% of all people in companies in Brazil, including senior management, are Black people. I will be happy when 50% of the senior management of companies are women. And I will be very happy when an LGBT person does not have to hide their sexual orientation, because then we will have a truly respectful environment. I will be happy if a person above 60 is still valued as a good asset to the company, who can contribute with their experience. I will be happy if companies truly develop people with disabilities. 15 years ago, I was at another company, and I had a deaf person in my team. But I was not prepared, I was not trained to deal with that person. I was not taught sign language, nothing. I didn’t know how to manage that person. I believe that companies have to train managers how to deal with people with disabilities.

Paying gratitude forward

So, we have a long way to go. I know during my lifetime this won’t change. But I have the dream of developing at least my sector, the insurance sector, a little bit. Nobody in university has ever said, ‘I will work for an insurance company!’ But insurance is very challenging, you get to know qualified people, it’s a good work environment, and I would like to make the insurance sector more attractive to young people. So they look at the insurance sector and say, ‘Look how many good things they are doing in terms of D&I, the environment, wellbeing, and other initiatives. I would like to work for the insurance sector.’ I am very grateful to the insurance sector. I have had many opportunities in it, and I want to leave something good behind to the sector.