Zelma Acosta-Rubio

General counsel and secretary to the Board, Interbank; chief diversity and inclusion officer, Grupo Intercorp

I would like to say that my move from private practice to an in-house role was a carefully thought out decision; but, as with most things in life, it was simply an opportunity that presented itself at the right time and where all the conditions were there for me to step in and thrive. The decision was not so much to go in-house – it was more about the challenge to build a modern, innovative legal team profile in a Peruvian bank that was already at the forefront of redefining banking services in Peru.

When it was privatised in 1994, Interbank’s revised value proposition focused on convenience, speed, and service. It was the first bank to establish financial stores operating seven days a week (9am–9pm) at supermarkets. It built a large distribution network, owned the largest out-of-branch ATM network, and redesigned its financial stores with a human-centric approach. By 2010, data mining and scoring had evolved, and the bank moved from product offerings to customised financial services solutions based on deep knowledge of clients’ needs. The challenge for the legal team was to modernise the way legal services were delivered. Speed was key.

When I joined Interbank in 2007, we renewed about 40% of the legal team and set ourselves a vision: ‘to unlock value for corporate strategy’. In terms of speed, that meant working closely with cross-functional teams from the outset in order to design timely solutions with strategic value. Thus, all our lawyers were required to develop business, strategic, and financial acumen to ensure the legal function’s strategic alignment with the rest of the organisation; and to understand Interbank’s strategic intent and be able to articulate our internal clients’ business plans and KPIs. We launched (and continue to run) meet-ups and workshops to instil these new skills and develop a strategic mindset across the entire team. For me it is imperative that, as an in-house team, you have a deep understanding of your company’s strategic intent, and make strategic decisions when dealing with legal risks. You are not just acting in an advisory capacity; you need to own your recommendations and decisions and understand the value proposition as if you were responsible for the P&L.

When I started my first job in New York, I was hired as a foreign associate and had a front row seat learning about power dynamics in private practice. I worked in the financial services practice – an area that was 100% dominated by men, and where women struggled with late nights and family commitments. By the time I got to London a year later, I had made the decision to focus on work, and maybe – just maybe – have a family later. While London was a bit more cosmopolitan, and a bit more inclusive, the hours were still very long and it was still highly competitive. I made a conscious choice to get ahead by playing on my strengths: my knowledge of civil and common law, my pitching skills, and Latin America’s privatisation wave. I was 28 years old and originating deals in Latam, which was unusual for a young associate.

When I moved in-house to Interbank, it was a very different experience, not only because it was a move to an in-house role, but because it was in Peru. However, there was one factor that remained the same, and that was the nicely packed set of stereotypes and unconscious bias in the workplace that help to perpetuate and hold together the dynamics of power. What I observed was a strong underlying assumption of ‘women take care’ vs ‘men take charge’ as a shared belief by men and women alike. This was not only in Interbank, but across the corporate sector in general. And it applies equally to private practice. This, I believe, is the biggest barrier to true gender equality.

“As our research progressed, we realised that it was strategically important for us to accelerate diversity and inclusion.”

In private practice, I think the focus on hourly billing is particularly troublesome; the lack of flexible working arrangements and the penalties women endure for taking maternity leave set them back on their path to attaining partnership. Working in-house is not necessarily better. Stereotypes and unconscious bias are still present; however, what we do see is more and more corporates taking decisive action towards diversity and inclusion, which of course benefits the entire organisation. At Interbank, for example, we share with our panel law firms our diversity and inclusion initiatives, and will be asking them for their data, policies, and accountability for diversity and inclusion in the teams we work with. We also push our firms to give us more women as contacts, especially because firm relationship management has typically been a space reserved for male senior partners.

Alongside my role as GC, I also hold the position of board secretary. I realised I wanted to learn more about diversity in the boardroom. And so I asked for Interbank’s data. In 2012, overall female representation at Interbank was 58%, with 44% C-suite female executives. On the surface this looked to be a good balance. But when we delved more deeply into the data, we learned that female representation reduced to 38% (supervisor), 34% (deputy manager), and 11% (manager). This showed us that we had a significant pipeline issue. It was at this point that I ‘dug my heels in’ and decided to figure out the why, the how, and the what of diversity and inclusion for Grupo Intercorp. We started by asking the following question to large groups of women in several of our Group companies: what are the main reasons that prevent women’s development and keeps them from attaining higher positions? Is it a matter of skill sets, lifestyle, or confidence?

We then asked the following, more in-depth questions:

Skill sets

  • Do women have different skill sets than men?
  • If so, are these differences a key element that will advance a man’s career to the detriment of a woman’s?


  • For you, what is a normal day?
  • Does being married or single make a difference? Why?
  • Is being a mum an obstacle to career advancement? Why?


  • Are men more confident?
  • Is lack of confidence a barrier for women’s career advancement?

As our research progressed, we realised that it was strategically important for us to accelerate diversity and inclusion, and to build on the collective learnings across Grupo Intercorp. In December 2018, the role of chief diversity and inclusion officer was created, as was a Diversity Board, and we have made significant progress since then.

All Group company boards now have approved D&I policies and guidelines and accompanying action plans. We determined to set internal targets by the end of 2019. The policies recognise diversity as a value and inclusion as a leadership trait. The guidelines for 2019 were, first, to prioritise three tracks: (i) attraction, selection, retention, and advancement of women in the organisation, (ii) work-life balance, and (iii) zero tolerance of sexual harassment; and, second, to educate on and build awareness of stereotypes and unconscious bias. All our Group companies prioritise the same three tracks, though some may decide to take on additional ones depending on their own demographics. We also continue to participate in Ranking Par, Latin America’s first-ever gender equality ranking.

We hire for competence and hold interviews with structured and diverse panels. I am also a full supporter of female-led law firms. In the past two years, I have retained (+3) and recommended female lawyers who have set up their own individual legal boutiques. These are women who left the larger firms because they wanted to own their time and deliver results.

Internally, I make sure women get stretch assignments and I expose them to senior leaders across the organisation. I lead by example by engaging in the conversation, making a point of bringing people’s views forward, and being explicit about being equal in our differences.

My commitment to promoting gender equality in the legal industry extends beyond my roles at Grupo Intercorp and Interbank. In 2016, together with ten other lawyers, I formed Women in the Legal Profession (WIP) Peru, an initiative borne from the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice for the empowerment of women in the legal profession. At WIP-Peru, we focus on five tracks:

“The advice I would give to any woman wanting to get ahead in the legal industry is this: play to your strengths. Understand complexity. Always negotiate your salary. ”
  • Design and divulge guidelines for the selection, promotion, and retention of female lawyers;
  • Develop leadership skills for female lawyers (workshops);
  • Actively commit to have female lawyer representation at public events;
  • Run mentoring programmes;
  • Measure best practices and progress.

As part of WIP-Peru, and as GC of Interbank, I promote direct conversations with law firms around diversity and inclusion matters. I encourage them to adopt guidelines for the selection, promotion, and retention of female lawyers and design D&I action plans. Of course, the question of quotas versus targets often comes up. For me, it’s about looking at the demographics, setting realistic targets for diversity, and managing expectations. Personally, I believe 40% is a nice target to start with. In some cases, though – and depending on the toxicity of the culture or the need for change – a hard quota should be placed to accelerate the inclusion of women. I want to stress, though, that in all cases you must make sure you have the best talent ‘auditioning’ for the part, whether or not there are quotas or targets in place.

Finally, the advice I would give to any woman wanting to get ahead in the legal industry is this: Play to your strengths. Understand complexity. Always negotiate your salary.