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In Focus – Women's Economic Empowerment in Brazil

(Image: Bruna Buniotto)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

When nearly 170 professional women from several sectors got together to discuss gender equality in São Paulo on March 19, the Brazilian expression dupla jornada surfaced during table discussions. The "double journey" in Brazil refers to the household chores women have to do at home after a day in the office, highlighting the fact that even successful women advancing up the corporate ladder still have trouble balancing a career with outdated social norms.

We are 50 percent of the world and mothers of the other 50 percent. So we have a mission to transform the world through our wisdom and generosity. 
—Sônia Hess de Souza
President, Dudalina S/A

Participants in the conference, “Women's Economic Empowerment in Brazil: Lessons from the Top”—AS/COA's first gender conference in São Paulo—listened to personal stories such as Sônia Hess de Souza's, whose mother raised 16 children while building Dudalina S/A, one of the largest retail corporations in the country today. "She would put kids to bed and balance the books at night," she recalled. Other leading women in business and public service such as ex-Senator Marina Silva shared their success stories and discussed how to build more opportunities for young women to reach top leadership. Between panels, table leaders moderated conversations on two career points: (1) leading in a male-dominated environment, and (2) developing a personal brand at work.

On Succeeding in Male-Dominated Environments

Even while balancing family obligations, participants agreed that women can often succeed in male-dominated environments by being ethical, multitasking, and leading by example. Jaime Ardila, General Motors' president in South America, agrees. When speaking during an event panel, he named several traits that distinguish women leaders.

At table discussions, participants also highlighted possible areas for improvement for women to make their mark: some participants noted a need to be more objective when making decisions (though Ardila attested to the contrary in his remarks) and to improve their networking, as today women may have difficulties making a positive first impression on clients. Table discussions noted that gender biases in corporations today are almost “unconscious” and affected by local culture, and that sometimes there are double standards from both genders—with men not accepting female success and women not desiring a husband who earns a lower salary, for example.

Some participants noted that the corporate world is still "hostile" to women who have children. The groups drafted strategies to break these barriers and improve female retention in the workplace, calling for a clear division of family responsibilities and work at home, as well corporate policies for both mothers and fathers to equalize differences at the workplace.

"Work is one of those slices in your pie; it's not a competing force with life.You have the choice of how to cut your pie and name your slices." 
      – Donna Hrinak,President, Boeing Brazil

For Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Brazil and former ambassador for the United States in the country, women should not think of work and personal goals as competing forces. Hrinak said that women can think of life as a "pie chart," sizing and naming slices, she explained. "You can be in stable loving relationship, with healthy high-achieving children, have a satisfying job. But what you can't do is have it all one 100 percent perfect, one 100 percent of the time, because that's called life."

How to build a personal brand at work also came up as a challenge in table discussions. While agreeing that women do not have to imitate men to succeed, participants showed concerns about being too masculine or excessively confident when building their own image. They agreed that women are easily stereotyped on a day-to-day basis, regardless of how they acted.

On Developing a Personal Brand

Table discussions reinforced the importance of believing in the image one wants to project in professional environments and said that branding should not conflict with personal values. Recognizing that Brazilian society needs to place a greater value on diversity, women at the event agreed that professionals have to invest in marketable talents. To do that, young professionals have to become more confident and learn about “personal publicity,” or self-promotion, an idea participants considered still in its infancy in Brazil.


Watch the full panels: