To Get Women a Seat at the Table, Empower Them

Issues of gender inequality in the workplace are front and center right now as companies around the world grapple with ways to address the pay gap, promote women into leadership positions, and more generally, foster environments that fully embrace diversity and inclusion. In an effort to tackle these issues, in 2017 the Argentine law firm Marval, O’Farrell & Mairal implemented a program called Empoderar (which means “empower”), aimed at providing female lawyers of the firm with the necessary tools to thoughtfully and strategically develop their careers.

Empoderar was the result of a recognition by senior women at the firm of the need to guide female lawyers in the development of their professional careers, regardless of their seniority. Eighty lawyers participated. The program involved workshops led by coaches and psychologists that focused on key aspects of professional growth, and also included leadership discussions, conversations with successful female professionals and internal networking events.

Cecilia Mairal, one of the partners who developed Empoderar, and Agustina Ranieri, a Marval associate who participated in the program (and who was an international associate at Debevoise from 2017 to 2018), share their thoughts on the experience.

A need to take action

Cecilia: What led us to develop Empoderar is that we realized that one of our big concerns is having more women candidates in the pipeline for partnership. Currently, 60% of our professional workforce in the firm is women, but the percentage of women partners is not even close to that. So we understood that we needed to help our excellent women associates develop the skills they need to become partner. One of those skills is business development, which, because Argentina has been quite isolated from the markets and transactional work in the past ten years, has become very important.

We observed that our women lawyers tend to be incredibly hard working and responsible, and technically really very good, but they are less proactive in terms of business development. Men are often proactive in promoting all of the things that they do well, whereas women do a lot of work, but keep a lower profile. So to help our women associates develop their skills and become better self-advocates we launched the Empoderar program. We all learned a lot and we continue to work on the planning and organization of follow up activities, for which we realized there was enormous interest among our associates, both men and women.

Agustina: The Empoderar program was an inspiring and enriching experience because you could see female lawyers who had taken different approaches to their careers, all converging in an open space for discussion. What I appreciated the most was the focus on self-knowledge to improve in specific areas, and then the chance to share those insights with the rest of the participants. From a personal standpoint, before starting the program I thought that it wasn’t necessary. I have always been interested in the perspective of women in the profession, and I come from a family that educated me in equality: I grew up with a mother who was in the workforce and taking care of the family at the same time–with such success that she ended up with a 42-year career working for the Argentine national airline, and with a father who encouraged all of the women in the family in each of our endeavors.

So it was only when the program commenced that I realized how crucial it is, not only because I have learned things that I am already implementing in my career, but also because I became aware of how different women’s experiences are because of their gender. There were some women in the program who were already aware of explicit and implicit inequalities. But there were others whose different views and attitudes toward the gender gap signaled a problem that needed to be addressed, because it was clear that some women were not fully conscious of these biases. So the workshops became a space to make those inequalities and biases visible. Some stereotypes are really difficult to undo, surprisingly even for women participating in this initiative and that is a big concern. But the program created an atmosphere where we could openly talk about these matters and share our experiences, and I think that it was very healthy for all of us.

A unanimous reaction: “This should be addressed to men – not only to us!”

Agustina: I remember that one of the very first reactions from the participants–including myself–was to express that initiatives like these should also be addressed to men and not only women. The rationale behind this reaction was that we believe it is the broader context that matters, and not just the isolated experiences of women. I’m curious, Cecilia, did you anticipate this initial reaction?

Cecilia: I think there were two different sorts of reactions. One is the reaction from our female lawyers saying that when we discuss implicit bias issues, those conversations should include our male lawyers in the firm. This is something that we recognize is a concern and that we are currently discussing with the members of the board. We have created a diversity committee responsible for the things that need to be done, such as the Empoderar program, and we have also created a list of issues to be addressed in our plan for this year. Partners on the committee are aware of implicit bias and that it impacts all of us. The other thing that was a very positive surprise was that a lot of the young male professionals said “you are doing great things and we would love to participate.” So for the last few talks we invited people from the entire firm, not only women. The idea is to have gender equality activities where the discussion includes men.

Learning moments and highlights

Agustina: If I had to list the highlights of the program, they would be the following:

  • Understanding that one’s background and past experiences really matter and play an essential role in one’s career. This made me think of women who most inspired me, and men who do a great job in neutralizing gender barriers. They may not be world renowned leaders, but the people who have inspired me are the women and men from my family and my educational and working environments with whom I have had the privilege of learning and sharing everyday life experiences.
  • Identifying stereotypes and conducts that are based on bias, and recognizing that some of them are still really difficult to eradicate, even for women.
  • Discussing the three tips given by Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and COO of Facebook:
    1. Sit at the table. Women should speak up and not stay back.
    2. Don’t leave before you leave. Women shouldn’t make a hurried decision to leave the workforce because of a plan to have a family before it actually happens.
    3. Make your partner a real partner. Women should share the work at home with their partners to make it more balanced.
  • Attending lectures given by brilliant women. My favorite was Mónica Pinto, the dean of the School of Law of the University of Buenos Aires, who talked about her career and discussed gender issues that are relevant to women students, which they may not realize yet will have an impact later on in their careers.

Cecilia: One of the things we realized was that women tend to take on multiple responsibilities at the same time, and not just those related to parenting or caring for family. That’s why we sometimes don’t realize the importance of marketing one’s self, not only externally but also internally in the firm. When women do promote themselves, it’s generally in a much quieter and low profile way than many of our male colleagues. And that, in the long run, has an impact. Another thing that we realized is that women don’t tend to dedicate time to networking. It is helpful to find ways to socialize with other people in the firm and that is why one of the things that we did with this program was to hold networking and social events for the women lawyers.  It’s important that we have the support of our colleagues and that we develop alliances and bonds among ourselves.

Agustina: I see clearly that the goal of these initiatives is to have more female lawyers in leadership roles so that we can participate in making the decisions that affect us and our careers. And what we all now understand is that this program is specially aimed at women because thinking about how we can empower ourselves is the first step.