Leadership & People
Opinion Article
May 27, 2021

"Woman": Is it a label in the Portuguese enterprise?

Let us dare to challenge ourselves so we are not victims of our prejudices, and let us dare to challenge our organizations and our ecosystem, so that, in the near future, “Woman” is not a label.

I have always thought that women were extraordinary. I grew up, as a professional, surrounded by women and men that I admire, and that never made me feel that being a woman gave me, in some way, a label. In fact, I never “learned” that being a woman was a disadvantage.

During the start of my career, I met and was inspired by female ‘role models’: determined women, CEO of companies (like my mentor) and CEO of families (like my mother); intelligent women who play cards in science (and who become consultants to the President of the Republic of Portugal); promising women (who start businesses from scratch and enter the World Economic Forum's list of under the 40s); empathetic women (Directors of Human Resources of Consulting firm or listed companies in Portugal and International brand managers); dynamic women (engineers who write books and teachers who make their students believe that anything is possible) and courageous women (who leave their country to revolutionize DNA research in Canada).

I was also inspired by male role models: who, when it comes to this theme, showed me that being a woman adds value, that diverse teams are more effective and that regardless of gender (and in my case, age), my ideas are valid and, therefore, I must feel confident to share them and challenge current models. In fact, I was (and am) lucky. However, this is far from being the corporate reality in Portugal, and in the world. And it is precisely for this reason that today, I write about what I learned (and continue to learn), to grow as a woman and a professional without fear of labels.

I write about how I believe I can contribute to organizations that are more aware of “systemic bias” and how to reduce them. Therefore, I leave you with an honest reflection, inspired by the theme of the 2021 campaign for Women's Day (#choosetochallenge) and my perception as a young woman at the beginning of her career, so that we never forget that change is born out of challenges:

1. It is urgent to educate and learn.

I read recently (in relation to a study carried out in the United Kingdom), that about two thirds of men believe that women today have equal opportunities. Let me bring you some data: if we continue at this rate, it will only be 99.5 years from now that we will live in a society with gender equality - which means that if nothing is done, we will never live in a world in which women and men have access to the same opportunities, responsibilities and rights. Only one in four managers (across all sectors) are women (I recall that women represent more than half of the world population).

I understand that the current world, completely polarized, may have added fatigue to the theme of feminism, but, even though we are facing remarkable progress, there is much to be done. Caroline Criado Peréz wrote in her book “Invisible Women” about how, in the 21st century, we leave more than half of our population “invisible”.

The author argues that we continue to live in a world designed for men: women are more likely to have wrong medical diagnoses since, in medical studies, mostly male patients are included (for example, in the UK, it is 50% more likely that the heart attack diagnosis is incorrect if the patient is female); the most common smartphones (5.5 inches) are usually too big for a woman's hand; only 25% of the Silicon Valley business population is women and only 7% of venture capital partners are women (interestingly, only 3% of investment in startups is attributed to women).

The examples continue and the lack of data on (I mention again), more than half of our population, does not allow us to clearly identify what is cause and what is consequence. In any case, it becomes clear that we need to reverse this situation. Our preconceived ideas are so ingrained in our society and education (“systemic bias”), that even we, women, are bound by certain standards. In fact, 43% of women believe that men are better leaders and policy makers. Let’s try to learn more about the topic.

Knowing and understanding are two different concepts that we tend to confuse. Let us try to understand and educate. I believe that education is “the most powerful weapon to change the world”: it starts at home (demystifying those that we assume to be “boy and girl” dreams and choices), goes through schools (with equal opportunity without a “label”) and continues in organizations (from recruitment to training).

These stereotypes, rooted for centuries, do not disappear in a few months. In fact, studies by Harvard Business Review demonstrate that the current diversity and training programs are the first step in training but do not lead to organizational change. We need companies to ensure that recruitment is done based on a diverse pool of candidates and that we recruit by qualification and not by gender (whether female or male). We need more mentoring programs that will lead us to generate systemic changes. We need to distinguish diversity from inclusion ("diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance" - we need more women in this dance). It is urgent to educate and learn.

2. Do not try to reduce differences but to enhance them.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel, at the Lisbon Investment Summit, with three women that I admire a lot (founders of startups and internationally recognized).

The three were completely different, and that was the secret of their success. They were comfortable in their own skin. They assumed their vulnerabilities and were resilient. They knew how to make mistakes and try again (faster and better). Above all, they did not try to reduce their differences but rather to enhance them.

We assume that, to be successful in leadership, we have to be more “aggressive”, dress less feminine, be less empathetic. If men are in the top positions, they must be doing something well, why don't women do similar?

In my view, this is not the correct approach. All of us (men and women), have to learn to be empathetic while giving feedback while being clear and assertive, we can lead without “aggressiveness” and reach our goals by fulfilling all the metrics and, even though many companies have dress codes, we don’t need to wear black to a meeting to mark our position.

I would also like to leave a note on this topic. This perception does not only exist from men to women. We, women, often have the same prejudices. At the same event I attended, I was part of a workshop (available in Portugal for all those who want to register) - the #IAmRemarkable. Studies show that women and men suffer from prejudices that do not allow us to move towards a truly inclusive business world. This workshop seeks (based on hard data) to promote and alert women so that we can speak openly about achievements in the work or academic environment. Despite being part of a more conscious generation, I feel that we need more female role models that inspire us (just like these three women on the panel I moderated). We need more women to be the first, without being the last. Which brings me to my next point.

3. The first cannot be the last.

In one of his speeches, Kamala Harris, vice president of the United States of America (after making history as the first black woman to enter the White House to occupy one of the highest positions in the country's politics), said: “I can be the first, but I will not be the last ”. We need more women (in all areas) to be the first, second, third - but never the last. It is enough to be attentive to the latest news to realize that many women are making history. Women who became the youngest billionaires (by their own efforts) as the founder of Bumble; scientists at the forefront of the development of the first Covid-19 vaccine; Elvira Fortunato who has received the Pessoa award and who invented transparent electronics and paper electronics; Cristina Fonseca, who is the first Portuguese woman to join the list of leaders under 40 years old at the World Economic Forum or Alyssa Carson, who at 17 aspires to be the first person to step on Mars.

These women prove that we must maintain our ambition and believe that girls and boys can be anything they want. Representativeness is essential and especially necessary in the business world. I learned that being surrounded by people who inspire us to be better, is absolutely decisive to achieve our goals and to go further. And it is exactly with this point that I conclude.

4. If the people around us are decisive for our success, to all young people in companies in Portugal: try to surround yourself with women and men who inspire you and who promote diverse teams.

During the first professional experience of my career, I learned that being surrounded by the right people is the secret to success (personal and professional). To put it more romantically: building a solid network is the key.

In my view, this means establishing a network of contacts with purposes and objectives that are, in some way, aligned with our career and personal development goals. In fact, networking has generated, generates and will continue to generate business opportunities from these contacts (from the debate of ideas to the creation of startups, from investments in projects to their implementation, from sharing of information to the discovery of job opportunities).

The most extraordinary thing? Networking can generate opportunities in the broadest sense of the word: it not only creates a match between those looking for and offering (a dynamic known in the job market), but also produces opportunities at its core (an opportunity that did not exist, but which makes sense as a result of this sharing of knowledge and skills).

This concept is not only applicable in the business world. Jim Rohn argued that we have become "the average of the five people with whom we spend most of our time". Despite considering the average a representative but reducing measure, data proves that the influence transcends the impact on our personal development, attitudes and learning. It proves that these people shape us, determine our conversations and our actions. The most recent discovery in this area multiplies this effect, by showing that we are not only influenced by the 5 people with whom we spend most of our time, but also by the people who, daily, surround us.

If we apply these conclusions to our lives, we realize that we are shaped by our personal relationships, but also by the organizations in which we work. We spend more than eight hours of our day with the people who are part of our teams. It is crucial to promote initiatives so that we can be part of diverse teams, more inclusive and built on the basis of equal opportunities. No label.

I started by realizing that I was (and am) lucky. Because my network of contacts is made up of role models (female and male) who made me realize that being a woman is extraordinary, that being a woman should never be an exclusion factor and that the ideas that I bring up table are valuable (regardless of my gender).

I finish by realizing that Portugal is lucky. Portuguese companies have many exceptional professionals (women and men), who work every day to promote equal opportunities, educate and enhance differences. Much has been done to this day, but much remains to be done. Let us dare to challenge ourselves so that we are not victims of our prejudices and let us dare to challenge our organizations and our ecosystem, so that, in the near future, “Woman” is not a label.

Mafalda Rebordão

Alumni Nova SBE, Account Manager Google

Read the original version of this article in Portuguese, ECO, here.

Mafalda Rebordão

Mafalda Rebordão

Nova SBE Alumna | Account Manager @ Google

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