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Profiles in Disruption: The View From Spain

December 17, 2015Catalyst’s #DisruptTheDefault campaign is a call to action for individuals and companies to make bold moves that forge meaningful change for women and men in the workplace—and the world! And our Profiles in Disruption blogs showcase how others are doing this in their lives, their companies, and their countries!

Meet: Ana José Varela-González from Spain. She serves on the board of Grupo Banco Popular and is the Chief Investment Officer at Barrié Foundation. She also chairs a software start-up, Torusware,   as well as Nasas Biotech, a biomedicine company. A Law and Business Administration graduate, Ana José earned her MBA from Columbia Business School. Fluent in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, she was the Spanish fellow for the 2015 Eisenhower Fellowship Women's Leadership Program.

What’s it like working and leading in a male-dominated culture?

Once, while working at The Boston Consulting Group, I was having a lunch meeting with a group of Portuguese clients. They were all very senior partners, and not surprisingly, all men. As I stood in the meeting room, stomach growling, I was dismayed that no one was starting to eat. Suddenly, the Chairman of the company came over to me and said, “We cannot start unless you go first.” They were trying to be respectful in the context that made sense to them.

But let’s face it: in male-dominated fields, women don’t normally find themselves in such accommodating environments as the one I found myself in that day. We often find ourselves confronting a multitude of challenges—and negotiating them with few, if any, role models to lead the way.  As Chief Investment Officer for a foundation and the youngest woman appointed to the board of a Spanish publicly traded bank, I know firsthand the difficulty in navigating unfamiliar corporate terrain. But I have also managed, despite the challenges, to maintain a fair degree of hope and success in helping my colleagues understand the value I bring to the table.

Are there certain strategies that you find are helpful in dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations?

Sometimes, I find humor can be a very good ally. If I’m in a meeting with a group of men who start making off-color jokes, and someone apologizes, I tend to say, in a joking way, "Don't worry, I am Manolito!" Manolito is a boy’s name—as if I’m calling myself “Little Joe.” It’s my way of telling them I am not so different from them and could talk like that too, if I chose to. It’s also my way of pointing out in a humorous manner that they are not being considerate.

How much progress has been made for women in Spain? Women have made tremendous inroads in Spain. Forty years ago we were not entitled to open a bank account; in recent years, women account for more than 50% of university degrees earned, and tend to score better than their male counterparts on university exams. Yet women only hold 21% of senior positions and hold just 18.2% at IBEX 35 stock-indexed companies in Spain. Moreover, there are still listed companies with no women on their boards.

What will it take to close the gender gap for women in Spain? Structural measures (childcare provisions, parental leave legislation, and quotas) are useful to close this gap, but there are also larger cultural and historic factors at play. Long working hours are common in Spain, making it very difficult for workers—both men and women—to integrate their professional and personal lives. It is especially difficult for the family caretakers, usually women. Though some women have made remarkable gains in the public and private sectors, there is still a need for many more who can serve as role models, mentors, and sponsors for young women. Sponsors are particularly important, since they can speak and provide visibility for younger women in circles that are otherwise inaccessible. Echoing the words of Catalyst, “A coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you, and a sponsor talks about you.”

I also find it important to prepare for next steps in career development. Apart from delivering results and doing the job we are in (that is the first key point, otherwise opportunities are not going to materialize), we need to think about the next steps. We need to constantly acquire new knowledge and skills. These can vary depending on the stage we are in. Usually, in early career stages, we need to hone our position-specific skills. At mid-career, we often need to nurture our management styles. And at senior levels we need to grow our business acumen and strategic capabilities, looking beyond the specific industry to the major trends in the world and their impact on businesses. We are facing major transformations in society, and we need to understand them. Changing demographics, emerging technologies, and blurring boundaries, to mention just a few, pose new challenges to our society. The digital revolution, data-driven analysis, sharing of ideas, and business globalization shape this new world and allow for a different problem-solving approach. It is essential to master these realms, especially for those in positions of responsibility. 

But delivering results and being prepared for the next step is not enough. Women need to make their achievements known, not only to supervisors, but also to other people within and outside the company. Finally, women need to make their career interests known, and to not let others make assumptions for them. Being specific about what they want, who to ask, and how to ask for it, is a much needed, but often overlooked element of career development.

There is a still a long road ahead, with many twists, turns, and possible detours, but I hope that Spanish women will continue walking forward with the same determination they have had in the past. And I hope that organizations will understand the value of having more diverse leadership teams, and the importance of developing and sponsoring talented women in their organizations. Closing gender gaps is like hiking through the countryside: initially there is no path, but if you keep at it, you discover one, and leave a trail for others to follow. 

Connect with Ana in the comments section below, and also on Linkedin and Twitter (@AnaJVarelaG).

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.