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Women in finance: strategy and opportunities in Brazil for 2022

There are more women in senior financial roles now that it is recognized that they get good results and in response to incentives for diversity and the adoption of an ESG agenda by large companies.

But how can we expand the number of women working in different areas of companies and train a new generation of leaders to cope with the changes and difficulties of the world of business, while also supporting and developing existing and new generation teams.

Amidst all the complications posed by the end of the pandemic, with its serious impacts on the economy and traditional ways of working, plus the start of a war between Russia and Ukraine, the M&A Community brought together the financial chiefs of Ciena, E&Y, and Natura to discuss female leadership and the challenges and opportunities for financial planning and Boards of directors for 2022.

Panel of speakers:

Alessandra Segatelli, Director of Controllership at Natura & Co 

Stania Moraes, CFO of Ciena

Paula Tashima, Capital Markets Latin-America South Leader at Ernst & Young 

The first topic was the importance modern companies place on the adoption of ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) practices and the challenges of implementing them in the face of high costs and, often, the need to change the corporate culture.

Alessandra Segatelli said that for Natura’s Board, one of the major concerns, now and always, is how to get good results while assuring sustainability. She asserted that despite the war in Europe and the economic recession generated by the pandemic, this goal is totally compatible with the adoption of ESG.

Stania Moraes reported that the companies in which she works are still focused on managing supply chain problems caused by the pandemic, with the impact on several sectors, especially telecommunications and automotive, expected to last for another 18-24 months. The upside of the current supply crisis, according to her, is that foreign investors have started to pay more attention to Latin America, with its wealth of natural and water resources, which allows the region to produce clean energy and supply essential raw materials to address sustainability issues in the medium and long term.

Paula Tashima highlighted that the financial arena is still very male, but women have been bringing a new look in terms of innovation, hospitality, and sustainability. “Everyone talks about ESG, but many people don’t know what it really means. ESG is about companies’ obligations towards society and the future. It is something that we should all pay attention to on a day-to-day basis,” said Paula.

Stania added that leaders must have commitment and set an example so that Boards can see what they do and realize that it is possible to implement good ESG practices. “Nowadays, we can finally be ourselves in leadership roles and this gives us the opportunity to help put ESG on the agenda for real. To do this we have to keep learning, widening our horizons, and keeping up to date. Governance, for example, is a constant challenge and requires better knowledge of what happens here and abroad. We also need good mentors, people who can guide others and help them to improve their skills”, explained the Ciena executive.

The adoption of ESG policies by national companies has been evolving year by year and companies have dedicated a lot of time and attention to improving their practices, mainly related to sustainability, with actions to reduce carbon emissions, save and reuse water, and energy use. They have also considered governance, with strict compliance rules.

“It is interesting to note that 10 years ago, no one knew how to implement a good governance system and the costs were extremely high. Today, most companies already have good practices as part of their culture. Now the focus is on sustainability and many are looking for ways to better measure results. However, in Brazil, a fundamental issue to be addressed is the social one, which requires more investment and effort”, explains Stania. The problem is that not all companies have enough capital to invest in the social area. “I think that one good way for a company to start is by expanding the diversity of its staff, offering equal opportunities and benefits”, added Alessandra.

For the participants, another point to address is how to improve the quality and depth of the data collected and presented to shareholders and society. “Brazilian publicly traded companies are very advanced in producing really consistent ESG reports. But many companies still can’t publish such documents due to the very high costs and, above all, the difficulty of making good social, sustainable and governance practices a real part of their culture”, as Alessandra warns.

Female leadership

During the conversation, the speakers drew attention to the fact that women are still under-represented, despite there being more women employed, and they believe that leaders in the sector have a major role to play in increasing female participation in the coming years, especially in management and strategic leadership positions.

“A recent McKinsey report on the future of work pointed to a talent shortage and impacts on mental health – with high levels of anxiety and burnout – and found that women cope better in a tough environment, supporting their teams and other leaders because they have a more holistic view of well-being. This reinforces the importance of companies continuing to invest in diversity and for us, as leaders, to pursue the wider involvement of women”, commented Alessandra.

Stania claimed that having women in charge of finances increases companies’ profits, that diversity is good for results. However, at the moment women account for only 14% of directors on company Boards, an increase of 3% compared to 2020,  a tiny gain that only emphasizes the need for more diversity.

“I work on the Furnas board, on which there are seven directors – three of them women – and I realize that it is a key platform to demonstrate the effectiveness of our presence in these organizations”, said Stania, arguing that this proves that companies are more committed to diversity. However, women in finance only make up 15% of the total workforce and there is still a need for greater empowerment to ensure that more women join, and go on to management roles.

One way of increasing the number of women in different areas is to set diversity quotas. “But a quota for women is just one of the ways to enter the market, it cannot be the only one. We aim to guarantee diversity within our team and root this issue in the company culture”, stresses Alessandra.

One curious aspect of this situation is that another recent survey by E&Y shows that companies with Boards that are at least 30% women, increase their gross margins by up to 15%. In other words, investing in diversity is good business for companies in all sectors, with proven positive impacts on their financial statements. As Rachel Maia says, “diversity is inviting people to a party and inclusion is asking them to dance.” “For this reason, we must undertake more initiatives that bring women into management”, commented Stania.

For Paula, the mission of leaders is to develop new female talent and give them support throughout their careers. This means offering equal opportunities to people of all races and genders, fostering diversity in companies, and always keeping in mind that the objective is good business results.

Ciena, for example, is developing an incentive program with schools in different communities to inform high school students about career opportunities in the fields of engineering, technology, and telecommunications. “The idea is to form a community base, with a long-term project to encourage the training of new professionals”, said Stania. It is a relevant initiative because girls need more female role models in different careers so that they can see more opportunities for them, and more examples of leaders in companies of all sectors.

The speakers also argued that companies need to identify women with leadership potential and help them develop soft skills – useful characteristics for good management, such as knowing how to deal with emotions in day to day business, having the flexibility to cope with constant changes, knowing how to manage your own time and your teams’, as well as being able to communicate with different professionals and with the market. “The market already knows that women are good executives and executors. The problem is that we are still rarely seen as leaders and being a leader requires other skills. The good news is that the market can be taught, and we, at E&Y, for example, already have a specific program and we are doing this, as are other companies”, said Paula.

The key thing is to encourage professionals to create and maintain good networks, having repeated contact with people to exchange knowledge and experiences, as well as to help them build and consolidate a good reputation in the market. “Network means knowing how to relate to people both inside and outside the company, who we can and must listen to before making decisions, people who are capable of evaluating the most varied and complex situations and advising us. We must have the courage to seek out mentors, because taking risks and accepting challenges is part of the journey, and it is easier when you have support”, emphasized Alessandra.

Another area that ambitious women need to work on is how to share knowledge and delegate efficiently. “You need to know how to delegate, but delegate in an effective way. Only those who are “hands-on” can do this. However, you have to be careful, because when a woman is too good at what she does, the company may decide to keep her in a certain position because they find it difficult to replace her. My advice is to form your teams and show that other people on the team are capable of doing the same or better than you to make your advancement possible. Don’t be too attached to functions, be more strategic and grow”, said Paula. It is essential to know how to balance operational and strategic views.

The speakers were unanimous on the need for sisterhood, with women supporting each other and encouraging each other to grow. In other words, stimulating investment in education and continuing development, inspiring young women, at the start of their careers, to seek promotion to the most senior roles. “Fortunately, today there are groups of women across various university departments who organize themselves to exchange ideas and help each other and this is very beneficial for the corporate market as a whole. Women should participate more in innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship forums and committees,” said Paula.

Another initiative discussed at the event was the creation a few years ago of the W-CFO, which aims to develop finance professionals and promote the exchange of ideas through mentoring, based on proprietary methodologies. “In W-CFO mentoring, we try to meet the needs of the woman who wants to lead with a mentor who has already lived the situation or works in a similar area, so that the process is more effective”, explained Alessandra. Joining the W-CFO is easy – you just fill out a form on the website (https://wcfobrazil.com.br/), which is then marked against the institution’s criteria.

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Finance LATAM