“Speak louder”: A Conversation with Nicole Nehme about Diversity in Chile

Nicole Nehme is an expert in the fields of competition and regulatory law, and is noted for her experience as a litigator and adviser to governments, multinationals, and international organisations. She is a leading figure in these fields and has been recognised as a star practitioner by Chambers and Partners in the competition rankings for Chile for three consecutive years.

How would you describe the legal Chilean market in terms of diversity?

We have been seeing a lot of challenges regarding this matter during the last few years in Chile. The new generations are much more open than when I started working. They are less discriminative regarding gender, race and class. But these progressive changes that we have seen take time and there are a lot of things to do in the meantime to accelerate the change. Consider that less than 10% of the partners of law firms in Chile are women, even though more than half of law graduates are.

According to the first national survey on women and work in Chile, 60.6% of women from the national urban population aged between 18 and 65 participated in the labor market in 2009. These figures show a low percentage in comparison with other Latin American countries and other members of the OECD. One of the reasons behind this is the fact that women in Chile are generally the ones in charge of caring duties, which makes women’s inclusion in the labor market difficult.

We as women should work harder to challenge certain stereotypes. Why don’t women end up in the top positions? Institutions and culture need to change. In countries like Chile, historically that has taken time. To achieve a deep cultural change we have to review this matter from a collaborative perspective, including analysing the role and involvement of the public as well the private sector.

Policies promoting the joint responsibility of parenthood, including parental leave and giving men the right to take care of their children when ill, as well as equal pay, are measures that can have a direct and very positive impact on women’s inclusion and recognition in the workplace.

What are the main aspects that need to be addressed today in Chile?

The way work is valued should change in the legal profession. We should give better opportunities to women that still have caregiving responsibilities and household obligations. These activities should be shared, but until this happens we should give women alternative ways to strike the balance between the two kinds of work.

We need to offer flexibility. Work can be done well in different places. Recognising that different people have different routines and needs allows you as an employer to get the best out of the members of your team and allows them to be as happy as possible. A team that works in a collaborative fashion gets the best out of each of its members. We need to demand alternatives that suit our needs as humans and this will allow us as a society to have more women in important roles.

In the legal field, work is still valued more by the hours you spend doing it and the time you spend in the office than on the quality or results of your work. This structure is problematic for people that need more flexibility and should also be reviewed.

What challenges did you face as a young associate?

I had to work more to show that I was capable, because I was a woman. I felt I had the need to prove to the rest of the team I was capable. I had to constantly demonstrate I was able to do the work. In a meeting, I had to show who I was to legitimize myself, my presence and my intervention in the matter I was working on. I had to do all this extra work without losing my own sense of self and identity as a woman. This required an extra effort to be very solid in my convictions and beliefs.

This an extra effort we still have to do as women and a tension we have to learn to deal with during our career. This requires a lot of energy and is still unfair.

Some women that have been successful in their career tend to forget what they experienced during this process and just remember the good parts of it. They tend to think they were able to reach these positions just because they were better than the rest. Some of this bias stems from the fact that we as humans just try to forget the most difficult parts we went through because they were painful. I don’t want to forget what I went through, so that I can keep my feet on the ground and help new generations to face this with greater awareness. I want to make these problems visible so that we can tackle them as a society and create more inclusive work places.

You are very active and ranked as a star individual by Chambers & Partners in Competition, an area of law where there are not many female lawyers. Has this ever presented a challenge?

I must say that I feel very honored by the recognition and that I see it also as a challenge in the sense of keeping my values balanced and maintaining my humility.

Sure, it presents challenges. One of the mentors I had, who I’ll never forget, was the general counsel of the telecom company VTR that trusted in our expertise as a young law firm from the very beginning. He trusted my legal credentials when I was a young woman and gave me a very big and relevant case. This was an impressive opportunity and a great challenge and boost for our firm as well. This vote of confidence he gave us was something that allowed us to showcase our work and gave us a lot of visibility in the legal market.

As women, at least in my generation, we were not raised to be admired. We were raised to be mostly loved and to do the things that made us a lovable person. I’m not saying it’s not good to be loved, of course it is. I am saying that it is not the only thing that should motivate us. Confidence should also do this, as well as belief in our own capabilities and in the work that we develop. If you are working hard and giving your best, you don’t need to be afraid of having a different opinion. In my experience, it was the fact that I wasn’t afraid of giving my opinion which enabled me to be heard.

It is much easier if you have someone that supports you and encourages you. I myself try to be that person for the people in my team. I want them to believe in themselves and not be afraid of making mistakes, whether they are men or women.

Why do we see a lower percentage of women than men in the rankings?

In the legal field, women are less recognised because, among other reasons, they get less opportunities to meet partners and therefore to work on the most interesting cases. This means less visibility for women. And there are men who make the other men in their teams more visible to the detriment of women.

I think that it is important to be really dedicated and a hard worker, but that is not enough most of the time. Having mentoring policies plays a key role here, since it can compensate for the disparities women face in the development of their careers. Comunidad Mujer, for instance, is a Chilean foundation that offers mentoring programs for women and is also focused on providing a network for executives. Some companies are already demanding diversity in the teams that advise them. Walmart Chile is a great example on this.

I think also that teamwork is a good tool to create more inclusive work spaces and a collaborative culture where all points of view are welcome. My husband, our managing partner, has always thought that this is essential for the development of women and practices this progressive approach in Chile.

Why do you think mentoring/ role models play an important role in career progression?
I had the opportunity to have a mentor who helped me develop academically, and then invited me to join Claro & Compañía, which was a great place to start my career.

In the first years of my career I felt keenly the social difficulties women faced working. During meetings, I felt like a secretary, as if my only role was to take notes. People have stereotypes. They were surprised because they were not used to listening to women in this context. During the 90s you didn’t find many women in positions of leadership in Chile. My mentor was someone who really believed in me and who was guiding and teaching me constantly. This was key in my career and I think this is key to the professional development of women today too.

Part of my work has involved being a mentor to people in whom I believe. Some are still in the firm and some have left. Over the years I have learnt how to be a mentor and how important this is for the members of our firm.

Nowadays, we are institutionalising this. We have developed a programme with objectives and a way to measure the results. We implemented this program after discussing our internal policies with our associates. This has been a very fruitful practice for us, since young people bring to the table awareness on issues like LGBT and social mobility, which are crucial. We value the voice of the members of our teams. If they feel comfortable in their workplace they are going to be able to give the best of themselves. If you don’t offer this in the workplace they will feel there are barriers. It is important to receive feedback and be open, so that you can offer the same opportunities to all.

Apart from what you just said, are there any other relevant policies you think firms should implement to develop a more diverse and inclusive work place?

I think one of the main goals is to give more client-facing opportunities to women. Female partners should be in the front row, not only before clients, but internally to associates that need to see role models. We have to be able to appreciate the work women do and the value they add to the team.

I also believe we have to be clear and transparent regarding equal pay. That has been one of our essential philosophies at FerradaNehme. Women are in general less aggressive than men when negotiating their salaries because, as I said before, most of us were educated to be liked. That is why I think firms must have a very transparent structure of payment for their employees, so that there is no doubt the salary does not contain discretionary components. The salary shouldn’t be a reward to stay longer hours in the office, it should be a recognition of the quality of the work and of the results achieved. If not, women, who are still the ones that usually handle most of the house work, have less opportunity to be recognised for their work just because they don’t stay at the office until late. When I was in Europe this year I was able to review the work remotely from my laptop. What really matters is the quality, not from where you do your work.

We live in a time where all team members see the benefits of flexibility. This means everyone can understand their colleagues need for flexibility and support each other in this sense.

This structural change should help women to show their capabilities and to be recognised by the legal practice, and society in general. Women shouldn’t be restrained by old and historic practices that were designed to evaluate the work of men, but don’t make sense in the times we live now.

How do you think Chile could achieve more equality and close the gender gap?

I believe in “the quota law”. I know there are strong opinions regarding this in Chile. Although I also believe in meritocracy, I don’t think this can be a fully true concept today. Equality is not achieved naturally. I think we have to work towards a law that demands a representative percentage of women in directories. This approach would make the issue visible and force companies to look for capable women who are not properly recognised. The law promotes a positive discrimination criteria that helps to compensate current social inequalities. This would work as a transitional law until we start seeing a structural change in society.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

As a woman I think we need to speak louder to be heard. I say it more from a symbolic point of view than literal, but it has the same value. My advice to a younger lawyer would be: speak louder and don’t be afraid of being mistaken if you have done your best.

A note from Nicole Nehme: I would like to acknowledge Rodrigo Ferrada, my husband with whom we founded FerradaNehme. He convinced me to open our own Law firm. I had never thought about that idea. Without his unconditional support and trust in me, my career would have been much more difficult. To a large extent, it was him who gave me the confidence that in my beginnings I was lacking. In the same way, he has supported the career of several other women in our firm, both lawyers and administrative, and he has also been the one who created all our rules of inclusion, equality and diversity, as well as the logics of collaborations that identify us.

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