Vivian Liberman explains how BLP Costa Rica became a UNDP ‘Company That Promotes Gender Equality’

Vivian Liberman is a recognised banking partner at the Costa Rican office of BLP, a member of the Steering Committee of the ‘Women in the Profession’ program at the Vance Center in New York, and the founder and coordinator of the Costa Rican chapter. At BLP, besides being Co-Director of the banking practice, Vivian oversees the sustainability efforts of the law firm. In this interview, she shares with Chambers Diversity the process the firm went through in order to obtain a gender equality certificate, granted by the Costa Rican state with the support of the United Nations.
Vivian Liberman at the BLP office.

Could you give us some background on the gender equality certificate?

In order to close gender gaps in the workplace, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is helping governmental bodies to introduce a gender equality certificate for public and private institutions that have high standards of female inclusion in the workplace. As well as promoting an egalitarian working culture, the program also generates more efficient working environments and improves the individual performance of employees, not to mention their public image. The aim of the program is to increase the number of women in leadership positions and promote the involvement of women in jobs they do not traditionally occupy.

The UNDP also focuses on eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as on the usage of inclusive and non-sexist language. Since the gender equality certificate was launched in 2010, companies and institutions from 11 countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic and Peru, have received the certificate.

In Costa Rica, the endorsement is granted by The National Institute for Women in Costa Rica (INAMU), an agency of the Costa Rican government focused on promoting and protecting the rights of women. The INAMU, following the general guidelines of UNDP, recognises private and public organisations that improve the quality of their employment of women in the work force and grants them the title of ‘Company That Promotes Gender Equality.’ – a title BLP Costa Rica is delighted to hold.

What was your reason for applying for the gender equality certification programme?

Ever since the firm was founded, diversity has been a focal point. Currently, 33% of the partners on the board of directors are women and they have a strong voice when making decisions. This is very important because a diverse board means considering a variety of perspectives and experiences that reflect society´s way of thinking. Having a diverse board allows us to be a reflection of the clients and give a positive example to the market and employees in the company. Our members know that they can aspire to higher positions and that their needs are being considered. Plus, a diverse board promotes a more inclusive and sustainable pattern for hiring.

In BLP, 50.8% of the lawyers are women, among which the majority have managing positions. Correspondingly, 53% of paralegals are women. We are proud to say the firm has a woman´s perspective within all of its departments. Women are, and have always been, essential to the success the firm has in Costa Rica and Central America.

We also signed the San José declaration this year, which is a commitment by different organisations against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and in favor of the promotion of the Human Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender and inter-sex people.

Because of our commitment to the specific challenges of diversity within the legal profession, the firm decided to apply for the certificate of a ‘Company That Promotes Gender Equality’. We analysed the gender diversity gap in the firm, including some of our more successful departments, in order to diagnose areas for improvement with regards to inclusion and gender equality.

What were the firm’s internal policies like when you decided to apply for the certificate?

Since the creation of the firm, we have been implementing gender equality policies. We offer flex-time and work from home options, allowing parents to tend to their families and, at the same time, encourage their professional development. One thing that really allows for the firm’s dynamic approach in terms of our internal policies is the fact that the team is very young – they can see the benefits of flexibility, meaning they also understand their colleagues´ need for flexibility and support each other in this sense. Our employees are at a stage in life where parental leave plays a big role and, as a firm, we want to support them through this time and allow them to flourish.

The partners of our members also have careers that require dedication and need the help of the firm during this stage of their life to support their families. This is why we have also introduced flex-time and working from home as options for male employees. If we want to retain the talent of our workforce, we have to understand their needs and break down stereotypes and stigma so that both men and women feel encouraged to do their best and aspire to the highest positions in the firm. When people feel they are being understood, they show a stronger commitment to their work.
What are the requirements of the INAMU programme?

It has a number of steps: the first is to identify the internal gender gaps within the company; the second is to establish our goals and third, to implement internal policies so that the female work force has the same opportunities for professional development as their male peers.

We had to implement several internal policies in order to obtain the certificate, but all of them were mainly focused on promoting gender equality and preventing discrimination through the use of inclusive language. To achieve this we took a number of actions, including: creating a committee made up of men and women from each of the firm’s departments involved in the process; organising talks to raise awareness; carrying out surveys; creating focus groups and group interviews to find out what members of the firm thought about the diversity issue. This work required dedication from the partners.

The firm has implemented a cultural shift focusing on the importance of gender equality. Stereotypes regarding this matter are present in all sectors of society, therefore we conduct gender-neutral activities which promote equality. Furthermore, since the firm’s origin a committee in charge of establishing gender policies, formed by men and women of all the departments, was created and has implemented the necessary changes in terms of sustainability. As a firm we believe in our female lawyers’ professional development and are committed to promoting the advancement of their careers. To date, BLP has provided more financial assistance to women studying graduate courses abroad than men.

What was the main challenge you had to face during this process?

The main challenge was completely institutionalising all of the internal policies, measures, actions and new projects that we had been developing in order to promote gender equality within the firm. BLP wants to prioritise inclusion and diversity as part of the firm’s sustainable development. The female workforce is a very important part of the firm because of the key role women play in every single department. For example, we have women in departments, such as IT, which are usually dominated by men. BLP also has more women than men in management positions. This is the result of a firm that gives the same opportunities for professional development to both men and women.

What sort of response has the firm received from clients?

Clients have been impressed by our internal policies and measures. We have, for example, a mother and baby room for smaller children that need to be taken care of, which has also been used by clients when they attend meetings at our offices.

Latin America is still a region where there are entrenched gender stereotypes, so the changes we have been implementing also promoted changes in other law firms and to our clients. This means that everyone in the market will come to understand that male and female lawyers in charge of transactions make equally trustworthy partners for the clients.

What has changed in the firm since you changed these policies?

There has been a lot of awareness and involvement from the members of the firm regarding this issue. Female lawyers are a lot more aware of the benefits that working with BLP has on family life and their careers, thanks to the company culture and the specific measures we have taken to improve their everyday life and development within the profession.

By way of example, Adelina Villalobos, a managing associate, decided to change her working hours after the birth of her son. Adelina says that this adjustment has allowed her: “to continue growing professionally whilst actively participating in the most important parts of her son’s childhood.”

In a focus group to obtain the gender equity seal, one of our female workers expressed that she feels comfortable working at BLP because if her son gets sick, she can tend to him and take him to the doctor without having to go through bureaucratic obstacles. She perceives that BLP cares about balance with family life and work.

In conclusion, members of the firm are realising that our work in this field is not done to be displayed to the market, rather to retain talent and improve the lives of the firm’s members.