The Red Thread Foundation is proud to introduce Tania Pereira, a talented, accomplished HR professional–and dear friend of one of the Red Thread trustees. Having had the opportunity to lead Gender Balance and Diversity projects at the Global Headquarters of Nestlé in Switzerland, Tania will share with us her thoughts and experiences on how young women can create the foundations of a dynamic professional career and succeed in the corporate world.
I was born and raised in a small town in Portugal. I studied Organizational and Social Psychology at the University of Lisbon. Throughout my time at university I gained my first work experience working several part-time jobs. Upon graduating I was hired by a consulting company as a junior project manager.
I always wanted to work abroad so when the opportunity arose to work in Switzerland I didn’t hesitate. For the following six years I worked in numerous areas of Human Resources at the headquarters of two different multinational companies. My last position in Switzerland was Gender Balance and Diversity Project Lead for the Nestlé Group. This was both a challenging and very rewarding role. The accomplishments that I am most proud of are encouraging a more flexible working environment and offering better support for female employees and their families. I have recently moved to the UK as HR Manager at one of Nestlé’s biggest confectionary factories. What I enjoy the most about my work is getting to know people from all over the world, their backgrounds as well as their different experiences. It has been an enriching journey so far and I feel privileged to have had these opportunities.
RT: What are some recent trends for women in business?
On a positive note, I believe a lot has been done to support women in business and there is a growing awareness of their importance as talented leaders and as consumers with increasing purchasing power. Consequently the numbers are changing and some people have even referred to a tipping point. Nevertheless the rate of change has not gained momentum and a clear imbalance is still evident at most senior levels of organizations. This is reflected in the ratio of male to female CEOs. Many companies are still struggling to find ways to have a less masculine-driven culture and to be gender bilingual. Ultimately both men and women need to continue to work hard to truly achieve gender balance.
RT: What are the opportunities and challenges for women in corporate settings?
As a woman, the higher you go in an organization, the more visibility you will have (because there aren’t many women there in the first place). Women are seen as hard-working professionals that excel in anything they do. Their contribution can be particularly enriching in terms of communication styles and leadership behaviors. In contrast, a small number people view women “with all those complications of kids and family”. Even nowadays we still encounter some misconceptions about women’s career cycles and a lack of understanding of their wishes and needs.
Treating women differently than men isn’t the most effective answer to the majority of problems. Its disadvantages are that it singles out women and may be seen as unfair by men. My understanding is that we must strive for equal opportunities for all and demand changes in the organization or in how things are done whenever being a woman can put us at a disadvantage.
RT: How are today’s large corporations viewing women as employees? Is there a reliable business case for hiring women and promoting them into leading positions?
There is an undeniable business case for having more women in organizations. Research shows that women account for the majority of the talent pool in today’s marketplace. As managers, they lead in ways that create a positive impact on the bottom line and at home they are decision makers in household purchases. Companies who fail to see this will become less relevant and will have a rude awakening when they look at their competitors who understand the business case. Shareholders and executive boards that believe in the business case want to change the corporate picture and fast. So, why is change slow? It is easier to preserve status quo than to actually change. And some of these changes need to be structural and challenge some deep rooted believes and thoughts. I’m skeptical of companies that change overnight because that can be mainly “window dressing”.
RT: How can having an international background propel a woman in her corporate career? What is your experience on this issue, given the fact that you work for a large multinational, and yourself are a manager with an international background?
In an increasingly global economy people who have experience with different cultures and ways of working are clearly at an advantage. In some instances, having international experience is a prerequisite for senior management positions. On a more personal level having worked in three different countries has made me grow as an individual and increased my understanding and appreciation of cultural differences. However, working abroad also means making a few sacrifices, in particular being away from family and friends. That’s not easy and family reasons are generally the most common cause for returning home. Making an international assignment successful requires persistence, willingness to learn and flexibility. However, if this is not your cup of tea, there are other ways to get this essential international experience such as working in a virtual team with people from different countries, travelling for longer-term business trips, connecting with the expat community in your town, etc.
RT: As compared to men, women tend to suffer from weak professional networks and poor access to sponsorship/mentorship by senior staff. What tips can you give women facing this challenge? What resources are available?
Research has shown that having strong professional networks has a positive impact on performance and career prospects. Furthermore it is argued that women are generally less keen than men to network. I believe that part of it has to do with the negative image women have of networking. When we think of networking we think of men smoking cigars playing golf. It’s associated with organizational politics, power, overt ambition and that tends to put women off. In reality, networking is about maintaining relationships with key people with the objective of mutually sharing information and ones experience that will lead to improved performance and career enhancement. Demystifying networking is the first step to improving your networks. You will probably see that you already do network but never called it that. Afterwards, networking can take the shape you want it to. It doesn’t have to be over a game of golf. There are no strict rules, so network in your own way and at your own pace. Finally, examine how your networks help you achieve your goals and ask yourself are there any gaps? With extensive networks in place, some senior leaders, especially the ones you turn to more often for advice, will naturally slot into the roles of mentors and sponsors.
RT: What skills should a young woman focus on developing to help build her career?
In the corporate world, as in many other areas of life, the most important skill to have is self-confidence. Believing in yourself will make others believe in you and your projects. From my experience this comes easier to men than women. It’s probably rooted in the fact that boys since an early age are more competitive and tend to boast– and this can often be mistaken with self confidence. Women generally tend to steer away from those behaviors. Self confidence is not taught, it’s a skill only mastered through experience. To get this experience it is necessary to step outside your comfort zone – some examples are taking charge of responsibilities you normally wouldn’t have, defending an idea in public, speaking to a large audience. Just remember, doing things outside your comfort zone will involve a certain degree of risk – sometimes it will go well, sometimes not so well. So, if things don’t go to plan, learn from it and move on. Be positive and persistent, next time things will go even better.
RT: What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self?
The advice I would give my 20 year old self is the same advice I would give any young woman and that remains relevant throughout life. Believe in your dreams and in yourself. You will encounter people who will try to discourage you from pursuing your dreams. Don’t listen to them. You can do absolutely anything that you put your mind to. Don’t give up and know that things will take effort and hard work to achieve. And last of all, have lots of fun! Do what you love and love what you do. My personal mantra is: if I have to work for the most part of the day, might as well have lots of fun doing it!
Now, the only catch is that I know that when I was 20 years-old I didn’t listen to anyone’s advice…