Lean In

04.03.134:45 AM ET

Beating The Boys' Club

Luiza Helena Trajano worked her way to the top of Magazine Luiza, the country’s second-largest retail chain, by tapping into the leadership skills women are taught even more than men—you can use these skills too.

I had the privilege of being born into a family of strong and enterprising women at a time when it was not common for women to work outside the home. That’s why I say I grew up in an environment that was free of prejudice, which might help explain why today I am president of Magazine Luiza, the second-largest retail chain in Brazil, leading a staff of more than 20,000.   

This is certainly not the reality for most Brazilian women in the workplace today. Women make up 45 percent of the workforce in Brazil, but as of the end of 2011, they occupied only 7.9 percent of directorial positions and 7.7 percent of the seats on the administrative boards of listed companies in Brazil, according to data from the Law and Gender Center of Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo. These statistics have remained unaltered for more than a decade, and it is an honor for me to join Sheryl Sandberg in talking openly about this problem—and helping to find a solution.  

Like Sandberg, I believe that part of the answer lies with women themselves. Prejudice certainly exists, but we must not internalize it. I am the only woman among the 40 presidents of retail chains in Brazil, and the only one on the 2016 Olympic Games Organizing Committee, but I make myself heard nonetheless.

I started working at a young age. When I was 12, I kept asking my mother for money to buy Christmas presents, and she, a forward thinker, said, “Go and work, earn the money you need.” So I started working behind the counter at the store my aunt Luiza ran with my mother and two other sisters. To this aunt, I owe not only my name, but also my first job.

Before leaving school, I worked mostly during the December holidays, the busiest time for retail shops. It was only after I enrolled in a night course in administration that I could finally start working full-time at what had by then grown into a chain of stores. 

It was a real job, and I did a bit of everything. I worked as a salesclerk, a shift supervisor, a manager, and a buyer, gaining experience no university could ever teach. I joined the sales department, where I had to compete with colleagues—all men—who would hit the clubs after work to celebrate their deals. Of course I was never asked to join them.  

Yet, not being “in the club” never intimidated or hampered me. I am passionate about what I do, and maybe that’s why I never felt inferior to men. I would even go so far as to say that the contemporary work world is geared more toward women. Today, professionals need to be able to teach, interact, educate, relate, and work in teams.  I believe women are encouraged to develop these characteristics far more than men. Women need to realize this and seize the opportunity to take the leadership roles that call on their strengths.

Of course, there is still immense pressure on women in positions of power to exercise it in a typically male fashion.  We have to overcome that outdated way of thinking, bring our femininity to leadership roles, and show that we can be just as competent—if not even more so—without resorting to conventional leadership methods, which were made by men for men. Diversity is fundamental.

Women who trust in their own power, knowledge, style, and personality can successfully resist the pressure to be like men. As Sandberg correctly points out, insecurity is an internal barrier that women must overcome if they are to get ahead in the workplace.

I was an only child and an only niece, and I often joke that the single advantage it brought me was that I developed a robust sense of self-esteem. Perhaps the fact that I never had to share my parents’ affection made me feel secure in my own abilities, to the point of being able to admit to gaps in my knowledge. I own up to my mistakes and have no problem saying, “I have to learn more about that” or “I’m not good at this.” Even in the old days, before we had this culture of permitting a little emotion in the workplace, I always let myself cry.    

It is not my intention to belittle the power of men—I merely want them to respect our power and give us their support. My husband never changed our children’s diapers, because that just wasn’t how things were done back then. But I traveled a lot, and he always helped out with the kids—they like to remind me that he took them to the doctor a lot more than I did.

No woman has any guarantee that she is bringing up her children the right way. We all know how hard it is to reconcile career and motherhood, but I don’t feel guilty for having devoted so much to my work. I believe that women should have the freedom to choose, and the choice they make does not automatically mean they will be better or worse mothers. 

It is also worth remembering that here in Brazil, where social inequality is much more extreme than in the United States, most women cannot afford the luxury of actually making that decision. Women are the main source of income in 60 percent of Brazilian working-class households. In addition to the guilt of not being home, these women have to face problems such as inefficient public transport and a shortage of day care. 

The lack of a support structure for the working mother stunts her professional development, and that is exactly what we have to combat. It is particularly difficult for low-income Brazilian women to reach certain positions. Few of them even apply for store manager jobs, or accept such promotions, because to do so would mean relocating, and their husbands don’t want to follow them.  

That’s why, at Magazine Luiza, we set up an incentive program that included psychological support for husbands. Over time, families relocating for a woman’s job became so common that the men started to help one another adapt and adjust. Today, we even see husbands looking after the house and kids while their wives manage our stores.  

Breaching this barrier was fundamental to achieving gender balance across all levels of our staff. At our company, there is no glass ceiling for women, and they earn the same as men in the same positions.

Researchers have determined that women in Brazil earn anywhere from between 13 percent (FGV) and 30 percent (OECD) less than men. Data from FGV show that only 3.9 percent of all board chairs and 3.4 percent of CEOs are women, despite the many women who are equally or even better qualified for such jobs. In Brazil, women constitute the majority of graduates and postgraduates, though this academic achievement has yet to be reflected in career achievement.    

So, besides surmounting our internal obstacles, I believe that women need to fight to correct certain external distortions. I am currently campaigning for a national quota for women on administrative boards.

Some might argue that quotas devalue an individual’s ability to climb through the ranks and are not meritocratic, but I see them as simply a temporary measure to correct a status quo of inequality that would otherwise be perpetuated for decades. And what is good for women is also good for business—various studies show that more diverse boards actually increase company profitability.

The day this gender-quota measure is approved in Brazil and is incorporated into the governance policy of our most prominent companies is the day that the doors to leadership roles will truly begin to open to women. Our time has come, and we are ready for it. 

Of course, not all women will want to be company directors or presidents, but all should aspire to being a part of the action; all should climb down off the bleachers to play in the band, instead of watching it march on by. It’s time to make that happen. 

Reprinted from the Brazilian version of Lean In.