A story of five life defining encounters with gender balance and concrete ceilings.  #BalanceForBetter

It was in a finance class on corporate governance, where gender balance in the board room was being discussed, that I heard for the first time the term “breaking the glass ceiling”.  This concept, despite being repeated throughout the year, continued to seem foreign to me. I started to wonder if this was because of a language barrier, but I shortly realized that I couldn’t put meaning to the words, because in my home country, such type of concepts or ideas are not taught nor thought about. With the occasion of the 2019’s International Women’s Day topic #BalanceForBetter, I would like to share my personal story, which I believe is a testament of what this theme stands for and also a tale of ceiling cracking.

I was born and raised in El Salvador, a conservative male dominated society, with the highest rate of women murdered in Latin America, where sexual and physical violence against women has been normalized[1], where only 86% and 74% of girls finish primary and secondary school respectively[2] and where 1.1 million of women live in poverty[3]. To me, and to many other Salvadoran women, not being part of those statistics already feels like breaking a glass ceiling. To us, the glass ceiling is a matter of survival, a matter of safety, a matter of freedom and a matter of fundamental rights. Therefore, the corporate world’s proverbial glass ceiling feels like a concrete one to a Salvadoran woman.

In reality, women in El Salvador, only care about the “building floors” metaphor to measure their progress. This analogy captures the yearning of people, especially women, in soaring economies to earn enough to satisfy their families’ basic needs.  This notion was very much palpable in my own family. For example, my grandparents started “building floors” when they left school in the 6th grade to go to work and help their families financially. My mother was “building floors” when she made the brave decision to raise me and my brother as a single parent on a single income to safeguard us from domestic violence.

 The sturdy bedrock that my mother laid for me and my brother was made of academic, sport, linguistic, and cultural components. Despite the financial hurdles we faced, my mother always managed to give us an equal up-bringing. She believed that our gender should not determine the opportunities we had access to. So, we both went to well renowned schools, we both learned 5 languages, we were both members of our national fencing team and we both end up working as in-house lawyers of very large financial institutions in El Salvador. This was “my first meeting with gender balance”.  

The second encounter came through the sport of fencing. For 15 years, I was a member of El Salvador’s National Fencing Team. There, my coaches always treated me as an athlete rather than a woman who is an athlete. For them I was always an equal to my male teammates and they always showed me that there were no boundaries to my strength, to my power and to what I could achieve. With my professors at law school, I had my third meeting with gender balance. They were not just educators preparing us to be leaders in the legal profession, but they also helped make the structures of that profession more conducive to women’s advancement. To them, I owe my place in the legal field. 

Inspired by my mother’s insatiable efforts to provide me with a solid foundation, my coaches' nurturing of my self-confidence and my law professor’s empowerment to be bold for change, I decided to push my capabilities. I thought that the best way to do it was by studying a masters abroad in a foreign language and a prestigious school, but because I lacked financial capability, I had to wait 6 years before achieving this objective. During this time, I worked as a lawyer and had second jobs to try to save for my masters. In 2016, I braved the odds and applied to Oxford’s MSc in Law and Finance (MLF). I chose the MLF for two reasons. The first is because it helps you build economic and financial skills that complement the lawyer’s legal toolkit, and the second is because it provides a professional training relevant to any jurisdiction.

There was a great deal of people who told me that I was wasting my time, that I was not smart enough to go to Oxford, that my grades and my professional experience were also not good enough and that I was crazy for even dreaming about it. I did not take those comments as insults, instead, I chose to take them as the fuel that drove me to work for over 5 months on my application and to getting a student loan.  Efforts paid off as I got accepted and secured my funding.  I was then on track to join the 2017-2018 MLF Cohort and become one of the few Salvadorans to ever attend the University of Oxford. [GA1] 

My year at Oxford has been by far the best year of my life and the most challenging one. I arrived excited and incredulous of the opportunity that was now at my feet. The beginning was hard for me, I felt like an outcast due to the impostor syndrome and the racial slurs I heard against myself and my country. I was also struggling to adapt to the high pace of the courses and with a huge student loan to pay, I was also frantically racing through job applications.  Facing these struggles was the biggest test for me, but I worked hard to ensure I thrived. I changed my mindset, and instead, I chose to be inspired by my talented classmates, my fierce fencing teammates, my brilliant professors and all the wonders around every Oxford Corner. If I had not pushed my spirit to bloom, I think I would never have been able to create the most amazing memories, to learn the most thrilling things, to earn my Oxford Blue, to become a tutor at the Oxford Summer Schools or to even graduate.

The year I matriculated at Oxford 50.1% of the student body were women[4]. This was an extraordinary achievement, considering that Oxford only started to allow women to matriculate or graduate in the 1920’s[5]. But gender balance cannot only be measured by numbers, the most important aspect of it, is culture. In a university that has been criticized for being slow towards creating parity, I found that my professors and the MLF/ SBS staff were true disruptors who placed their efforts to change that narrative.  With simple but continuous actions, such as teaching about gender balance in the boardroom or running workshops targeted to women, they have become a catalyst to female empowerment. Their culture, focused on redefining women’s progression, gave me my fourth intersection with gender balance.

My professors at Oxford raised my aspirations to a larger scale. They reinforced my eagerness to pursue my passion for finance and make a career transition in London.  Nonetheless, I was nervous about not getting a job because of the perception that employers in the finance industry only tend to hire people like them.  As a brown woman, from a developing country, with no connections, nor work experience in a major financial hub, I was clearly at disadvantage if that bias was true. Then, Bishopsfield Capital Partners (BCP) broke the stereotype by celebrating my diversity and my individuality from the get-go. I joined them in November 2018 as an associate in the monitoring advisory services team.  At my current role, I focus on helping the investors of some of the largest infrastructure and real estate projects in Europe to make efficient and informed decisions, as well as surveilling the performance of their investment. At BCP, where there is a strong culture of mentorship, of support and of making sure that women can succeed in their careers, I found my fifth and latest encounter with gender equality.

So far, I have experienced five life defining encounters with gender balance. I recognize that I was lucky to find people in my journey who believed that I, as a woman, deserved the same support, education, empowerment and participation like a man would. But not all women can have the same luck.  With the celebration of International Women’s Day, I would like to make a collective call for action. We must all make equality our common goal, because at the end of the day, gender balance is not a matter of men versus women, it is a matter of equal opportunities and human rights.  As for me, I made it a goal that every piece that falls from the concrete ceiling I’m trying to crack, I will not just build a solid foundation for other women, but also a ladder they climb and reach their full potential.

 

 

[1] For example, the Ministry of Justice and the National (DIGESTYC for its acronym in Spanish) established that 7 out of 10 women suffers a form of violence through there life. https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/484094/siete-de-cada-diez-mujeres-sufre-violencia-en-el-salvador/

[2] https://data.unicef.org/country/slv/

[3] http://www.secretariatecnica.gob.sv/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Medici%C3%B3n-Multidimensional-de-la-Pobreza-El-Salvador.pdf and http://www.odhac.org/index.php/estadisticas/por-pais/el-salvador/322-el-salvador-poblacion-total-por-condicion-de-pobreza-2015

[4] https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures/admissions-statistics/undergraduate-students/current/gender?wssl=1#

[5] https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/oua/enquiries/first-woman-graduate