The appointment of Maria das Graças Foster to the top job at Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, Latin America’s largest company, is seen as a major milestone for businesswomen in the region.
“Maria das Graças Foster has become the most important role model for aspiring young women in the corporate world in Latin America,” says Susan Segal, president and CEO of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based organization that includes major international companies doing business in Latin America. “Her career from the beginning is an example for women not only in Latin America but globally.”
Foster, who succeeded Jose Sergio Gabrielli in February, grew up in a poor and violent slum in Rio de Janeiro.
“I lived in the Complexo do Alemão for 12 years, lived with domestic violence in childhood and faced difficulties in life,” she told Brazilian newspaper O Globo in September.
However, Foster’s determination led her to earn degrees in chemical engineering from the Federal Fluminense University (UFF), a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (COPPE/UFRJ) and an MBA in economics from the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
She then started her 32-year career as an intern at Petrobras and rose through the ranks, taking a break only to work at the Energy Ministry for three years (as Secretary for Oil, Natural Gas and Renewable Fuels).
“She has never been afraid to take on difficult assignments, including the turnaround of challenging money-losing divisions of Petrobras,” Segal says.
The appointment of Foster marks a milestone not only in Brazil but also in Latin America, where there are few women CEOs of local companies. On the latest ranking of Latin America’s Top 50 Businesswomen from our sister publication Latin Business Chronicle, there are only seven women CEOs of Latin American companies. That contrasts with 15 women country managers for foreign multinationals operating in Latin America and another nine who head up the Latin America or sub-regional operations of multinationals. Prominent examples include Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala, president and chief executive officer of Tresalia Capital in Mexico; Blanca Treviño, CEO of Mexican IT company Softtek; Luiza Helena Trajano Inacio Rodrigues, CEO of retailer Magazine Luiza in Brazil; and Angelica Fuentes, CEO of health-food company Grupo Omnilife in Mexico.
However, Segal points out that the issue of women holding the top job in the corporate world is not just a Latin American issue. “It is a global issue,” she says, quoting a study by Catalyst showing that only 36 companies, or 3.6 percent of the Fortune 1000 largest companies, have women CEOs, while the Financial Times list of the top 500 companies in Europe shows that only 1.8 percent of those top jobs are held by women.
“And Latin America is an even bigger challenge,” Segal says. “It remains a closed club, with the much-discussed glass ceiling. “
Existing CEOs and boards of directors in the region need corporate role models with women CEOs, which is why the appointment of Maria das Graças Foster at Petrobras is so important in promoting gender parity at the top, Segal says. But to foment broad-based change in multiple companies requires the application of real pressure and a realization of what Segal sees as self-evident: that the decision is good for the company.
“The appointment of Graças Foster has certainly raised the bar for companies in Brazil and Latin America, as the largest company in the region now has a woman CEO and the country a female president,” Segal says. “Hopefully, it will have an impact, as promoting women makes economic sense for businesses. But also of huge importance, it will inspire and empower generations of women to push and believe that they can make it to the top and be the CEO.”
About the Author: Joachim Bamrud is the executive editor of the Latin Trade Group and a former editor-in-chief of Latin Business Chronicle and Latin Trade magazine.