Hearing about how Brazil’s Denise Pavarina was made to feel ‘invisible’ by colleagues in financial and legal circles, was at the same time heartbreaking, but also deeply inspiring. Her resilience in the face of such overt and troubling behaviors, really provided some valuable lessons on how to combat these type of situations.
I was impressed by how Denise challenged gender bias, to succeed in investment banking, rising to the post of Managing Executive Director of Banco Bradesco SA – becoming the first female Executive Director at one of Brazil’s largest banks – and being appointed as Chairman of the Brazilian Association of Financial Market Entities by her male peers.
Looking bank, Denise admits that her appointment as the first female chairperson of the financial markets industry association is one of her proudest achievements: “To be appointed by my male colleagues as the first woman to represent them in the markets, that was really nice.”
However, it was also the culmination of a long struggle for Denise, who confided to me that, “To be honest, men ignored me many times along my career, as if I was not even there.”
She describes how, during her early years as an investment banking analyst her colleagues ignored her answers to problems. And, minutes later, when a man offered the same solution, they acted like she had never said anything. “They were not ready for a woman in their midst, and they wanted to devalue me,” recalls Denise, who adds that, “I didn’t let them put me down and I always told myself that my major competitor was myself.”
Unfortunately, this treatment persisted, including when Denise returned to school to add a law degree to her economist credentials and she noticed how, “The male professors just ignored my answers.”
Even later, when she became the head of investment banking at her firm, she received a cool client response: “I remember attending an M&A meeting with an auto industry executive and he just ignored me. When my colleague explained that I was actually the boss, the executive looked at me like I was ET, some alien from another world.”
“You know, that’s part of life,” Denise replied modestly when I asked how she endured such treatment. However, she also explains that, “I always thought it was funny, and it made me challenge myself rather than become depressed. I said ‘Okay, I’ll show them that I deserve to be here’, and that’s what I did my entire life.”
While Denise notes that her clients sooner or later accepted her as their advisor – and some became friends – she still faced bias from certain supervisors. While she compliments a number of her past managers for treating her fairly, with no pre-conceived notions against women, she still had to speak up to earn advancement opportunities. For example, she told me how she challenged one former boss when she saw that less qualified males were promoted instead of her. “I went to him and said, ‘Why was I not appointed instead of that guy? Tell me what I am missing and what I must do to be considered?’”
Denise’s persistence paid off. Although her boss had no concrete answers to her questions, he agreed to match her with an executive coach, who soon reported that Denise was definitely ‘ready’ for the next promotion. She also notes that she’s had a number of very supportive managers over the years who treated her fairly even.
When I asked Denise for the key to her resilience, she replied that, “You must love what you do. If you have passion for what you want to achieve, then you can do whatever is needed.”
However, she also emphasizes the importance of women making themselves visible. “I think that women are often not as good as men at networking, in Brazil and around the world, and we have to do a better job, inside your company, and externally too. I always participated in industry committees and working groups, and this helped me meet colleagues in the market and build my outside image. Sometimes, your outside image can help you inside your company too.”
Denise sums up her steady, determined climb to the top: “You have to be resilient, because unfair things do happen unfortunately. You cannot let this get you down. To move ahead, you have to challenge yourself and those around you, because no one will come to your house to look for you.”
Until January 2019, Denise was the Managing Executive Director, member of the Executive Board of Banco Bradesco SA, one of Brazil’s largest personal and commercial banks. Denise has enjoyed a long career in investment banking and asset management, as Deputy Executive Director, from 2012 to 2015, in addition to senior posts such as Executive Managing Director of Bram Bradesco Asset Management SA and Deputy Director of Banco Bradesco. She also was appointed for two terms as Chairman of Associação Brasileira das Entidades dos Mercados Financeiro e de Capitais (the Brazilian Association of Financial Market Entities). She served as managing director of BNDES, the Brazilian development bank, as a board member of B3 stock exchange (Brasil Bolsa Balcão SA) and Vale S.A. and many corporate boards. She recently joined a M&A advisory group in Brazil named Aggrego. Educated as an economist and lawyer, she holds a graduate degree from Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado and from Universidade Paulista and and specialization certification in finance from Insper Institute of Education & Research and AMP from IESE Business School.