Ambitious executives know that an international assignment can be a terrific means to help advance their careers. So, it’s unfortunate that, over the years, many women have told me they turned down overseas opportunities because they doubted they were prepared for the challenges of a foreign posting.
That’s why I was eager to chat with Margo Black, the recently retired CEO of Swiss Re Brasil Resseguros, Swiss Re’s reinsurance business in South America’s largest economy. I wanted to hear how she built a 40-year career in a predominantly male dominated Latin America and how she handled a career on four continents.
Although Margo admits that she never dreamt of spending 20 years in Brazil, she embraced foreign opportunities, by adopting a “never say never” attitude, confronting difficult issues right away – from gender bias to pay gaps – and accepting that you can’t sustain a ‘super woman’ persona. One should never be afraid to raise one’s hand to take on a new challenge because if you don’t, someone else will and they will only be half as good as you are.
Noting that she started her own career with modest goals, Margo laughingly recalled that, “If somebody had told me when I was working in London that I would end up in Brazil, I would have said they belong in the looney bin.”
Fortunately, others saw Margo’s unique skill mix, including her affinity for languages, gained through a childhood in Latin America and a university education in Scotland and England. Although she had not given the insurance sector much notice, she was hired as a graduate trainee by a UK reinsurance broker with a Latin American department. Within two years, they dispatched her to Mexico, Argentina and Brazil for a two month training period.
And if some women might have worried about dealing with the Latin culture of 40 years ago, Margo dismissed those fears. Frankly, she had learned to overcome the same issues in the male-dominated British insurance industry. Margo explained that, “In those days, there were no lady brokers in London. I understood that I had to be more qualified and educated than my male peers to get an opportunity.”
She also learned to assert her strong and extroverted personality, whether it was to call out co-workers who told dirty jokes or stand tall during client visits. Recalls Margo, “I remember when myself and one other female broker were the first women to enter the hallowed halls of the world’s oldest insurance institution, Lloyd’s, the whole place just stopped, and everyone stared at us in complete silence. That was uncomfortable.”
In contrast, Margo observes that, “Everyone thinks of Latin American ‘machismo,’ but I really didn’t encounter too much resistance as a woman.” That said, she remembers how South American clients were often surprised upon meeting her, because of her given name. “Since masculine names usually end in an ‘o’ in Spanish and Portuguese, clients were often shocked when a woman appeared at their office instead of a man.”
Even though Margo would quickly impress new acquaintances with her fluency in the local language and her confident manner, she acknowledges that, “I had to overcome their biases, since I’m tall and blond and they would assume I was a ‘gringa,’ even though I feel that I am a ‘Latina’ at heart.”
To do so, Margo applied the same tactics she learned in London, calling out co-workers who made off-color jokes: “You have to be bold and courageous and ‘nip it in the bud’ then and there. Because the longer you let these things happen, they will probably continue and get worse.”
Margo admits that, “It’s not easy, especially with somebody who is your superior, but you can turn around very politely, keep your cool and just say, ‘I really don’t appreciate the way you are treating me and I would like you to stop’. She adds that, “I am full of admiration for young people today because they have a lot more courage and self-assurance than my generation, so things are definitely improving.”
She encourages other women – including her own daughter who recently embarked on an overseas opportunity in Asia – to apply this same diplomatic, sincere approach when facing many issues, including gender pay equity.
Opines Margo, “There is a lot of talk in Latin America about the pay gap, especially in the insurance industry, where a man often earns 30 percent more than a woman doing the same job. Unfortunately, in my experience, this gap widens because many women are prone to accept the first offer they get. In comparison, men will continue to niggle and fight to get more salary or benefits. So, my advice to women – including my daughter – is ‘Don’t take the first offer you get’. Be polite, but go back, put it in writing and say, that the package was not quite what you were expecting. You may get everything you ask for, or at least something closer to what you wanted.”
Margo adds that women must also be bold to tackle another universal challenge faced by women on any continent, namely, work/life balance: “As a woman with a career and a family, you want to be super woman and cope with everything, and that is really difficult. A lot of sacrifices to have to be made to get a work/life balance, and there are only 24 hours in the day.”
Margo explains that, “By killing yourself at work and staying really late in the office, it’s not going to make any difference to your career. Do you think you’ll progress in your career because you didn’t take your holiday allowance? The answer is ‘no’. Of course, there are times when you really have something important or urgent to do, and that’s fine, but in general it’s not worth making that sacrifice because it doesn’t actually further your career by burning yourself out.”
As I wrapped up my conversation with my new friend in Rio, I reflected on Margo’s words that could inspire other women contemplating careers around the world: “Be bold enough to nip things in the bud, before they become an insurmountable mountain, set your limits, and ‘Never say never,’ because you don’t know what opportunity lies around the corner.”