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São Paulo: Barnard in Brazil

Fifth Global Symposium Highlights Women's Emerging Leadership 

More than 400 people attended Barnard’s fifth annual Global Symposium, Women Changing Brazil, in São Paulo in March at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The all-day event brought together Brazilian women leaders from the arts, community organizing, politics, medicine, science, and media to share their perspectives about women’s progress—and remaining barriers—with Barnard administrators, students, alumnae, and the public. This year also marked the attendance of four appointed Global Faculty Fellows from various departments at the College. 

As with previous Barnard symposia, Credit Suisse sponsored the Brazil event; Michelle Gadsden-Williams, the firm’s managing director and global head of diversity and inclusion, opened the symposium, acknowledging, “Women are changing Brazil and making significant impacts around the world, but there’s still lots to do.”

In welcoming the audience, President Debora Spar noted Brazil’s significance as the symposium’s location, both because of the number of women holding key leadership positions in politics and business, and because Latin America is “brimming, overflowing with…women’s leadership.” Besides having a woman president, Brazil has 10 female ministers. Spar also showed a short video about the Barnard experience, explaining that the College sees one of its missions as “educating students from around the world, who will become ambassadors back to where they come from. It’s a powerful network of amazing women.” Key components of that mission are identifying, understanding, and developing women leaders. “Women lead differently than men,” said Spar. “[We want] to try to understand how women lead and educate the next generation of young women to be the best possible leaders they can be. We’re expanding our mission to embrace the entire world.” Spar added, “The idea is to have an on-going series of conversations so that the work doesn’t end in São Paulo.”

The keynote speaker, Eleonora Menicucci, Brazil’s minister of the secretariat of policies for women, delivered a strong message about Brazil’s focus on expanding women’s opportunities. A physician, Menicucci explained that her portfolio is “pushing for gender equality and combating violence against women.” Some of the major initiatives, which are part of an overarching effort to “have women in a protagonist role in the government and society,” she said, include full-time day-care centers and schools to enable mothers to enter and stay in the labor force; safe houses for women escaping violent relationships; and allowances for women seeking divorce who have children, to help the women become financially independent.

Brazil’s current administration has “tolerance below zero for gender violence,” said Menicucci. “Violence against women is a wound … and that open wound has to be closed, no matter what.” Further, by facing gender violence, Brazil “brings women to the center of society as subjects in their own right. We are giving to these women a sense of life, a sense of citizenship.”

Innovative ways in which Brazilian women are expressing themselves was the theme of the “Voices of the Region” panel, which highlighted the ambitious, ground-breaking work of three young Brazilian women activists working in the arts—film, graffiti, and dance. Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams Director of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, moderated a particularly spirited discussion featuring Panmela Castro, a graffiti artist and activist who founded an NGO that uses art to promote women’s rights; Kátia Lund, a film director and screenwriter known for City of God; and Mayra Avellar Neves, a student activist and winner of the 2008 International Children’s Peace Prize.

The panelists explored the complicated questions of identity, ethnicity, sexism, and violence in Brazilian culture and the ways in which each of these women had struggled against those constraints. “When I was a teenager, I was a rebel,” said Castro, once in an abusive marriage. “My dream was that my condition as a woman would not be limiting. I want to change things, and how we’re seen, and contribute to our struggle against domestic violence.”

Neves explained that her work as a dancer and actor “touches people in a different way. I’ve tried to transform and change people’s mentality.” And filmmaker Lund, who had grown up in a more privileged background than the other two panelists, urged the audience to “get started, sometimes to take risks. Don’t try to be so perfect. Don’t try to know everything. Learn along the way.”

The “Women in Science” panel, moderated by Brazilian journalist and television host Monica Waldvogel, featured Duilia de Mello, a NASA astronomer and professor of astrophysics at The Catholic University of America, and Mayana Zatz, professor of human and medical genetics at the University of São Paulo. Their primary issue was countering stereotypes that keep women from pursuing the sciences. Said de Mello, “We can’t have girls think that science is [just] for men.” Similarly, Zatz pointed out that her field of genetics was nearly unknown when she began her career, “School has to be restructured to teach young people how to think.”

The afternoon panel, “Conversations on Leadership,” was moderated by Spar, who said, “One of the ideas behind the global symposia is to learn from other countries and to bring back that learning to our students. [Here] we see mothers playing a big role in telling their daughters what they could do. We’re not hearing complaining. What has Brazil done right? What can we learn?”

Maria Cristina Frias, columnist for Folha de São Paulo, and Adriana Machado, CEO of GE Brazil, highlighted some of the ways that Brazil’s policies and culture work for women. “Gender has not been an issue in my career,” said Frias, adding that 40 percent of the editors at her paper are women. “There’s a culture of meritocracy.” For Machado, a key element is Brazil’s policy of granting six months of maternity leave; as a result, women aren’t afraid of losing their jobs after they have children. Machado, mother of a 14-year-old and 7-year-old, said, “I got promoted after the birth of my second boy. I have a structure at home where I know my kids are taken care of.” Then again, middle-and upper-class women in Brazil can afford to hire household help, which enables them to work outside the home with less stress than their American counterparts. “Ultimately,” said Machado, “women shouldn’t be ashamed of desiring power. You have to teach women and girls that there’s nothing wrong with having power.”

—by Merri Rosenberg '78

—Photograph by Gustavo Pitta