When Susan Gonzalez began practicing aviation law, she was usually the only woman in the room.
“Often, they didn’t even know I was the attorney,” Gonzalez recalls. “They thought I was there to make copies, or take coffee orders. It didn’t occur to them that I was going to be their counsel.”
While women have since made great strides in the legal field, now accounting for a third of the profession, significant barriers still exist. Women represent only one-fifth of law firm partners, Fortune 500 general counsels, and law school deans—with the numbers becoming more dismal at higher levels. Only seven of the nation’s one hundred largest firms have a woman as chairman or managing partner. For women of color, the situation becomes more bleak. As recently as 2015, the Washington Post called law “the least diverse profession in the nation,” with the Bureau of Labor reporting that 88 percent of lawyers in the United States are white.
Gonzalez has spent her career battling statistics like these. Just by virtue of being vice president and general counsel at global power generation firm InterGen, she’s breaking barriers, but the VP was—and continues to be—deliberate about her commitment to diversifying leadership in her field. In fact, when she married her husband at age thirty-five, she chose to keep her own last name—and the decision went beyond her heritage being important to her.
“The other part of it was that it was very important to me that people see a successful female Hispanic in a senior leadership role. I wasn’t as senior when I made the decision, but I wanted people to have that association,” she says.
The general counsel attributes her success in the legal field, in part, to her commitment to conducting herself with the utmost professionalism. Early on, she also pushed herself to learn every aspect of the business and industry she found herself in. Gonzalez was not just willing to tackle the hardest assignments—she sought them out.
“I’d make a point of quickly gleaning who was an influencer, what projects would be interesting, and then I sought to join those teams. I also traveled. I went to as many of the offices, as many of the plants, as many of the facilities as I could. That exposure helped me really understand the business. Not just understand the legal aspects of the job, but allowed me to understand the industry itself and it helped me build my network,” Gonzalez says.
Her career is one to emulate, and so is her attitude. Not long after joining InterGen nineteen years ago, Gonzalez was awarded with one of its highest honors: the Core Values Award, given each year to an individual at the company who embodies InterGen’s four core values of integrity, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and corporate social responsibility.
Years later, Gonzalez still considers this one of her greatest achievements, because it was a reflection not just of her hard work and professionalism, but also the values instilled in her as a child.
“Those values reflect my personal core values, but the recognition was also about staying true to the values my family taught me,” she says. “We’ve all heard that old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, I came from an amazing village. I’m thrilled that in my professional life, that was recognized.”
Now that Gonzalez is in a position where she can recognize others for their good work, she has become a champion for hiring other women and people of color. The general counsel told Hispanic Executive that 72 percent of her staff are women by design.
Also, as a senior executive and general counsel, Gonzalez gets final say in who is selected as outside counsel. At the end of the day, she says, she’s going to pick those who subscribe to her same values and who are committed to promoting and retaining women and people of color.
“I hire law firms that have a proven track record of diversity and inclusion, and I hire teams on the outside who are being conscious about promoting and retaining minorities. Those are the firms that will keep getting my business,” she says.
And it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do; it’s because the VP firmly believes it leads to better work. When there are more diverse people in the room, she says, there are more diverse points of view and better problem-solving. Gonzalez herself is a perfect example of how harnessing diversity can lead to better outcomes.
For example, her favorite part of the job is having the opportunity to visit InterGen’s plants all over the world and meet with operators and those who are working in the company’s facilities—getting to see up close and personal what their daily challenges are. These visits provide Gonzalez and her team with invaluable information they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Gonzalez intends to take this same curiosity and know-how and apply it to building InterGen’s business for the future. Currently, she oversees the company’s European operations, but as her industry continues to undergo radical changes—with new technology emerging regularly—there is room for incredible growth. She wants to help build the strategy that provides reliable, affordable energy supplies to those in need.
“I’m a very goal-orientated person and because I had great role models in my parents, who are both leaders in their careers, I don’t really have a lot of apprehension when it comes to tackling leadership roles,” Gonzalez says. “Being part of the team that pushes InterGen into new markets is my goal both as general counsel and as a senior leader. I take great pride in helping build that strategy and bringing the company and the organization closer to achieving its vision.”
Consejos: Susan Gonzalez to Latinas in Law
Recognize that as a woman and person of color, your perspective is an advantage. Because of your diverse background, you’re going to bring a new approach to problem solving.
Because you may look a little different because of your gender or skin color, you’re going to be noticed. Use that attention to promote yourself and your core values.
Be curious, and stay curious. People who are curious are successful because they’re willing to challenge status quo. They’re willing to investigate, invite, and entertain new ideas.
When meeting someone, never underestimate the effect of making eye contact, giving a firm handshake, and offering a broad smile. That’s a universal thing around the world; people want to be seen and heard.