Rising from poor origins, auditor Cláudia Nunes proves that competency has nothing to do with race or gender
Cláudia Nunes: “I didn’t accept the fate of invisibility that is the black woman in Brazil”
by Dayene Peixoto, Isabel Vilela, Marcela Heitor, Renata and Rosane Queiroz
More than 120 years after the abolition of slavery, Brazil maintains an apartheid of skin. The successes are the exceptions. These black women tell what they did to succeed.
The only race recognized by science today is the human race. From the biological point of view, there is no black or white. The same man descended from Africa, migrated to Europe where he experienced climatic adaptation which led to a lighter complexion so that the rays of the sun, more scarce and not as strong as in Africa could penetrate the skin. According to the Italian geneticist Cavalli-Sforza who mapped the humanity analyzing the DNA of people with light and dark skin, we are all relatives. But not when it comes to opportunities. The Lei Áurea (Golden Law) ended the institution of slavery in Brazil in 1888, but things still seem like yesterday. From 1888 until now, little has changed. Blacks fare worse than whites in rural and urban areas.
The Portrait of Race and Gender Inequality, a study released in September of 2008 by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea – Institute of Applied Economic Research), shows that if the color is added to the feminine gender, the condition worsens: black women have less schooling than white women, their working conditions are more precarious and they earn, on average, R$383.4 reais (worth $191) – receiving 32% of the wages of white men – while the wages of white women (an average of R$742.1 reais or $371) are worth 63% of white male paychecks. In the homes, black women lack many things: 17% do not have refrigerators, 77% still wash clothes by hand, 67% live without a telephone or cell phone and 89% have never had a freezer. The occupation profile of this group is just a tad different from the activities exercised in the time of the master’s house and the slave house. Black women are widely employed in the most common professional category in Brazil: they are 80% of the 6.8 million women that work as domestics. In this relationship marked by the informality, only 27% of domestics own an official working card that entitles them to vacations and a minimum retirement from INSS (Instituto Nacional do Seguro Social or Social Security). Having a diploma in hand and money in the bank is a rare feat. To ascend professionally, black women overcome economic difficulties and countless humiliations. Each one that manages to overcome these odds points to dozens of colleagues who have tried and failed.
Cláudia Nunes, 24, managed to make it. She is senior auditor of company, Ernst & Young, in the city of São Paulo, and she tends to the largest industries of Brazil and Argentina. Not long ago her life changed. The daughter of a domestic and a bricklayer, she was educated at public schools on the outskirts of the district of Santo Amaro. She saw in TV movies women dressed in suits and high heels in sophisticated offices and thought: “That’s how I’m going to work.” She left her poor neighborhood for the first time at age 14 when she went with her mother and twin sister to try and secure a place in the Camp (an institution which teaches underprivileged youth computer science, business and English). “I didn’t want to be like my friends who got pregnant at 15, lived in a puxadinho (cheaply constructed home extension) of her father’s house, still working in the bakery and being beat up by their husbands.”
On her way to the Camp, the bus passed Avenida Paulista (1). “I saw the scenarios that I had seen in films: those well-dressed young women crossing Avenida Paulista excited me.” She didn’t waste much time becoming one of them. Studying and working in CAMP, she entered the Accounting program at the Ibirapuera University in the evening. From traineeship to traineeship, she landed a job on one of São Paulo’s executive avenues. She got up at 5 in the morning, packed her lunch, went to school at night and slept for four hours a night. At home, she spoke English all the time with her sister. She began teaching at a language school on Saturdays.
The trainee job in the financial auditing firm Ernst & Young was the gateway to the world that she dreamed of. “It is a company with headquarters in 147 countries, there are people of all colors and nationalities.” She continues, “This wasn’t luck, I worked hard,” Claudia said to friends in the neighborhood who thought that fate weighed much on her destination. “Years later, in selecting the job I have now, I still had doubts: ‘Will they accept me?’ She didn’t see blacks in office and she was accustomed to being the only black person in this environment. The auditor is used to being the only one in the jobs that makes conquests. “I try to remove the discrimination from my head. If you think about it, you don’t move forward.” But she smelled a rat when her boyfriend, a Swiss man, took her to meet his family in his country. “He treated me so cold. I asked, ‘Are you ashamed because I am different from everybody around here?’ The romance ended.
Claudia would go on to complete her MBA in Spain and headed a team of eight branch auditors in Madrid, Spain. He requested a transfer to be near her white Spanish fiancé, an auditor in the same company. She believes that, both there and in Brazil, the bias is more social than racial. “If you dress poorly, if you can’t speak or behave, people don’t respect you,” she says. The person that doesn’t display an attractive visual and absolutely straight hair isn’t her case. “It’s no use wearing dreadlocks and African clothing to an interview that requests a classic look. It’s a question of common sense.”
On a daily basis, she ensures that she “blocks” any discrimination.
“I believe that my attitude determines the behavior of others. If you have an altercation, I prefer to think that it was because of some attitude of mine and not because of the color of my skin.”
1. Avenida Paulista is São Paulo’s main business district and considered by many to be Brazil’s Wall Street.