Rising in the ranks in a male-dominated industry, Maria Eugenia Norambuena understands women’s issues are men’s issues, too.
Submitted by Principal Financial Group, Inc.
When Maria Eugenia Norambuena joined Principal® Chile in 2003 as a management control and planning analyst, she was used to being one of the few—if not only—women in the room. A recent graduate with a civil engineering degree, Norambuena was among 40 (and eventually only 20) women out of the 450 budding professionals in the program. Finding her voice in a room full of men didn’t rattle her.
What did give her jitters was being promoted a couple of years later to a management position. “Seventeen years ago, it was difficult to find women being promoted to leadership roles—and more difficult to find a young woman who is expecting a child to be promoted to those types of jobs,” Norambuena says. This was her first indication that Principal was a good place to be.
Independence at her roots
Growing up, Norambuena’s parents instilled a sense of independence and work ethic. While Norambuena’s mom did not have formal work, she was active in her community. For instance, she once made a small factory of sweaters for a school, and would nurse for her father’s medical practice, Norambuena recalls.
Yet Norambuena’s mom envisioned more for her daughters. “She wanted me and my sisters to have very good jobs and not to depend on a husband,” Norambuena says. “It was something from the day I was born: You cannot depend on anyone, just you. It'll bring more happiness to your life, and it will probably make your marriage more balanced.”
Her father was equally supportive. “He raised me and my sisters to be good professionals, to fight for good jobs, and to seek our dreams,” Norambuena says. She envisions the same for her own three daughters.
Norambuena has also found these values reflected in her sprawling family tree. With roots back to the year 1100, she recognizes the bravery and adventure that have been in her lineage for hundreds of years. “My ancestors knew Chile was a piece of land; that’s all,” Norambuena says. “They came with nothing, they created a family here, and they succeeded.”
Cultivating holistic support
Several months after her first promotion at Principal, it was time for Norambuena to return to the office from maternity leave. But there was one problem: Her baby girl was crying—all day, every day. Trusting her boss at the time who had kids himself, Norambuena approached him with the dilemma. “I said, ‘My baby is crying a lot; I cannot leave her right now all day alone with someone else,’” Norambuena recalls.
Together, they came up with a solution. He would send her computer to her house so she could work from home until she and her baby were adjusted. (This was before hybrid work was commonplace, Norambuena points out.)
“He was very ahead of his time,” Norambuena says. “He understood my problem perfectly and he found a solution.”
Several promotions and leaders later, now a chief operating officer and managing director with Principal Chile, Norambuena still remembers times when she wanted to “run away,” for fear of failing and not setting a good example for other women aiming to advance their own careers. She credits the Principal culture to her success.
“I think the difference in my case is that I had very, very, very supportive bosses. They were always encouraging me to take risks,” she says. “And they understood that I have a family; I have three girls. And understood if I had to take the baby to the doctor or something.” She also recognizes, she adds, that having a supportive husband who will split parental duties has been crucial.
With this in mind, Norambuena is active in a women’s mentoring program through Principal Latin America, and she also brings the men she leads into the conversations. “If we can also help the men so they can help their wives outside of our company, that’s much more impactful,” she says. That may mean encouraging one of her male team members to take time away from the office if his child needs to go to the doctor.
“To continue the change, we have to work with men,” Norambuena says. “I was very lucky that most of the men around me were very supportive. But if that’s not the case—at work and at home—it’s very difficult for a woman to grow in a company.
“It’s not just her; it’s also her surroundings.”
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