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Gabriela Figueiredo Dias is a trailblazer in the world of global finance and ethical standards. As the Chair of the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA) and the Co-CEO of the International Foundation for Ethics and Audit (IFEA), Gabriela brings a wealth of experience and insight into the transformative power of diversity at the highest levels of leadership. Gabriela's journey is a testament to the power of determination, resilience, and a commitment to making a lasting impact. As a woman who has not only climbed the ranks of leadership but has actively championed the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), she brings a unique perspective to the table.

She talked to Cecile Bonino, Principal, Global Engagement at IFAC about her journey, the evolving landscape for women in leadership, and the initiatives she champions to promote DE&I within the organizations she leads.

Gabriela Figueiredo Dias

Cecile Bonino (CB): Gabriela, you are at the forefront of shaping ethical standards globally and paving the way for future generations of women in traditionally male-dominated fields. Could you share with our readers what skills are needed to break the glass ceiling, in your opinion?

Gabriela Figueiredo Dias (GFD): The skills needed to break the glass ceiling should be universal, based on strong leadership and communication skills, emotional intelligence, resilience, continuous learning, a strong sense of purpose, and putting people first. Of course, cultural and societal constraints can mean that having the same skills does not always result in the same pace of progression or the same achievements. The truth is that achieving equality of opportunity also depends on the surrounding attitudes, culture, and structures in society.

CB: In the context of DE&I, how have you seen the landscape change for women in leadership roles throughout your career? Did you face challenges as a woman in leadership and if so, do you think those challenges remain today?

GFD: I have seen the landscape changing over a decade across sectors and geographies, but much remains to be done globally. The real pace of progress is asynchronous and fragmented. Some progress has been made in regions such as northern Europe but remains a challenge elsewhere. Social expectations on the role of women in the home, and the lack of progress in setting appropriate policies on parental leave support, as well as discriminatory practices in the workplace, are just as important as the work environment established by organizations. It takes an integrated evolution combining the sharing of equal opportunities and responsibilities between state, society, and organizations.

My own journey was one of balancing challenges at home and at work – including obstacles, harassment, and unequal compensation, alongside social criticism for not playing the stereotypical female role.

I chose to focus on giving my daughters a role model of resilience, standing up stronger for fair treatment in gender, race, age, and social condition. Above all, it is about never, ever giving up. Some of these challenges remain a reality across multiple roles, industries, and regions but we are also now on the right journey toward a fairer and more inclusive model.

CB: As a leader, how do you prioritize and promote DE&I within your organizations? And given your prominent roles, what initiatives or policies have you implemented to support the advancement of women in your field?

GFD: My approach to DE&I has been consistent as a leader, a worker, a person, and a citizen. For me, my conviction for equality and inclusion acts as an ethical imperative guiding my actions.

As a leader, I value human beings, professionals, and their own circumstances. I am attentive to prejudicial selection approaches that may need to be corrected. When appropriate, it can be necessary to take action to promote additional parity and inclusiveness. I tend to pay attention to the most vulnerable and, if necessary, work with them to help them rise to opportunities they may not have considered.

In my former role as chair of the securities regulator, I promoted more women to leadership than the organization ever did in 25 years. In my current role as chair at IESBA, I’ve appointed a woman vice-chair, and four women as chairs of our Task Forces and Working Groups. The first staff-driven model working group of IESBA is also led by a female staff member.

You may ask – did I promote them just because they are women? Absolutely not. I’m doing this for their merit and individual skills which I choose to promote and appoint. It’s about evaluating people and rewarding their value.

 It gave me immense pride to be the first chairwoman appointed at IESBA, and before that, the first chairwoman of the Portuguese Securities Commission, the first chairwoman of the University Board in Coimbra, and the first vice-chairwoman of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Corporate Governance Committee. Throughout my career I was promoted or appointed by free and fair spirits, for the skills and experience I brought to these roles.

In a few years, I ‘d like this conversation to be outdated, simply because women don’t have to be the first there or anywhere, they should simply be.

CB: Why is it essential for organizations to have diverse leadership, and how does it contribute to overall success?

GFD: All successful projects are the outcome of perspectives, knowledge, experience, and personalities. No project can flourish otherwise. Diversity is instrumental to force organizations beyond their comfort zone, while pushing them to deliver results that meet the needs of a broader range of stakeholders.

The 2020 McKinsey & Company study, titled 'Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters,' provides compelling evidence of the benefits of diverse leadership. It concludes that the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. This confirms that diverse leadership brings a range of perspectives and skills, fostering innovation and driving better business outcomes, thereby substantiating the essential role of inclusive leadership in achieving organizational success.

CB: How do ethical standards contribute to creating an inclusive and fair environment in the accounting profession, particularly for women

GFD: The IESBA ethics standards can contribute to an inclusive environment in the accounting profession more broadly.

The Code of Ethics already includes provisions to shape a positive culture setting out an expectation that professional accountants, considering their position and seniority within their organizations or firms, encourage and promote an ethics-based culture. These provisions and their sufficiency will be addressed in the context of our newly created workstream on Firms' Culture & Governance.

More importantly, it provides a framework to help professional accountants choose the right behavior when they face all kinds of ethical dilemmas in their jobs. It contributes to building the right ethical culture and governance within accounting firms and in companies where professional accountants operate. The standards embed ethics in the daily routines of professional accountants with a positive impact on the organization.

The adoption of ethics standards by professional accountants can also play a role in motivating younger generations and future talent to join the profession while developing an ethical muscle in the early stages of their careers.

CB: What advice would you give to young women aspiring to reach leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated fields?

GFD: I remember once trying on a suit with bulky shoulders. I was advised to go for it as I would look more powerful ‘like a man’.  Women should go for the exact opposite and embody the incredible power of vulnerability instead. My message is simple: work hard, with a shared sense of purpose, enjoy every minute of your work, never betray your values nor your convictions, and surely not your own self, and lead by example. Be tough with tough people, protect the vulnerable, and place ethics above all, profit included. That will take you far.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of IFAC.

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Gabriela Figueiredo Dias

Chair, IESBA and Co-CEO, International Foundation for Ethics and Audit

Ms. Gabriela Figueiredo Dias is the Chair of the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA). She also serves as the co-CEO of the International Foundation for Ethics and Audit (IFEA), the organization that houses IESBA and the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB). She became Chair of the IESBA on January 1, 2022 (appointed for an initial three-year term) and co-CEO of the IFEA in the beginning of 2023. She shares the IFEA’s co-CEO role with IAASB Chair Tom Seidenstein.

In her role as IESBA Chair, Ms. Figueiredo Dias ensures that IESBA activities maintain a public interest focus, while developing high-quality ethics and independence standards. She brings a strategic mindset to the development and implementation of IESBA objectives and fulfills several interrelated roles, serving as leader, spokesperson, and stakeholder liaison. In her role as IFEA Co-CEO, she manages the Foundation’s operations.

Ms. Figueiredo Dias has extensive experience in international standard setting, legal and regulatory structure and governance, and academia. Previously, she was the Executive Chair (2016-2021) and Deputy Chair (2015-2016) of the Portuguese Securities Commission (CMVM), the authority responsible for regulating and supervising financial instrument markets, covering listed companies, asset managers, auditors, and investment firms. There, she managed and provided strategic direction to the CMVM and represented the organization in regional and global financial forums. Ms. Figueiredo Dias joined the CMVM in 2007 as Senior Counsel on international affairs and regulatory policy and during 2008-2015 she served in several senior leadership roles, including Head of the International and Regulatory Policy Department and of the Markets, Issuers, and Financial Information Department, and Advisor to the Chair.

Ms. Figueiredo Dias served as a Board Member of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) and the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), Chair of the ESMA Investment Management Standing Committee, and a member of ESMA’s Management Board and Mediation Panel. She was also a member of the Portuguese National Council of Financial Regulators. In addition, Ms. Figueiredo Dias served as Vice-Chair of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Corporate Governance Committee. She was a member of IOSCO’s Sustainability Task Force (2020-2021) and an observer at the Monitoring Board of the IFRS Foundation. Ms. Figueiredo Dias is a founding member of the Portuguese Corporate Governance Institute and a member of the European Corporate Governance Institute. Since February 2021, Ms. Figueiredo Dias is also the President of the General Council of the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

Over her 30+ years career, Ms. Figueiredo Dias published numerous papers, articles, and books, as author or co-author, on corporate governance, auditors, pension funds, corporate boards, and sustainability. More recently, during her term as CMVM Chair, Ms. Figueiredo Dias focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters and integrity of professionals in financial information and management. With such a focus, Ms. Figueiredo Dias has led a progressive mindset transformation amidst the Portuguese market stakeholders towards a more sustainable and ethical financial ecosystem.

Ms. Figueiredo Dias holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law from the Coimbra University Law School. She did extensive academic research in several Universities in the UK and US and holds a certificate in Leadership and Communications from Nova University (Lisbon).

Cecile Bonino
Cecile Bonino

Principal, Global Engagement

Cecile Bonino is Principal of Global Engagement for IFAC. She bridges global organizations' relationship management, policy support, event management, and brand awareness. A lawyer by education, Cecile has 20 years of experience in public affairs and public relations. Before joining IFAC, Cecile worked for 13 years at ACCA, where she headed EU Affairs and the ACCA Brussels office, working with European decision and policymakers, Media and key influencers, as well as global organizations. Prior to this, Cécile worked as a consultant in financial services, energy, environment, and climate change at Weber Shandwick and as Environment and Legal Affairs adviser at the European Landowners Organisation. At the beginning of her career, Cécile also worked at the DG TRADE of the European Commission, the DG Development of the College of Europe, and the law firm, Gide Loyrette Nouel. In 2012, Cécile won the ‘Public Affairs Professional of the Year’ prize at the European Public Affairs Awards.