Brazilian banking chases politics, oil with UBS hire of woman CEO

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UBS has appointed the first woman to lead Brazilian business for an international bank in a country where women rule the oil industry and the first female president pushes for gender equality, even as Brazil remains best known to the West for exporting supermodels.

Sylvia Coutinho takes over as CEO of UBS Group Brazil effective June 24, replacing Lywal Salles who will retire. She will help build the Swiss bank’s Brazilian business and oversee the strategy to deliver its integrated resources, including UBS Brasil Corretora, to its private, corporate and institutional clients in the Latin American country.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was ranked 18th on the Forbes Magazine 2012 list of the world's most powerful people and the third most powerful woman in the world, has hired women as chief of staff and as ministers for environment, culture, social development and planning. Elected in 2011, she’s made promoting women part of her agenda. Nine of her 24-member cabinet are women, compared to three under her predecessor, Lula de Silva.

However, Brazilian politics are still playing catch up and the banking industry is even further behind. A law requires 30% of candidates running for parliament, mayor and governor to be women, but it’s not often enforced and Brazil lags behind other Latin American countries in terms of female elected officials. According to the World Bank, women held 9% of seats in parliament in 2012, compared with 37% in Argentina, 25% in Bolivia, 14% in Chile and 12% in Colombia.

Brazil’s oil industry is shifting the gender power structure, with Maria das Graças Foster helming Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, and Magda Chambriard leading the National Petroleum Agency, which regulates the nation’s oil sector.

Women comprise nearly 44% of Brazil's labor force, and 59.3% of Brazil's firms have a woman among the principal owners, but banking is still very much a boys club.

It’s not as if Coutinho will build her ranks by hiring other women to fill top posts, but her appointment is a major move nonetheless.

Coutinho joins UBS from HSBC, where she served most recently as Head of Retail Banking & Wealth Management for Latin America and Asset Management for the Americas. She began her career at Citibank in its Management Trainee Program, working in in Brazil and overseas, after earning an MBA from Columbia University.

“Sylvia's deep knowledge of Brazil, combined with her industry expertise, will be invaluable to helping UBS reach our full potential in the country,” said UBS Group Americas CEO Robert J. McCann. “We are confident she is the leader to help us in the next stage of building a strong Brazil franchise, particularly as the market's solid, growing economy and expanding wealth base mark it as a strong opportunity for all of UBS's business areas."

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