Text and Photos: Heini Pääkkönen
The motto ‘there are no limits!’ has been a driving force in Karina’s life, helping her become one of the few female general directors of Instituto Federal de São Paulo’s Câmpus Salto in Brazil. The inspiration for her career as a leader came in part from Finland.
Karina Ap. F. Dias de Souza is a pioneer in the field of female leadership in Brazil, having undertaken a long journey to become a general director at Instituto Federal de São Paulo’s Câmpus Salto in Brazil. The position of women in Brazilian society is changing gradually from that of a house wife to one of career woman. Female leaders are gaining more value than before thanks to their good organisational skills and their ability to listen. One big step for the women of Brazil was the election of the first female President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and even the boundaries between roles at home are becoming more blurred, with men participating more in housework.
‘In our house, for example, my husband cooks and does all the ironing. I don’t feel the pressure of learning to do these things just because I’m a woman. I do other things that I’m better at,’ Karina smiles.
Karina started her educational career at Campus São Paulo in 2010 as a chemistry teacher. She progressed quickly to management roles, first as a manager’s assistant, coordinating courses, and eventually to the position of educational director, the right hand of the general director. It was during this time that she first discovered an interest in management and leadership as a career choice. However, when she returned from maternity leave after her first child was born, Karina returned to regular teaching. The general director had changed whilst she was on leave and new directors had been chosen.
Her old interest in a career in management was sparked again during Karina’s first visit to Finland in 2015, while she was participating the Teachers for the Future programme.
‘I was amazed by the strong culture of trust in Finland. You trust that the students will study, teachers will teach, and managers will do their jobs without being constantly supervised and controlled. The culture is completely different from ours. In Brazil, the trust is non-existent. In Finland people trust that I will do my best and this is something I wanted to bring home with me. I think this is also one of the core reasons why the Finnish education system is so successful,’ Karina explains.
What better way could there be to pass her vision on to others than as general director of Campus São Paulo. Karina decided to go for it and apply in the next election. A major challenge was the fact that there had never been a female rector at Instituto Federal de São Paulo, and of 35 general directors only three were women. It seemed that the odds were against her. Sometimes it can be hard to be a woman applying for a such a high position in a conservative country where people are used to having male directors. People’s opinions can be quite harsh in relation to women who try to reach these positions. One of the biggest prejudices women leaders face stems from the fact that if they have children, they will be on maternity leave at least for six months: something a man would never have to do.
‘I would not have applied for the position of general director were it not for the trip to Finland. I bounced the idea of putting myself forward as an applicant back and forth with my colleagues in Finland and they encouraged me to apply. So, I did and here I am,’ Karina smiles.
But the journey was not easy and Karina faced critical opinions along the way.
‘For example, I’ve been told that I got elected only because I was the better of two bad choices and the other applicant was dark-skinned,’ sighs Karina.
The hardest thing for Karina about her career has been shuffling between family and work, balancing between being a mother, a wife and building a career at the same time. And what happens to your own personal dreams on top of everything else? This is a problem that many women have to face, especially those in high positions.
‘I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s the society, but I feel that I should always be perfect. A constant sense of guilt follows me where ever I go. At work, I miss my family and I know I should be there more, whilst at home the pressure of people’s expectations and my workload is sitting on my shoulders.’
Karina’s mother was a single mother and raised her alone, and Karina met her father for the first time when she was 11 years old. Her attitude and courage she learned from her mother.
‘When I was young, my mother also used to work a lot. She was a nursing teacher and a single mom, always working or doing house work and I was by myself quite often. But when she was with me, she would pay full attention to me and I never felt left out or thought of her as a bad mother. On the contrary, my mother is my greatest idol and I learned my attitude towards life from her. She would always tell me that there are no limits and not to let anyone tell me what I can or cannot do.
I think this gets passed down through the generations. My grandmother was widowed very young and raised her children alone too. I met my father the first time when I was 11 years old, so I have never had a male figure in my life. That’s ok, since I’ve been surrounded with such brave women! I think us women should have mercy on ourselves. After all, we can only do the best we can.’
The trips to Finland were well-organised combinations of work and family; both times Karina brought her family with her. On the first trip for Teachers for the Future -training in autumn 2015, Karina’s mother and son travelled with her. This year when she was studying on the Finnish Teacher Training -programme (FiTT), her photographer husband and son accompanied her to enjoy a few chilly weeks of Finnish summer.
The trips were not all about work; Karina’s mother fell in love with Finnish flea markets and is now running her own in Brazil. The eco way of thinking is rapidly gaining popularity in Brazil and the idea of flea markets was considered an excellent one. Karina’s husband admires Finland’s nature and shot gigabytes of pictures during their stay.
‘What will I miss the most about Finland, hmm … probably the forests and incredible doughnuts at Pyynikki Observation Tower,’ Karina laughs.
Another thing that Karina was impressed by in Finland was the beautiful learning premises at TAMK, and how different learning spaces and colours support learning. This contrasts with the situation at home where the school building is old and had fallen into bad shape. She decided to do what she could to fix it. Due to the low budget available, she contacted all the teachers and the parents of the students and asked them if they would be willing to undertake voluntary work to support the school, painting classrooms and fixing broken equipment.
‘It was not our responsibility to take care of the building and not everyone that I contacted was pleased about the idea. Yet everyone who participated loved it and was keen for more projects like this. In addition to a better learning environment, working together increased team spirit and showed us that change is possible if you just get stuck in.’
Karina also wanted to set an example for others and not just boss people around, telling them what to do.
‘I was painting walls like everyone else. These kinds of little things are how I am trying to bring the Finnish culture of trust into our practices here in Brazil in my role as a director,’ says Karina proudly.