Meet One Of The Only Female Animation Directors In The Industry


Jenna Zona always knew she wanted to tell stories. How she would tell them, though, wasn't quite so clear. She began by creating comics and illustrating, always imagining that the characters she'd created were actually moving.

Then, while watching the credits scroll at the end of an animated movie she'd just watched, it all clicked. People get paid to do this, she thought to herself, and with that, she made the decision to pursue a Masters of Fine Art in animation.

Jenna Zona.

Not many universities offer this specialized program, but the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is one that's consistently recognized for its breadth of creative majors and, just as importantly, its ability to guide graduates into impressive careers. They also bring in speakers, guests, and professors who are legendary in their fields, and offer state-of-the-art technology used by real-world professionals.

“While I was there, I had a mental time limit to get a full-time job in the field, so I just worked really hard on every project handed to me and kept steering my boat in the direction of my goal," said Zona. “I asked my professors for advice — a lot — and they were all very supportive. When I started graduate school, I also told myself I would never pass by an opportunity because I have no idea if another one will come up. That's what I did, and that's how I got a job halfway through the program."

Jenna Zona Illustration

Today, Zona has animated and illustrated Emmy-award winning shows such as Archer, Chozen, and The League. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at SCAD, where she mentors future animators, she serves as the animation director at Tiny Monsters Study, which animates numerous TV shows, including the PowerPuff Girls!

Zona's success in this industry is particularly notable when you consider the statistics for women working in this field. It's no secret that there's a gender gap in the entertainment industry, but this is especially true for behind-the-scenes tech positions.

SCAD Animation Fest Summer 2017. Photo Courtesy of SCAD

According to, last year 97% of films did not utilize female sound designers, 79% did not use female editors, and 96% did not use female cinematographers. The natural jump is to say, "Well, women aren't pursuing these positions!" That assumption would be false. Roughly 60% of animation and art students are women, but only 20% of the creative jobs in the industry are actually held by women.

In that sense, Zona is an outlier and a true pioneer for females in this industry.

“Why do we read stories or bother getting to know each other? It's to hear about everyone else's experiences and perspectives, and see what's going on in the world for them," said Zona when we asked why she feels it's important for women to work in animation. “Wouldn't it be nice to see stories from multiple perspectives other than your own?"

There's no truer female perspective than a perspective from, well, a female.

Jenna Zona Illustration

“When I was a kid, I remember pretending to be 'Mario and Luigi' with my neighbor friend. He was Mario — clearly — and he said that I was Princess Peach and had to stand at the end of the room while he rescued me. I said, 'That's boring. How about I be Luigi?'"

When he said no, Zona stood at the end of the hallway for a few brief moments before running over to help him fight off the imaginary “bad guys." She insisted that she could play both roles, and he reluctantly agreed.

“It's stories like this that demonstrate why we need to see both genders represented," said Zona. “Because how would myself, or other children, know that it's okay for little girls to be Luigi, or know that it's okay to be Peach, too? Or, even better, know that you can be Peach and save Mario!"

That the animation industry has gone so long with a lopsided perspective of the human experience is unfortunate. With that said, Zona is paving the way and inspiring current and future students, along with peers who are also pursuing jobs in the field.

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.