Female executives are few and far between in Silicon Valley. Perhaps even more so, is the lack of ethnic female representation, and for this, we have Sylvia Vaquer, making moves in a design industry dominated by men - where women are severely lacking in the upper echelons of creative positions.
Vaquer is Co-Founder and Creative Director of Bay Area web development company SocioFabrica. SWAAY spoke with Sylvia about diversity and the gender gap in Silicon valley and why it's imperative for women to begin bridging that divide. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and college educated in a U.S designed in every way to propel business minded people - but not so much business minded women. Having made the jump from working within firms in New York City, and on the West Coast, she now runs her firm in Silicon Valley.
Sylvia is a vocal advocate for female advancement in the work place, but more specifically in design, where she notes women only make up 11 percent of creative directors. She's hoping to make headway in changing that dismal statistic and has been very active on the conference trail, vocalizing her passion for creating spaces where women can thrive rather than feel incapable of succeeding or ascending to the top tiers of the country's biggest web design or tech firms.
Why leave the job security of a big agency behind? For a few reasons - one being, she says “As I was working in those places I realized there were often a lot of shortcomings." Within the larger firms, Vaquer noticed, there was a tendency to outsource content or work so that “at one point or another, the work suffers, because the integrity or the values set up at the beginning of the work are not continued."
"Also, unfortunately - those work environments were not favorable for women."
“In general in the Valley, there are two things that work against me, my being Latina as one of them of course, but also because I look younger than my age - a lot of people would dismiss my expertise."
Women appear to be constantly negating their responsibility to upcoming female generations within the tech industry because, as Vaquer and many of her peers note - there are no role models to look up to.
On her blog, Vaquer laments a plateau may of her female colleagues have arrived at in their careers, where the men at similar intersections of life steamroll ahead, while women are left to simmer away in those same positions, or eventually, fall off the work horse altogether.
It's not an enviable position to be in. She is taking to task the very notion of the female in tech - more specifically in design. Where, she mentions, it has been a struggle in some of her jobs to get attention or respect from a client. She sometimes even has had to have a male colleague or subordinate in the room because if she didn't - “it didn't seem as if we would make as much headway on any conversations we were trying to have."
SocioFabrica is however showing no signs of slowing down or plateauing - Vaquer's solid client base and talented team have acquired clients that continually refer or recommend her to others so she has never had to go out on a limb or hunt for the next project - “we're pretty fortunate," she laughs, “our clients either refer us to other lovely clients or if they're moving to another place, they help us move on with them!"
In just a few years, Vaquer and her team have amassed an impressive roster of clients, including the European coffee giant Nespresso, with whom Vaquer says, she had a difficult time re-working their luxury image to suit the American market. "U.S and European notions of luxury are very different." Vaquer states, “we were helping them to gain more approachability in the U.S market."
After having a successful year in 2016, speaking at Wonder Women Tech in July and at Facebook HQ in September for Women Entrepreneurs Day, Vaquer is slated to talk at The Path to Leadership in San Francisco's Adobe Town Hall alongside town other female powerhouses - VP of Adobe, Jamie Myrold, and Associate Creative Director of Mozilla, Yuliya Gorlovetsky. The talk, presented by She Leads, will run on March 8th and aligns itself to the plight Sylvia has discussed throughout the article, namely the lack of cohesion and support within the female community in tech and design. “By gaining new perspectives and tips for navigating common yet at times unspoken issues in the design world, these conversations will help foster a strong network of support to help one another further our design careers."
Vaquer's championing of women's pursuits and refusal to acknowledge gender and ethnic stereotypes in the Valley should be an example to us all - there are indeed no barriers that cannot be breached.
The Quick 10
1. What app do you most use?
Wunderlist. It keeps my tasks organized and focused.
2. Briefly describe your morning routine.
Wake up, then meditate, do some yoga and shower. Next I fix myself a latte and a healthy breakfast and prioritize the tasks of the day. Then I head to the office listening to a podcast (NPR) or an audiobook.
3. Name a business mogul you admire.
I have a few. First Jessica Alba, actress & Founder of The Honest Company, who is creating an empire without compromising on her values. I also admire Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple, for his vision and tireless innovation. I also want to mention Suzanne DiBianca, EVP of Corporate Relations and Chief Philanthropy Officer at Salesforce, for implementing a 1-1-1 model, which dedicates 1 percent of the company's equity, 1 percent of its product, and 1 percent of its employees' time back to serving communities.
4. What product do you wish you had invented?
iTunes and its ecosystem approach, is in my opinion is one of the most innovative products of the last 15 years and the backbone that has allowed for us to have a seamless transition and flow of information between devices.
5. What is your spirit animal?
A peacock because it is graceful and majestic and offers a delightful surprise when it displays its beautiful feathers. It traditionally represents vision, good-will and kind heartedness.
6. What is your life motto?
Be an eternal student. The moment you stop learning you become harmful towards yourself and towards those around you.
7. Name your favorite work day snack.
8. Every business must be what in order to be successful?
"Willing to reinvent itself in an ongoing basis."
9. What's the most inspiring place you've traveled to?
India and Peru.
10. Desert Island. Three things, go.
My loved ones, my phone with a solar charger and a versatile knife, as well as fire and water.
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 (ILO.org 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 MSCI.com 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.