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 have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."