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On Women's Day, Tech Leaders Reflect on Challenges, Rewards

For International Women's Day, a panel of local leaders spoke at Adobe about the what it's like to work, and succeed, in an increasingly global workforce.

Whether they are in Nigeria, Nicaragua or the United States, many of the challenges -- and rewards -- encountered by women in the workforce are the same.

That was the consensus of “Global Women’s Journey,” a panel of six tech-savvy female professionals who gathered at Adobe Systems on Thursday, or International Women’s Day, to discuss women’s path to leadership. They stressed that women often have to make an extra effort to rise to the top of their commonly male-dominated fields, but that the barriers -- especially in Silicon Valley -- are slowly breaking.

“If you prove to others that you’re just as capable as them, at some point they’ll pay you,” said Bridget Sexton, Global Entrepreneurship Manager at Google and Palo Alto resident, eliciting laughter from the audience of about 80 women, and a few men.

Throughout the panel, Sexton emphasized that women must turn their ideas into action in order to gain more credibility. “People don’t ask you what you think, they ask you what you do [for a job],” she said. “...That’s what’s going to make you more valuable.”

One recent action Sexton undertook was through a Google project to aid businesses in the developing world go online. She helped a woman with a baby clothes stand in Lagos, Nigeria who had previously never used the Internet set up a thriving international business, which now employs 30 locals.

Some of the panelists who had spent a few decades in the workforce commented on how many more opportunities have opened up for women since when they first began their careers.

Growing up, “I couldn’t see one woman role model,” said Linda Alepin, the Director of the Global Woman’s Leadership Network at Santa Clara University.  “As younger people, you’re lucky not just to have role models but women you can ask to be mentors.”

Yet the number of women in the office -- and especially boardroom -- varies country by country, the women said. “It’s different working in China, where I’m often the only woman in the room,” said Katy Dickenson, the director of Huawei Technologies, which has offices around the world, including Santa Clara.

Audience member Aileen Nandi also pointed out that women around the world often come from societies with large structural obstacles already in place. For example, in some countries it is legal to turn women down for jobs because they plan to have children in the near future, or to specify a certain age and appearance of job applicants.

Still, some of the women found that their gender has played to their advantage, both helping them stand out and gain more respect for their pursuits. “In China, I’ve been given access to some of the big male leaders,” said Rebecca Fannin, a local journal and author of Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech Race.

The panelists also addressed how to maintain a work-life balance amid hectic schedules. “The first ‘no’ is the hardest,” said Sexton on the importance of setting aside time for oneself and being present in the current task or moment. “In a generation of iPads and iPods, there’s less depth of interaction with people.”

The panel was a collaboration between BayBrazil, the Mountain-View based German American Business Association (GABA), Adobe Systems and SVForum. International Women’s Day began in the early twentieth century as women around the world fought for measures of equality such as the right to vote. While some countries use it as a way to honor mothers and grandmothers, it still has deep social connotations:  the United Nations’ 2012 theme for the day was “End Hunger and Poverty.”

“I think it was a perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day from mid-career to late career,” said audience member Marjan Soleimanieh, a financial analyst at Siemens Healthcare in Mountain View, after the event. “I felt like I could connect to all of the panelists.”

Daniela Proske, a local professional and GABA member, was impressed by the women’s emphasis on finding mentors and volunteering.

“All of them were lucky and successful in their lives, and now want to give back to their communities,” said Proske, pointing out a trait she found particularly unique to Silicon Valley.

The Global Women’s Journey series was started two years ago by Margarise Correa, director of BayBrazil.

"I was inspired by so many amazing women around the world during the process of envisioning BayBrazil," she said. "I wanted to create a space for women to share their stories and build new ones. That's how this series was born." 

It was hosted by Brazilian-born Luciana Vecchi, Business Product Manager for Growth Markets. She wanted to give women in tech and business the opportunity to share their cultural differences and similarities in the workforce -- and inspire each other.

"We want people to leave the talk feeling enthusiastic," she said, "ready to take risks, and move forward."

Jessica Witenstein-Weaver March 11, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Sounds Like a great way to celebrate International Women's Day
Rachel Stern March 12, 2012 at 07:36 AM
Definitely. They speakers sparked a lot of good discussion points for everyone in the audience.

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