The exceptions that rule

Having made it in a male-dominated world, the female bosses of some of Spain's leading tech companies say they want to help more women reach top positions

Jesús Rodríguez
Microsoft Spain president María Garaña.
Microsoft Spain president María Garaña.LUIS SEVILLANO (EL PAÍS)

Hopefully, within a few years, this story will read like ancient history, but today, the fact that nine women head Spain's leading technology companies is news.

It's not easy for women to get to the top in the IT industry, and the further up the tree, the fewer women there are. According to a 2010 survey by Madrid's Ifema trade fair organization in the Spanish IT sector, women make up 40 percent of the workforce; 24 percent of them are technicians; 20 percent hold mid-level posts and just 11 percent are senior management.

To join that select club of top executives, women have to prove they are quite simply the best, that their children will not take up any of their time, that they are committed to the company and that they will keep up the pace.

At the same time, they mustn't be seen to be over-ambitious, as María José Miranda, the director general of US multinational NetApp knows from experience. "When I was in middle-level management, I never felt discriminated against for being a woman; in sales, it was a distinct advantage, because your clients were always men, and you met your quotas," she explains.

Feminism is no fashion, it's essential to the future," says Emma Fernández

"But the moment you start to take on senior positions, things change. To occupy a top position, factors come into play that are more subjective than how you do your job. Men's worth is taken for granted, whereas women have to show they are worth more. Men protect each other, and they are always looking for promotion. They have networks that women are excluded from. For a woman to get to the top is exhausting and you have to have the strength."

Rosalía Portela, the CEO of Spanish telecoms operator Ono, says greater demands are put on women as they climb the career ladder. "The ones who get to the top really are very, very good at their job, in a way that isn't always the case with men. There are no mediocre women in top positions, because they have had to overcome so many obstacles to get there. They have to prove themselves to a greater degree."

María Garaña, the president of Microsoft Spain, is even more brutal in her assessment: "Women are overworked and underpromoted. The ones who get to the top have three things in common: they are fighters; they are extremely self-confident; and they have a strong support network."

Of all the firms in Spain's Ibex-35 list of leading companies, only one is headed by a woman: distribution company DIA, which is run by Ana María Llopis, a Berkley-trained engineer. Less than 12 percent of Ibex-35 board members are women. At Madrid's Politécnica University, just one of its 20 departments is run by a woman: Mercedes del Río, the head of its architecture school. The university, which has 10,000 students, has never had a female rector.

I never felt discrimination until I became pregnant," says Telefónica's Nuria Oliver

Emma Fernández, the director general of IT multinational Indra, says when she began her studies in the University's telecommunications department in 1981, there were just nine women out of 180 students in her year. "But very few of us dropped out: we knew what we wanted to do; to put up with all those guys for six years, we had to," she remembers.

"My parents wanted me to be a teacher. Even then, women were still being educated to take on certain roles in society: looking after children or old people, teaching, or maybe pharmacy. Those of us who went into engineering were breaking the mold. But we knew that we were going into a sector with a future. Technology firms have not known how to recruit women, but now they have to take advantage of everybody, and that means women. Society needs their children, and their skills. Feminism isn't a fashion, it is essential to the future."

María José Miranda remembers that when she began studying computer technologies in 1975 there were just three other women in her year. "I didn't really understand what computers were, but I was fascinated by the idea of them, and in the long term I was lucky to join a sector where I am well paid and that has a future."

Nuria Oliver, the scientific director of Telefónica's multimedia research and development division, says throughout her career she has always worked in a male environment, whether at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or at Microsoft. "All my colleagues, teachers and bosses were men," she says. "A strange lot on the whole, very focused on their work, and not very emotionally intelligent. I never felt discriminated against until I became pregnant and was surprised to find that my colleagues and I were not the same. It really was a wake-up call, it hit me hard to see how I was changed physically and mentally by the pregnancy and how little they were affected when their partners became pregnant."

There is never really a good time to have a child. If you want a kid, go for it"

Eight of the nine women in this story have children, and have managed to reach the top. They say it is simply a question of organization and having a partner willing to share the responsibilities of bringing up children, says María José Talavera, the director general of US company VMware.

"I always wanted to have a child and never felt that this would affect my career," she says. "Having a daughter has made me more human, more open, more generous; in short, a better person. It has also made be better able to listen, to be more flexible, to learn to prioritize, and to deal with the unexpected. In short, the qualities needed for leadership."

Irene Cano, the director of Facebook's Spain operation, says she has sometimes felt guilty because she hasn't been able to give her children as much time as she would like. "But if you are happy in your work, your kids pick up on this. It's the same at work if you are happy at home. When you are moving up the career ladder in a tech company, where everything is now, there is never really a good time to have a child. If you are about to be promoted, what do you do? I think that you mustn't doubt, and just go for it. When women start planning to have a baby they take their mind off their work. And then maybe it doesn't happen, and then you wait three years, but you have taken your foot off the gas pedal, and you are out of the game, you have put your professional ambitions to one side. If you want a kid, go for it."

That said, a recent Harvard study shows that a woman's chance of being hired falls by 80 percent if she has a child, while her promotion possibilities are halved, and her salary is likely to be reduced by up to 10,000 euros a year.

The only other women in my company were the secretaries"

Women have been kept out of the technology world due to a strange mix of genetics and education. In Spain they have always been on the margins of research and development. "We never had an industrial revolution here," says Emma Fernández. "There is little tradition of technology, and much less any involvement in it by women."

In fact, over the last 70 years, there have been no female scientific icons such as Marie Curie to inspire a generation of young women. Neither have parents done much to encourage their daughters to become engineers or mathematicians, instead preferring them to pursue more feminine vocations in the humanities or medicine. The women who have made it to the top in Spain's high-tech sector say that when they entered university they had no idea what they were getting into. They had never seen a computer in their lives, until that point they had been like other young women throughout Spain.

But they possessed curiosity, a willingness to learn, and a desire to change the world, as well as a hunger for independence. Their decision was the outcome of a mixture of courage and intuition. After decades of work, they reached the top. They prefer not to talk about the bad times: the meetings surrounded by men- "the only other women in my company were the secretaries," remembers Rosalía Portela - the bad jokes; the soccer talk and the not being invited for a beer after work. Then there was the casual sexism that manifested itself through questions such as: "When are you going to get married?" "When are you going to have a baby?" "Why don't you feel bad leaving your daughter to be looked after by somebody else?"

Blanca Lleó, aged 53, is the first professor of projects - a core component of a degree in architecture - in the 150-year history of the teaching of the discipline in Spain. Asked why women are still largely absent from the profession or senior positions in business, she says: "Traditionally in these kinds of degree programs, teachers have been men, a man with a tie, and usually an older man. There were no women, and so there were no reference points, so women saw architecture as something they could never progress in. And so power passed from men to men, and when a woman did manage to forge a relationship with a teacher, as his disciple, she was ridiculed and accused of being the teacher's pet."

We have a duty to encourage young women to follow in our footsteps"

Mercedes del Río, head of the architecture school at Madrid's Politécnica University, also remembers an absence of senior female figures when she was studying. She decided to become the head of the school after joining AMIT, an association of women working in the sciences. "They inspired me, it was a network, it helped me make the leap into management," she says. "I was able to share my vision of the world with them, and know that they would support me. Women have been limited to certain fields for so long, and have come to believe that men are somehow more suited to technology and the sciences. One of the main reasons women don't go into these professions is a lack of self-esteem. So those of us who have made it into senior positions have a duty to encourage young women to follow in our footsteps."

Helena Herrero, president of Hewlett-Packard's Spanish operations, describes herself and her peers as "the starting point from which women will have to begin taking on a bigger role in technology companies. I don't believe in quotas, but we do need to create networks to support each other. A pregnant women who is well physically can conquer the world if she wants. And once she has had the baby, we need to work on taking a more flexible approach, particularly in a sector where it is possible to work from home. We have to start moving toward a more diverse vision of companies. When I see a list of possible promotions and there are no women on it, I simply refuse to believe there isn't at least one woman in the company up to the job. Until now, women have had to assume masculine roles, to forget that we are women, if we wanted to go far. There was no other way. When you joined a company, you came up against these rules, and you had to play by them or you were out. But now we can really start looking for talent: we need real talent now more than ever. Women have qualities that are complementary to men's: we are efficient, we have strength, we can get through crises, our vision is less focused and more general... And that is essential in technology companies: to see, to understand, and to anticipate."

The turning point for women taking on the top positions in Spain's leading companies was 2001, when Ampara Moraleda was made president of the Spanish division of IBM. A year later, Rosalia Portela joined the board of Telefónica, while Rosa García took over as president of Microsoft in Spain.

Why now? Why have these women made it to the top in the technology sector? María José Talavera has her theory: "The new technology sector took a leap forward at the beginning of the 1980s, just when a new generation of Spanish women was going to university. From that moment on, we have developed in parallel. In other sectors, older sectors, such as banking, it has been harder for women to make it to the top, because there was a male lobby that prevented them. But in the new technologies, men and women pretty much started from the same point. And some of us have made it to the top, so now we have to help the others."

Their approach to technology is based more on the human factor and intuition

None of these nine women have much in common. They belong to three generations. They entered the technology field without much help, they learned fast, they fell in love with a world without limits, and have done their jobs well. Their approach to technology is different to men's more practical, less abstract approach, based more on the human factor, on intuition and psychology. Their belief is that technology is there to solve people's problems: it should be efficient, innovative, sustainable, and have a direct impact on creating more habitable cities, and more efficient companies making medicines, producing energy, infrastructure and improving our quality of life.

"Women are the chief decision makers when it comes to making a purchase, and we have to make that connection with businesses," says Helena Herrero.

Rosalía Portela says running a technology company doesn't mean being an expert in technology. "It's about understanding the consumer. You have to have commercial vision. And that is where women are able to offer a new way of running companies that were once exclusively about technology. People who understand technology can tell us where we are going, but we understand where the client wants to go. That is our power."

"If you leave out women, you will fail"

EL PAÍS, Madrid

The latest Fortune 500 index of the biggest companies in the United States in terms of sales reveals that just 19 are run by women, of which four are in the high-tech sector: Yahoo, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. Other studies, such as the one carried out by the Wall Street Journal's Kara Swisher at her All Things Digital blog, show some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, such as Twitter, Zynga, and Groupon, have no women on their boards.

Women are scarcely better represented in the rest of the tech sector: there is one woman on Apple's board, another on Amazon's, while two out of Google's nine-member board are female, and just one of Facebook's seven. It is worth pointing out that 71 percent of users of the social network are women, who are the target audience for most of its advertising campaigns.

The US government is aware of the problem: "Although women make up 48 percent of the workforce, they represent just 24 percent of those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," reads a recent report.

Rosa García, president of Siemens' Spain division, says companies are losing out on a wealth of talent by failing to capture more women. "Companies that are not able to support and promote women will go the way of the dinosaurs," she says. "The secret of success today, more than ever, is based on finding the right people: a company needs a diverse, flexible group of employees who reflect the society in which we live. We cannot allow anybody to go to waste. There are two types of leaders: those who look for diversity, and those who fear the new. The latter are doomed to failure. If you leave women out of the equation, if you fail to capture their talent and creativity, you have not found the best, and in technology, if you have not found the best, you will fail," she concludes.

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