Female Digital Leaders Making an Impact: Marianne Guillen

This Women’s Month, we speak to women about their life and successes in the digital workplace. Today we feature Marianne Guillen, Design Lead.

Honouring International Women’s Day on 8 March 2019, Cogs will be featuring women making an impact in the digital space. Let’s speak to these women about their successes and learnings in the workplace and life.

In this edition of our Women’s Day series, we will speak to Marianne Guillen, currently a Design Lead of the Design Systems team at Zalando. Zalando SE is a European electronic commerce company based in Berlin. The company maintains a cross-platform online store that sells shoes, fashion.

Marianne, recent stats suggest that 88% of young female creatives say they lack role models. What and who are you personally inspired by and how does this transcend into your work?

This is a great question. Probably the female designers who most influenced my work still come from the Bauhaus and this is 100 years ago. Marianne Brandt for example. She was the first female product designer to enter the Bauhaus Metal Class under László Moholy-Nagy. Not only do we share a name, but we also lived in the same house. (My family was a tenant in her parental home in Chemnitz.) She was corpulent, scary and magnificent all in black, in a loosely hanging Chanel dress and a strict 1920’s haircut. She was in her eighties by the time. I was 7. I think I just stared at her in wonder. Her appearance was so distinct from the women in my neighbourhood and clearly commanded respect.

Today I can only imagine the pains and endless disappointments she must have experienced after leaving the Bauhaus during the war and the years after. Here is this brilliant young designer and wherever she goes underestimated, held back and misunderstood. Granted much of it has changed. But the bitter-sweet taste of her story still applies far too often to female designers, particular when it comes to high-end design.

In 2017, Design Week reported that only 11% of the creative directors in the industry are women. Where have the women gone? Since design school intakes are largely female, what and where have your peers in your school days gone to after graduation?

When I went to school communication design was still a largely male-dominated field to start with. This has changed. I think among Senior and Principal Designers and Art Directors you find many women. The disparity tends to happen primarily in management roles.

Opportunity is one factor. The other one I always thought has simply to do with endurance. High-end creative jobs can be incredibly exhausting. It is a constant battle of pitching, pushing yourself to do great work, and defending it. It takes a lot of energy. Men have 40% more body strength, there are simple physical and mental limits to all of this. I can remember at some point my stress level was so high, that I encountered anxiety attacks. I ended up talking openly about it to solve the problem and was quite surprised to find out how many of my male counterparts were on constant medication.

Designers enter these jobs often with passion and tend to have a deep emotional connection to their work. On the other hand with little or no business and management training. This makes for a very uneven playing field when you have to manage client and stakeholder relationships.

For the next generation, I highly recommend getting an MBA and a Design Degree. Your powers will be unmatched. I know designers tend to cringe by this comment because there are fears that living in an MBA environment will evaporate your creativity and make you a numbers person. In the meantime, I think this is a misconception. Modern MBA courses are often taught based on case studies and storytelling. They can be highly creative and quite fascinating.

Going back to opportunity. Gender inequality simply took on a new face. In today’s work environment, I typically don’t have to worry about an open insult. This behaviour is rather rare. But what sits deep is the lack of confidence in women’s leadership capabilities. These are often intangible behaviours, hard to measure and hard to prove.

When one has the choice to promote women or a man in the same position. I can guarantee you how this will end. Partially the female lead is most likely far more self-conscious and doubtful of her skills than her male counterpart and therefore portraits less of a leadership readiness. While her male counterpart was most likely raised with an unspoken entitlement to succeed which is in this moment self-fulfilling. These mechanisms are incredibly difficult to change because they not only have to do with performance but also with culture and society at large as well as the risk-taking ability of the person who is making the decision in this very moment.

Agency life has notoriously long hours. What do you have to say about their values? Is it truly an environment that isn’t family friendly?

Agencies are typically Small Businesses and wrestle with small business issues. Cashflow, Unpredictable markets, Labor costs, Planning etc. The failure rate for Small Business in the US lays by 50% in the first 3 years after this I believe another 25% in the following 2 years. Even if you have 50+ people you are still considered a Small Business. The turnover is high and the fears and anxieties in agency leadership to make it must be just as high. This base level anxiety translates into work culture and company behaviours. When it comes to family friendly. It is indeed complicated. I remember the case of a small agency where 2 out of 4 employees got pregnant at the same time. For a small business, this is a situation which is financially almost impossible to survive.

On the other hand, it does not have to be like this. I have also seen agencies who created very balanced environments and had healthy work-life habits. A lot depends on the leadership of an organization and its values. I think for designers this is very important to investigate when you apply for a position. There is nothing wrong with openly addressing these issue in an upfront conversation and asking lots of questions.

Digital field is cross-disciplinary. Could you speak more on your experience of being a woman in digital design working along techies – a conventionally male-dominated profession? Is it any different working with a female tech lead?

The success or failure of cross-disciplinary teams often depends on the values of an organization at large as well as organizational structures and project alignments. I’m not sure if this is so much of a female/male issue. Gender bias then simply adds to an already misaligned situation. In my experience using user-centred approaches, particularly in environments with low design maturity helps to align teams and create collaboration and a sense of joined ownership. I think this is partially why they became so successful in recent years.

Working with female tech leads is indeed still rare. I typically enjoy this greatly because it can create a sense of camaraderie. That sense of respect and support I think is incredibly important among women. Partially because we are still questioned and challenged from many different angles at work and at home. Encountering somebody in a similar situation and receiving assurance can be one of the make or break factors.

Female leadership is not always a lovely equation. To get there is tuff, to be there even harder. It is not an uncommon sight that a women’s executive staff is completely comprised of men and looks like a visceral reaction to buffer a potential failure. It is much easier to run a business with self-assured men, where the outcomes are somewhat known and predictable. Versus a team of women in similar vulnerable positions. Another complicated aspect in the legacy of gender bias which tends to hold women back.

You seem very family-oriented – how have you managed to devote time to both a successful brand and your family?

This is also one of the very complicated topics and very personal. There are many ways to look at this. For me staying with my three children, particularly when they where small was very important.  I based my decision on the understanding that young children needed to have access to their mothers and that women for centuries had worked with children in tow. I went out to explore how much flexibility I had in the digital age, challenging the status quo of sending your children to daycare based on the separation requirements of the industrial revolution. It was indeed a challenge, I ended up with very little sleep for many years constantly working around children’s nap and bedtimes.

During this time I focused mostly on projects and was very lucky to encounter super supportive clients. Seattle by the time had a fantastic agency who put teams together to work on larger corporate projects. It was largely run by women and allowed me to work on challenging projects for Microsoft and Amazon. This was an incredibly unique opportunity. I’m still grateful for it and feel it saved my carrier.  I remember corporate meetings, with fierce debating stakeholders deep into a topic and me sitting there with a sleeping baby under my coat. I felt strongly that I did not have to exclude one part of my life from the other. There are lots of ways of working and continuously give mothers an opportunity to participate in ambitious work.

What is your definition of a successful woman?

I think my role models in this regard are women who are not only successful but also foster a deep sense of community. My daughter and I have our heroines. Women like Michelle Obama, Jane Goodall or Vandana Shiva. They are brave, smart, very professional but are willing to share their success and provide great opportunities to others.

As a woman of ambition and vision, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I’m currently given an incredible opportunity by my team and my leadership. I like to make sure I live up to their expectations and are an authentic and inspirational leader for them.

In the long run, I would like to use my skills to help our communities to tackle pressing 21-century topics. Maybe to focus on sustainable fashion, climate change or community work.  When I left Germany in 1997, I felt helpless because I had very few tools at my disposal. Now having been abroad, I feel much better equipped to contribute.

As a final note, I would like to send a big thanks to Cogs Agency for celebrating March 8th and providing a platform for women to share their voice. Much of it has changed. But much of it has also never been talked about. European women have their share to carry. This is still incomparable to the issues many women face across the globe. Particular women of colour or in rural and indigenous communities, where the conversation is still around basic women’s rights, survival, and blatant abuse.

— END — 

Connect with Marianne here.

Cogs celebrate all the achievements women have made to make their workplace and the world a better place. Happy International Women’s Day and Women’s Month to all the ladies.


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