Tech Lady and ex-Apple Exec Patricia Arancibia on how to win despite ageism in tech

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Interview by Breanne Thomas

Hi Patricia! Can you talk a bit about your career and what you do?

I do digital media, creative, content, growth and product strategy. Sometimes independently, sometimes in house. For the last few months, I’ve been acting as Director of Strategy for Social and Experiential at Hudson Rouge, a luxury agency in the WPP family. Before that, I developed a digital ecosystem strategy for a group of startups in the open source hardware space, and right before I worked with the publisher of an international lifestyle magazine on audience development for the digital US edition. That’s part of what I’ve done so far in 2017. It might be a good random snapshot of what I’ve done in 20+ years in digital media, publishing, ecommerce and web product.

I started out as a TV producer and newspaper writer at Clarín, one of the largest multimedia groups in Latin America, where I landed while getting a master’s degree in journalism. Intrigued by the incipient transition from print into digital, I joined the “Special Projects” team — the start of the digital department. Later I became an editor at ELLE magazine, a creative producer at MTV, and a senior editor at Obsidiana.com, one of the first web mags for women, with newsrooms in NY, Miami, Ciudad de México, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires — it lasted a year and bursted with the bubble in 1999. I had decided to pursue an education in digital publishing, and came to New York to attend grad school at NYU. The week I graduated, I got hired by Barnes&Noble.com. What followed were 12 years in web product, editorial, content marketing, content acquisition, eBooks, business development and merchandising in the US and abroad that culminated at Apple as Head of Europe, iBooks in Luxembourg. When I came back to my beloved Brooklyn, I became an independent strategist working with clients from small startups to GE.

A lot of people are uncomfortable talking about age discrimination, especially in tech. What has your experience been with that and how you’ve been actively fighting against that silence?

I started to work in media when I was 18 as a production assistant and then a producer for María Herminia Avellaneda, who was the most respected TV director in Argentina. I wish I was older or mature enough to have done a couple of things to make her proud while she was around. She and a few of the big names who worked with her were 60+ when I started at her studio. I had never met more fascinating and hard working people, and got to appreciate the value of working with experienced talent from very early on.

I reached seniority fairly “young” (that used to mean in your 30s). I came of age when there were people over 40, 50, 60 working in digital and we, the kids of olde, were still promoted and had room for development. At some point around 2008, people over 40 started to disappear. Especially women. In a bit of a Logan’s Run, open-plan layouts, ping pong tables, and beer became “perks” in lieu of actual benefits. This affects anybody who understands that many beers do not a health insurance make, and it disproportionately affects women who still carry most of the weight of child bearing. Revolving doors brought and took away new managers without management experience who dropped buzzwords and decks, but hadn’t the time or the savvy to understand the role and experience of people who could be stellar but looked and sounded more like their moms than what the manual of the disruptive enterprise dictated as “innovative.” The economic crisis, layoffs, and closings didn’t help. Many senior people were let go.

I’ve been fortunate. Maybe because I’m good with currently fashionable stuff like data, thumb-stopping content, and growth, but I haven’t gotten (yet?) much of the derision and indifference that I see infuriatingly directed at many fab women my age — 40s, practically a museum piece — and beyond. What I have suffered is the curse of the “too senior” a.k.a “overqualified,” code for “would have to pay much more than the low ball figure I want to spend in this ‘senior’ (!) role or the pennies/hour for this big project, I have no idea how to manage you, and won’t try.” It sometimes means “with your savvy, you should do in five weeks a project that requires five months, and don’t even think about OT.”

So except for very few thankfully short-lived silly exceptions, my clients have been great. That is in part because I’ve been picky even when I shouldn’t have. Seniority means that you’ll only be called for large projects involving important budgets. There aren’t too many of those. I’ve been fortunate and I’m grateful, but it can be scary — it is.

I’ve made a point of considering the role of women in an organization as a filter to decide whether to work with them. When people call for jobs or assignments, I look for women in senior roles, ask about it and discuss it. Many times, confronted with reality, you learn that some organizations think or say that they have women in senior roles, but they have some women with senior titles who aren’t part of the circle where decisions are made. Or there is one woman in the brotherland who has been just the first for a decade. What I haven’t seen is a truly healthy, happy culture where diversity isn’t part of the combo at every level.

I’ve been outspoken because ageism, like sexism, is a field in which our community has work to do to foster industry-wide change. The struggles of starting a career are different from those of women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond who have lost the place they rightfully won, deserve, fought for, and took too long to materialize. Many have been marginalized by an industry they helped build. They matter as much as young women do, and not supporting them is self-defeating because luckily most of us gets to age eventually.

Yet, when senior ladies so much as try to talk about their struggles, they are confronted with a plethora of “what about ageism against the young? We’re told that we’re junior!” First, what’s wrong with being junior? Maybe the problem is that you’re not compensated and treated as you deserve. Maybe seniors are struggling with the same and it’s scarier because they don’t have their lives ahead of them and do have more responsibilities and needs, like families and healthcare. Another thing I see is “youngsplaning,” in which a young person explains to a senior who is trying to talk about her experience that there are other forms of discrimination. That is perplexing because senior ladies, who lived through significantly less ‘enlightened’ times, are diverse in many manners and most have been fighting the good fights for decades.

What can other Tech Ladies do to either speak up about age discrimination or support a more age-diverse workplace?

Love this question! I’m a proud and happy Founding Member at Tech Ladies. Very grateful to Allison for this wonder that she has created, and looking forward to contributing to our growth — go us! We have a lot of work to do until each and every of us gets the opportunity, respect, treatment, and equal pay that she deserves, and can enjoy the right to work free of harassment and gaslighting, safe from sexual assault, and protected from discrimination.

Startups and digital shops aren’t hiring disproportionately very young people because they are without exception better than people over 40. They often do so to keep payroll and benefits to a minimum, and upper management isolated from critical feedback. The Logan’s Run-like ecosystem swallows up the “older” management and will do so with the next one. When people develop enough experience and maturity to manage and move companies to the next stage, they are erased.

When was the last time that you walked into a tech or digital shop and saw a critical mass (say 25%) of people over 40? 40! Of women over 40? In senior roles? For me, in the last five years the number has been zero. I do hope that younger women get to know how things were and how we ended up here, watch Hidden Figuresreadlisten, learn that there were women in critical roles, that tech and digital weren’t the exclusive invention let alone the workof young bros who didn’t finish college.