everal days into a recent trip to the Philippines, I found myself in a sunbaked conference room working alongside a talented team discussing the launch of a new enterprise. The new company was a spin-off of our U.S. operations, called Studio West. My role was small, serving as an advisor, providing insights, asking questions, and leading discussions as we worked to discover what this new organization was to become.
As our conversations came to a close, I couldn’t help but make a curious and inspiring observation. Looking across the room I realized that I easily stood out. It’s not that I was the only American present, or that I was a visitor. I stood out because I was the only one present who wasn’t a woman.
Finding myself outnumbered by brilliant women is not a unique occurrence in my life. Creative industries, especially those related to interior design and furnishings, are known for their female leaders. It is no surprise, then, that a majority of our team in the Philippines are women.
But what I had observed was something different. Something both cultural and institutional. For the entire length of my visit, nearly every professional interaction I had engaged in was with, or had been led by, a woman. Women were leading the design team, the legal team, the real estate team, as well as business consulting, architecture, and government relations. Even as I travelled the city, the overwhelming trend was that the key decision makers, influencers, and problem solvers I encountered were all women.
Before I returned to the U.S. I spent some time with my host, Maria Teresita Tambunting, or Triccie. Triccie’s career in design has taken her from Manila to New York and back again. For the last 11 years, she has been Director of Design, and more recently Vice President of a design studio in Ortigas Center (a business district in Metro Manila), providing outsourced design support to companies in the U.S. Now she stands at the center of a new endeavor, leading the launch of Studio West, and serving as the figurative matriarch for a hundred of its employees. I wanted to share with her my observations, to gain her perspective and to better understand its significance.
“The Filipino people are very resilient,” Triccie told me. “Especially Filipino women. We have adopted a ‘get things done’ attitude that comes from taking care of our families. We are a very matriarchal and familial society, and I think our women fit naturally into business leadership roles because of it.”
A 2010 labor force survey indicated that 2.5 million Filipino women were serving in government, corporate executive, managerial, or supervisory roles, as compared to only 2.4 million men. Even more, over 25 million employed women are college graduates, more than double the rate of men, at just over 10 million. While men still dominate the total labor force, Filipino women find themselves in the driver seat, serving in natural roles as leaders, knowledge holders, and mentors.
This fact is becoming increasingly evident in regards to the Philippines’ chief export – talent. A significant portion of the Filipino workforce, an additional 1.8 million people, are working overseas. Again, the majority of these workers are women.
In 2016, the World Economic Forum recognized the Philippines as the leading Asia-Pacific nation for gender equality, and seventh overall across 144 nations. And yet, despite this high ranking, the Philippines has seen a recent widening of the gender gap – most notably in regards to political empowerment and economic participation.
The number of women participating in legislation and senior manager roles has decreased since 2015’s measurements. One of the largest concerns for gender equality in the Philippines is in regards to the large percentage of women who are excluded from the workforce due to unpaid domestic and care work. The inverse is also true as many working mothers are often over-employed, working far above 40 hours per week to provide for their families.
As we spent the next week exploring the culture of the new organization we wished to create, the archetypes we wished to embody, and the relationships we aimed to model, it was clear that a sense of family and maternal leadership was deeply embedded within the organizational identity. In part, this was due to the fact that the team included many young working mothers. More importantly, it was clear that theirs was a culture that closely aligned with Triccie’s vision of the Filipino matriarch — and one that is, at times, adopted by her team quite literally — as other female leaders and managers within the organization are occasionally and casually referred to as “mama.”
This offhand term of endearment and respect is not as much intentional as it is a natural outgrowth of how the team interacts. It’s not a hierarchy driven by an org chart, but rather by a sense of respect, care, and belonging.
This nurturing approach is also evident in the organization’s purposeful commitment to training. If not for this commitment, many of Studio West’s employees (the majority of whom are female) would have few available paths into this industry, or the opportunities for prosperity and growth that it represents.
Attributing Triccie’s success, or the relative success of gender equality in the Philippines, solely to maternal behaviors would be both shortsighted and entirely limiting. This accomplishment is fundamentally rooted in hard work, commitment, and ambition. It is also equally due to institutional support in the form of the state’s ratification of the Magna Carta of Women, and the broader work of the Philippine Commission on Women among other government and private organizations.
Yet to exclude this inherent sense of familial responsibility from the equation would be equally reductive. The matriarchal structure of Studio West, for example, represents a very present and pervasive cultural link between the team and their responsibilities to each other and to their clients. Much work remains to be done before gender parity is reached in the Philippines, but the yet-unwritten story of Studio West and its path to success could very well pave the way.