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Blog Gender Equality in Design

March 9, 2019

Men. We need you. We can’t do it without you. We need you here, standing up for us and stepping out of the way so that we can move into positions of leadership. This is what I heard during the Achieving Gender Equity in Design Leadership session featuring Oen Hammonds, Emily Oberman and Heather Stern, and moderated by Lynda Decker, a conversation intended to change the odds for women in the creative field. Much of the conversation focused on the role of men in supporting women and clearing a path for female growth and empowerment. The conversation started with some unsurprising statistics:

  • Entry level men are on average, more likely to be promoted than their female peers.
  • Women who aspire to be top executives are significantly less likely to think they’ll become one than men with the same aspiration
  • Women who negotiate for raises and promotions are 30% more likely than men to be labeled intimated,  too aggressive and bossy.

Gender equality is by no means a new or revolutionary topic, but when you factor in the lack of female representation in design, the facts are staggering. According to David Cohen in an article in Adweek only 11% of Creative Directors are women, and it’s only grown 8% in the last four years. Men make up 89% of Creative Directors and are 50% of the population – that is one massive gap. How do we close the gap in our profession and find leadership opportunities for the number of capable women designers we’re fortunate to have on our teams?

It starts by redefining what we think of a leader looks like and sounds like, which are often a part of our ingrained biases. According to Stern, when both men and women were asked to draw a leader, most drew a white man and most described the men with positive attributes and the women with more critical attributes. Men are evaluated on their potential, while women are evaluated on their resume. It is time to start thinking about what women MIGHT do and how they might fit into the model of success instead of evaluating them based on what they’ve done in the past.

To ensure success after hiring, mentorship programs are a critical part of female workplace success, however, women have a higher rate of success when their mentors are men or if they have sponsorship from men. Male counterparts are able to clear the path for women, but Hammonds states that men must not only step up and support women, but must then step aside so that they can begin to chart their own path. It is also critical for them to understand the nuanced implicit biases that is not a part of their own experience. Decker recommended that interested mentors explore Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as an excellent place to start.

Formalized programs such as diversity and inclusion initiatives are an excellent approach to institutionalizing gender equality in an organization. When a company is committed to taking action to make progress on gender diversity, there a six actions it must take if it wants to move the needle according to a McKinsey survey, Women in the Workplace:

  • Get the basics right—targets, reporting, and accountability.
  • Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair.
  • Make senior leaders and managers champions of diversity.
  • Foster an inclusive and respectful culture.
  • Make the being “the Only” experience rare.
  • Offer employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives.

It’s time for the design industry to make a formal commitment to gender diversity. Finn has started its official Diversity and Inclusion program with a focus on intersectional gender diversity, and while we are infancy, I couldn’t be more proud of this organization and its commitment to paving the path for me and my colleagues.


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