Designer Ladies Need to Represent

The available financial and career opportunities in the design field for men versus women has always interested me. What prompted me to write about it was a slideshow I saw on Fast.co Design profiling CEO/Designer Duos. Kudos to them.

It’s about time executive management is recognizing a need for designers in the C-Suite, as I wrote about back in August. The thing that struck me was that out of the eight pairs they profiled, there was only one woman in the design executive role, and that was Melody Roberts who is a Senior Director of Experience Design Innovation at McDonald’s. Ugh, that is pathetic.

The first job I held in the design field (back in 2000 in the Bay Area) was at a startup enterprise software company doing UI Design and Front End Development. I was pretty fluent in HTML, CSS, Javascript, and XML. My design group consisted of five female designers, one male designer, and a female design manager. The remainder of the engineering group was at least 90 percent male. Design and development didn’t work well together, and the manager I worked for reported to a man. In fact, except for HR, there weren’t really any ladies in executive management. That’s not to say that there were no women there. We had a couple of product managers, an engineering manager, and a few developers. Working there I always felt tension between the female designers and the male engineers. I felt less likely to be listened to, or received less constructive criticism, or wasn’t even allowed to be able to be part of the process.

This is not to criticize my former employer. I worked with many excellent people there and loved what I did.

Over the years, some things have changed, while others have not. Are there more women getting design-related degrees? Absolutely. I believe the number is a 50/50 split. At most of the other companies in which I’ve worked, at the Junior to Senior levels you see a considerable number of women. Once you get to the Director/CD/ECD/VP/CCO levels, you barely see women on the executive floor. Why is that?

And let’s not introduce Sheryl Sandberg into the mix. Having women Lean In so that we can do a role reversal doesn’t help anyone. What we’re looking for here is parity and equality. In fact, I can’t resist posting this, but she just gave Paul Ryan the “Lean In Award of the Day.” This is a man who “voted against the The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and then against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Of 2009. He also opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, another legislative effort to balance gender-based income disparities, in 2008 and 2009.”

Is the perception that women just don’t make good executive leaders? Are men afraid of being upstaged by a woman? Are women dropping out of the workforce before they get to the executive level because of children or family conflicts? Or are women just tired of the relentless fight to be heard and respected.

And, yes new female designers, you will have to speak more, argue louder, and be prepared to work harder.

John Mindiola in an article in Smashing magazine says this about a panel on which he sat which discussed the difference in female designers between the classroom and the boardroom.

“My audience for the session? Predominantly female. It seems the topic itself is more intriguing for women than men. What these women had to say was sobering. One mentioned that it’s foolish to expect a male-dominated field to be able to design interfaces that appeal to how women want to interact with technology. In other words, young girls put off as consumers of technology aren’t likely to desire to create in that arena.

Another common theme during the discussion was that of heroes. So few female designers exist, and of them, few are known superstars in the industry. Of these, even less are known by individuals outside of the industry. Lack of visible female heroes results in lack of female interest. But there are countless male role models in the field; why can’t they be heroes for young girls with computers? The same reason why I’d rather aspire to be Run DMC, than Mariah Carey.

There is also an unspoken expectation that women are very creative and make great print designers, but aren’t wired to splice the intricacies of new and constantly changing software and platforms.

I believe this last paragraph is largely true. Before I could get any respect for my work, I had to prove that I have the same or greater technology chops. Not that I believe this isn’t true for men, it’s just that women have to work twice as hard to get the same results.

And there is also this: “Only 7.5 percent of regular patent and 5.5 percent of commercial patent holders are female.” Why is this? I don’t believe it is due to lack of skill or ambition.

I’m lucky that I have a few female design heroines. One is Denise Burton, a User Experience Design Principal at IBM, who, beside being a design par excellence, she’s also crazy creative and always fights the good fight.

The other is Kate Burch Canales the Director of Design and Innovation Programs and Research Professor, Lyle School of Engineering at SMU. She’s wickedly smart and an excellent leader.

There are others as well.

This post wasn’t intended to encourage a “who is a better designer” debate. Its intent is to remind people that women have made great strides in terms of getting into the design field, it’s just that we’re going to have to find some way to provide women a path to the executive table.

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