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What are the biggest hurdles faced by women in the design industry?

4 min read
Emily Stevens  •  Mar 8, 2019
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It’s International Women’s Day—a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

Let’s talk about what it’s really like to be a woman in the design industry in 2019 and explain the nuances of women’s issues in the workplace, with explanations of both the root cause of these problems and discussions of possible solutions.

Where are the women in design leadership?

It’s 2019, and yet: women hold just 11% of leadership positions in the design field.

According to the latest Design Census conducted by AIGA and Google, 53.5% of designers are women.

So where do the women fall off?

As said by Lynda Decker, Co-Chair of the AIGA Women Lead Initiative, in the 2018 McKinsey study of women in the workplace: “Once in the workplace, particularly after five to ten years, women start acutely feeling the lack of mentorship, celebration of women’s work, support for mothers, and equal pay.”

The cover of McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 report

You may be familiar with the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”—and that goes for the design field, too. Women designers aren’t getting the same recognition as their male counterparts, nor the same opportunities for progression and promotion—in part because they have so few role models in those positions.

Role models are absolutely key in achieving gender parity; studies have shown that women role models encourage and inspire other women to make different choices

For example, women students are more likely to choose a major in STEM when assigned a woman professor, while retention of junior-level women employees is highly correlated with the number of women supervisors.

“Once in the workplace, particularly after five to ten years, women start acutely feeling the lack of mentorship, celebration of women’s work, support for mothers, and equal pay.”

Lynda Decker
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While there are many truly remarkable women designers out there paving the way, the day-to-day reality is that most women designers don’t have enough women leaders, mentors, and role models in their immediate surroundings.

This problem stems from the lack of leadership roles available to women. This is an issue highlighted in McKinsey’s Women In The Workplace 2018 report: of the 64,000 North American employees surveyed, 33% of women reported never having a substantive interaction with a senior leader about their work, compared to 27% of men.

Furthermore, the study showed that men have more opportunities to interact with leaders outside of work too—55% reported that they socialize with their managers outside of work, compared to 47% of women. This has an impact: as noted in that same study, employees who have regular interaction with upper management are more likely to remain at companies, be on the receiving end of promotions, and, ultimately, land leadership roles.

The business impact of homogenous leadership

As Alex Durussel-Baker, freelance UX designer and host of CreativeMornings/Edinburgh, points out, diverse teams are 27% more likely to have superior value creation—so it’s the industry as a whole that suffers in the end.

Maternity leave should be encouraged, and motherhood should be celebrated.

On the obstacles that prevent women from bringing this much-needed balance to business, Alex states in the same study that she sees this as “an opportunity to reinvent the way we do things, to work with companies that have a diverse representation of decision-makers and embrace concepts like flexible working and shared maternity leave that allows both men and women to find better balance in work and life.

Perhaps it’s time to stop idealizing the top rung of that outdated ladder and redefine the definition of success in our industry.”

Diverse teams would also help redefine the products we create.

From crash-test dummies based solely on the measurements of the average male, to speech recognition software that is 70% more likely to understand a male voice. Or from inherently sexist AI to women chatbots perpetuating gender stereotypes—without enough women weighing in on how products are designed, made, and tested, we’re designing a man’s world.

“Women leaders must become the norm, not the exception.”

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Given the statistics, there is an abundance of woman design talent that just isn’t filtering up to the top. Organizations, however big or small, must focus their efforts on retaining and celebrating their women designers, and empowering them to progress.

Women leaders must become the norm, not the exception.

The gender pay gap and the importance of negotiation

Another infuriating reality for women in design: the gender pay gap.

When it comes to money, you’ll find gender disparity across most—if not all—industries, and design is up there with the worst of them.

“The truth is in the data: male and women designers aren’t receiving equal pay. Equal pay has become a reward you get for being brave enough to ask.”

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According to the results of the aforementioned Design Census, 34.6% of respondents who identify as male earn more than $80,000 per year—compared to just 24.1% of those who identify as women.

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, designers also featured on this list of the twenty jobs with the largest gender pay gap for women. According to the report, female designers take home just 73.1% of what their male counterparts are earning.

The truth is in the data: male and women designers aren’t receiving equal pay.

Equal pay has become a reward you get for being brave enough to ask. That’s why, when it comes to conversations about money, it’s critical to stay informed about the job market, both local and global.

Jannica Honey presenting at CreativeMornings Edinburgh, captured by Ellie Morag

Businesses must take it upon themselves to level out the playing field, but what is actually being done?

In the UK, large companies are now required by law to report publicly on pay by gender, though similar legislation has been suspended in the US. In short, progress is painfully slow, with the World Economic Forum predicting that, at this rate, it will take another 200 years to close the global gender pay gap.

Implicit bias—equality’s “silent killer”

While many organizations commit to gender equality on a visible, surface level, unconscious bias continues to ensure that women remain underrepresented.

“The impact of gender disparity goes far beyond the workplace. It shapes the world in which we live.”

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A great example of this is “think-leader-think-male”—the “other” consequence of the lack of female leadership. As more men climb up the leadership ladder, the more leadership appears male, and the more “manly” imagined leaders become. When we close our eyes and picture a design leader, based on our reality, that leader will be male. Which perpetuates the cycle of male leadership.

This isn’t something women have made up. The Hampton-Alexander Review, a study conducted by the UK government on the gender balance in British companies, published commonly-used reasons for not hiring women. And they’re bleak.

  • “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”
  • “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board—the issues covered are extremely complex”
  • “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”
  • “Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?”
  • “My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”
  • “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”
  • “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done—it is someone else’s turn”
  • The natural comeback is to say that women should keep pushing or trying harder, but men are admitting it too. According to a perception study conducted by Ernst & Young, men listed unconscious bias as the top barrier to women’s career progression.

    Everyone benefits from women in leadership

    The impact of gender disparity goes far beyond the workplace. It shapes the world in which we live.

    There are still some substantial hurdles when it comes to gender equality in the design field: a lack of female leadership, a significant pay gap, and the extremely complex issue of unconscious bias, to name just a few. Gender diversity in the workplace must be a priority—it’s 2019, and high time we levelled out the playing field.

    Plug: Are you an aspiring woman designer looking to shape the world around you? To celebrate International Women’s Day, CareerFoundry is offering up to $1000 off the full price of our UX Design, UI Design and Web Development courses for women who want to break into the field. Simply book a call with a Career Advisor and mention this post! This offer is valid until 31st March 2019.

    Want to read more about exceptional women in design?

  • 6 of the most influential women in UX today
  • Lessons from Within, the leadership retreat for women in design
  • Talking mentors, freelancing, and community with product designer Laura Galbraith