An open letter to up-and-coming women in digital design

4 min read
Shaina Rozen,
Rebekah Cancino
  •  Aug 25, 2017
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8/25/2017: In honor of Women’s Equality Day, we’re excited to re-share this post.

The people who use the products, apps, and interfaces you create are more diverse than ever.

Unfortunately, the tech industry you’re a part of isn’t.

Until we have equal representation from women and minorities in our workforce, the products and digital experiences we design will never be as strong, inclusive, or accessible as they could be.

As a young girl, you were probably told that if you worked hard and believed in yourself, you could do anything. Maybe you were even lucky enough to have a strong mother or mentor who was unafraid to have an opinion and determined to do things her own way.

“Pretending like the diversity problem in tech doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.”

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When you finally entered the workforce, you might have even still believed in the system that seemed to work so well from the outside looking in. Early in your career, it’s easy to rally and dismiss any instance of gender bias as an anomaly tied to the isolated actions of a misogynist boss, misguided co-worker, or simple misunderstanding.

Eventually, you can’t ignore the disturbing patterns and systemic problems at the heart of it all.

Numbers don’t lie

Gender bias and discrimination aren’t always overt.Twitter Logo They’re hidden in social norms, subtle stereotypes, and real differences in salary that hide in dark corners of secret spreadsheets. This is true in all of business—but especially for women working in tech and digital design.

Image by Niki Blaker.

While the tech industry is growing exponentially and boasts some of the highest paying jobs around, women currently only make up 30% of the tech workforce.

Here’s where things get worse: within the top 100 tech companies, women only make up about 16% of the technical rolesTwitter Logo (people who make things), 23% of leadership roles (people who decide what gets made and how), and only 6% of the chief executives (people who direct the overarching vision).

“Women currently only make up 30% of the tech workforce.”

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So it turns out that “you can do anything if you work hard and believe in yourself” isn’t quite true. There are real challenges that keep women and minorities from fully flourishing in digital design roles.

You can do something about it

Before we can overcome gender bias, we have to understand how to identify and counteract it. Pretending like the diversity problem in tech and digital design doesn’t exist won’t make it go away either. As a woman working in this industry—even if you’re on a diverse team where you haven’t ever experienced gender bias—there’s still a lot you can do to champion diversity in the larger community, support your fellow female colleagues, and set yourself up for long-term success.

This letter was written to encourage you, support you, and provide you with plenty of practical advice. We’ve gathered the most useful lessons we’ve learned, talked to some of the most badass veteran ladies in the industry, and distilled all the insights into a short list of habits you can start practicing right now.

7 habits powerful women practice

1. Embrace your strengths and personal style—they’re your path to greatness

We often spend more time fixing our shortcomings or trying to be like someone else than we do developing our strengths and owning what we’ve got. When we do that, our natural talents and sense of style go untapped.

Yes, it’s important to manage weak spots so they don’t trip you up. But it’s even more important to learn what you’re naturally good at, find opportunities to sharpen those strengths, and practice them every day.

Every self-perceived weakness you have can be flipped to become a competitive advantage.Twitter Logo For example, being more emotionally sensitive could mean you have an increased capacity for empathy, which is essential to good design. While good design decisions are always goal-driven and should never be arbitrary, your personal strengths and sense of style might just be the special something that helps you stand out.

Designers may strive to smother personal style, inclination, and preference with just what’s most appropriate for the client and their target audience, but our human reality is still undeniable: we all arrive with the sum of our personal experiences, unique talents, and predilections. Our clients and companies seek us out for that full package—those experiences and oddities differentiate us far more than our individual portfolios.

Women bring perspectives from lived experience that men cannot, just as designers of different ethnicities, body types, and age can draw on different personal experiences. That personal experience adds sensitivity to detail and nuance that enriches our work and empathy for end users.

Margot Bloomstein, author of Content Strategy at Work

2. Strategically grow your skillset and know your tools

There’s no shortcut for working hard to expand your skills, or substitute for empathy and enthusiasm. In terms of stuff you can control, they’re the only things standing between you and your dream opportunity.

IDEO, a leading product design firm, won’t hire anyone who doesn’t already exhibit those traits. They call it being “T-shaped.”

T-shaped individuals have a deep, principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T: they’re a front-end developer or web designer. But they’re so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as information architecture or typography, and do them just as well.

Cultivating your own T shape means deepening your area of expertise while smartly adding new skills and tools that make you a more knowledgeable, well-rounded designer. Follow some experts on Twitter who work in a parallel discipline, take a developer out to coffee and ask about how things really work on the back end of a recent project, or explore new tools that could help you work more efficiently.

Stay on top of your tools. The best designers I work with are the ones that know their tools better than anyone. If you lose touch with the applications you need to do your job, you are spinning your wheels, wasting energy. Learn your apps better than anyone; keep trying out new apps.

Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile and Going Responsive

3. Focus just as much on communication skills as you do on technical skills

You can never overdevelop your communication skills.Twitter Logo Whether it’s setting expectations, presenting your ideas well, or asking for a raise, your ability to connect with people is invaluable. It all comes down to understanding what people need, and why they would be motivated to hear you out in the first place.

“You can never overdevelop your communication skills.”

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Beyond that, learning how to back up decisions with logic and data can help you feel more confident and clearly explain your points. For example, if you’re unveiling a new design to a client, map each element back to their business goals and user needs so they understand the decisions you made and why.

Or if you’d like to ask for a budget increase, come prepared to justify it by listing out the exact goals you’ve reached so far and the quantitative or qualitative impact your project will have on the business.

“Understand what type of work gives you energy and what kind takes it away.”

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Taking the time to understand business goals and gain an intimate knowledge of your subject matter shows thoughtful consideration—and it builds trust.

Whether you’re an in-house designer, work for clients in an agency, or work independently, you owe it to your employer or client to understand their business. Are you doing work for a non-profit health organization? Then learn all the related acronyms. Are you doing work for a public corporation? Then learn why compliance regulations are necessary.

Not only will this help you improve your own skills as a designer, because you’ll have a better understanding of the industry, but it will help you make your case when proposing a design solution to stakeholders or clients, while positioning you as an expert who speaks their language, too.

Niki Blaker, AIGA President’s Council Chair and Founder of Five Sigma Studio

4. Protect your time, energy, and talent

It might be tempting—and, in some cases, necessary—to work long hours and say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way. Many of us fall into that trap regularly and find ourselves burnt out, resentful, and in search of a new creative spark.

“Never apologize for being confident and outspoken.”

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Listen, sometimes you’re going to have to put in extra time and take on assignments no one else wants. That’s called earning your right to do work you love and being flexible. But if you must, do it consciously and with purpose. Leave room for work that inspires you, too.

Keep in mind that finding your optimal workload might seem easy for some, but for the rest of us, it’s more of a weekly or seasonal ebb and flow. That’s okay. Do what’s right for you in whatever stage of life you’re in, and don’t judge other women for doing it differently or protecting their priorities.

Above all, understand what type of work gives you energy and what kind takes it away.Twitter Logo To thrive, you’ll need to find ways to eventually take on more projects that leverage your strengths and enliven you. Leaders learn to do this well, and they know how to recognize this ability in others.

First, learn to find your own balance in ‘doing’ and ‘leading.’ Many people aspire to positions of leadership (or at least, control). Positions managing or directing the work of others mean that you step away from hands-on design and develop different skills. It’s 100% normal to feel ambivalent about leadership roles once you are in them!

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received came from the (now former) CEO of Razorfish: during a performance review he told me to make sure I understand what I enjoy about my work and make sure I get to do that work. Because when you move into leadership roles, the demands of those jobs will always pull you away from what you love to do. You’re the only one who can protect your time and energy for what makes you feel energized.

Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile and Going Responsive

5. Stay open and look for opportunities to collaborate

No matter how talented you may be, nothing you can achieve on your own will ever be as strong as what you can accomplish when you’re working with a great team. Seek out opportunities to involve other people in your work who will add value, and create space for them to share their perspectives.

“Collaboration can help you create alignment and manage risk.”

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It can be as simple as running your design ideas past a developer early in a project, or inviting a customer service rep to help you understand how a user might interact with a feature. Together, you’ll create solutions that account for technology constraints, user needs, and business goals in a way that you couldn’t have done on your own. In addition to strengthening your digital projects, collaboration can help you create alignment and manage risk.Twitter Logo

When faced with a challenging situation, collaborate to problem solve. I’ve noticed a tendency in some designers to assume responsibility for things that they aren’t directly responsible for. While sometimes admirable, this often doesn’t serve you well in the long run. You can end up assuming a lot of risk and taking on others’ work. If you frame every problem as an opportunity for collaboration, you distribute responsibility and work.

It’s more important to get somewhere together rather than easier or faster. In other words, realign and syndicate work in progress so folks arrive at a final design or process together in full alignment. While it’s uncomfortable sharing work in progress, it’s much easier and much more inclusive to incrementally achieve agreement to ideas step by step than with a big bang or final reveal.

Amy Vickers, Vice President and Design Practice Lead at McKinsey & Company

6. Get by with a little help from your friends—and mentors

Having a mentor is a smart way to improve your skills, navigate politics, troubleshoot challenges, and progress in your career. If you were to ask any successful woman how she got to where she is today, she’d probably say she owes a lot to her mentors.

“Study those who are more advanced than you in their careers.”

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If you’re reaching out to a potential mentor, be clear about why you want to talk to them and what you’re expecting. Is there a particular challenge or goal you’d like to chat about? Do you want to meet at a specific time or just be able to call them whenever you need advice? Then when you have a meeting, come prepared with a few questions or topics you’d like their thoughts on. A little planning ahead will help make your time together as productive and mutually beneficial as possible.

Beyond mentorship, study those who are more advanced than you in their careers.Twitter Logo See what you can learn from the way they show up and do work. As Margot Bloomstein says, “While you can learn from everyone, not everyone offers examples you’ll want to emulate—and that’s a powerful lesson, too.”

While mentorship is important, it’s equally essential to have a network of people you can turn to for advice and support. When Samantha Warren found herself stuck in an unhealthy work culture, she relied on her network.

The most challenging situation for me was a workplace that fostered consistent unconscious gender bias and masked it through calling it their ‘culture.’ I have had a peer tell me that my typeface choice (Georgia) is ‘too feminine for this client’ during a design critique. Project managers who consistently gave the high profile projects to male colleagues and the smaller less risky projects to me and other women designers.

I worked through it by having supportive professional friends (male and female) who do not hold those biases and helped me to have the confidence to make a career move to a more healthy environment. Having a strong and authentic network has helped me through most of my biggest professional challenges.

Samantha Warren, Art Director and Experience Design Lead at Adobe

7. Stop apologizing and take a seat at the table

Sometimes people will invite you to share your opinion, contribute an idea, or shape the task at hand. Sometimes they won’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lean in and share what you’ve got anyway. It’s your right and responsibility to make a difference and add value where you can. So what if you get called “bossy” or “aggressive.” Take heart—you’re in good company.

A recurring experience for me is being given guidance that I can be perceived as abrasive when, in my perception, I’m simply challenging a frame or productively pushing a team. This is akin to girls being called ‘bossy’ whereas boys are expected to be directive, opinionated, etc.

Amy Vickers, Vice President and Design Practice Lead at McKinsey & Company

Amy diffuses those critics by asking for specific examples of those instances where they felt she was being “aggressive” or “bossy.” She listens graciously to what they have to say and considers all of it, without getting defensive, because it’s often through describing these instances in detail that the person giving the feedback begins to realize their own bias.

It’s smart to be empathetic in your approach, but never apologize for being confident and outspoken.Twitter Logo Expect that misconceptions might come up, and be prepared to address them and move on without getting bitter or resentful.

Often, the most challenging barriers are ones we impose on ourselves.Twitter Logo As Sheryl Sandberg says, “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.”

“Stop apologizing and take a seat at the table.”

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We are the only ones who can break down those internal walls and claim the confidence waiting on the other side.

We’re in this together

Creating workforce diversity and inclusiveness in our industry will be hard work, but for the next generation of women in digital design—and for the the endlessly diverse users who rely on us to create experiences that fit their lives—it will be worth it.

It takes bravery to show up and lean in, willingness to tear down preconceived notions, patience to fight unconscious bias, and courage to admit that we are worthy. But you can do it, and I can do it. Together, one woman at a time.

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