Women are on the warpath. We are seeing more and more women fight for what is rightfully theirs: an equal position at the top. However, still only about 11% of design leaders are female — why is that and how can we change it?
In Part 1 we explored some of the issues preventing women from gaining positions in leadership. We reviewed the biases and facts and we now know there is an abundance of female design talent that just isn’t filtering up to the top. In part 2, we take action, explain the benefits of female leadership and provide tools for individuals and organisations—however big or small—on retaining and celebrating their women designers, and empowering them to progress. Women leaders must become the norm, not the exception.
Everyone benefits from women being in leadership
But why should we be at the top — what makes us so damn special?
Formidable characters: Let’s been honest if a woman has got to the top despite all we discussed in part 1, they’re a pretty tough woman, with brilliant resilience. Resilience is a necessary skill as a designer, with feedback and design critiques or client meetings that don’t quite go our way, resilience is integral to our success as designers. Any female at the top will ooze with resilience and be a great example to your wider team of designers.
Empathy: Women are societally coached to be more empathetic, from an early age we given more face time with our mothers and begin to understand social cues—this is great for women but not so good for boys. For better or for worse women are also taught to be more aware of ourselves in relation to others from a relatively young age.
The above, as well as other areas of social conditioning, tends to make women more empathetic. Empathy is an important leadership skill — it helps to build trust with your employees and co-workers, in turn helping with staff retention. It will also increase collaboration, creativity and productivity and should flow down through the business/team and create a positive and conflict-free workspace. Empathy and design go hand and hand so it only makes sense to have women lead the creative department.
Competence: Women are pretty competent creatures, they know how to get shit done. Again, when we reflect on the learnings in part 1, most of the women in senior positions have worked incredibly hard to prove themselves and get where they, and once there, they have no intention of taking their foot off the peddle.
Ambition: Women make great leaders because they have big ambitions and dream big, and if they have got to a position of seniority they are likely to have challenged big assumptions and pushed through a lot of negativity. Design needs innovators, it needs people that don’t take no for answer but instead uses it as fuel to create something new, something better. Design, therefore, needs women.
Above is a pretty convincing argument to why women need to be part of leadership teams, but how do we start to make a change?
Some tips for success — I’ve got your back
It starts at the very beginning; women need women. We need to support and elevate one another, but we need to do it the right way. Begin by advancing the women around you, learn how to become a good mentor or sponsor and then become one. Raise the young women around you to believe they are as capable of achieving success in leadership as their male counterparts.
And celebrate other women; it goes without saying, we need to give one another a voice, be the woman in the room to build other women’s confidence. By being an advocate for fellow females we’ll all end up ahead.
“Some women don’t know how brilliant they are, or they’ve been socialized to play small when opportunities come along.” — Bo Lu
Alternatively, find a sponsor, go beyond a mentor and find someone who wants the best for you, who is willing to put themselves on the line for you. Demonstrate the desire to succeed, prove to them that by investing in you they are not only going to make you successful but, in turn, it’ll increase their level of success.
On a more personal level, don’t get sidelined and avoid the laterals. If at any point you are placed into a staff or line role and you are pushing for seniority, it’s time to look for a new role. Once you have been sidelined it is almost impossible to move on from there.
Look at the opportunities being presented to you, if it’s not a stretch assignment or if it’s a prove-it-again opportunity you have two options, take it and push it, turn it into something greater or pass it by and ask for a bigger stretch assignment. Also be cautious with glass-cliff opportunities either avoid them completely or go in with eyes wide open, knowing there may be a possibility of failure.
When it comes to salaries, as an employer if you offer a female designer a job offer at the top of their salary range. However, if are going for a job, do your research, assume we’re underpaid and ask for what you're worth.
Finally, make your tribe more inclusive. All of the above not only applies to women but many minorities and the more you can open yourself to other cultures and beliefs the more understanding you will be people and the better leader you will become.
To make a change we need to acknowledge there is a problem. 78% of companies report that gender diversity is important in the ranks of their leadership. Yet gender parity in the workplace will be a pipe dream unless we complement desire with action. We need to create supportive environments for female leaders, and as demonstrated above it will pay off in the long run.
As we have discovered women make formidable design leaders and while there are still some substantial hurdles when it comes to equality, gender diversity in leadership must be a priority and we must take action. Let’s build our networks, be each others allies, be a mentor and shape the world we live in.