Why Are Women Still Behind in the Design World?

It’s 2020, but women designers still face lower pay and less opportunity. What gives?

Olivia Brown
Jan 28, 2020 · 6 min read
Illustrations: Olivia Brown

Equal pay. Equal representation. Equal opportunity. If you think these are givens of the professional design world — think again. In some ways, design in 2020 is still in the dark ages. We spoke with top female creative directors to find out just how dark it is.

Fifty-three percent of all graphic designers are women, but only 11% of creative directors are women. We know what you’re thinking: That’s it? 11%? You’re joking. But it’s true. It’s perfectly plausible that a female graphic designer might never work under a female creative director. In fact, 70% of young female creatives say they have never worked under a female creative director.

But does it really matter if your CD is male or female? After all, your boss might never be your favorite person in the world, so does it make a difference if they look like you?

It does. Women in graphic design who have worked for women — like Abbey Kuster-Prokell, creative director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and Claire Fraze, senior art director at Swift Agency — told us exactly how valuable that experience can be.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve made a conscious effort to only work for strong, uber-talented women,” Kuster-Prokell said. “In most of these roles, I didn’t make as much as some of my friends, but I valued the experience more. Not to discredit my time with male CDs, but it’s the female CDs who have helped to shape not only my career, but who I am.”

“I was a decade into my career before ever experiencing female leadership,” said Fraze. “When I was finally lucky enough to work under an incredible female CD, my self-confidence and growth just skyrocketed. She challenged me as much as she encouraged me and took the time to figure out what motivated me in a way I had not experienced previously.”

Sydney Wisner, founder of the Portland chapter of Ladies, Wine & Design, thinks that cycle of male domination in the industry has been tough to break because of natural biases in hiring.

“Men — yeah, not all men, but that’s not my point — are often intimidated by women with power and women with strong voices and opinions, which means in the hiring process, they are more likely to choose someone who is more agreeable and shares similar values,” Wisner said. “This candidate often ends up being another man, making it nearly impossible for women to climb career ladders all the way to the top.”

Women influence upwards of 80% of consumer spending and 60% of social media sharing. But, if you’ll recall, they only hold 11% of the leadership jobs in graphic design. With 89% of teams being led by men, how can we expect content to accurately represent women — the ones who are the largest influencers of spending and media sharing?

Wisner says, intuitively, that no one knows how to market to women better than women. “If companies really want to be setting themselves up for success,” she said, “they would be putting more relatable people in leadership positions.”

Wisner cites an example of an inspiring company with female leadership: Bumble. Founded by Whitney Wolfe Herd, Bumble puts women first by putting online dating in their hands — only the female in a heterosexual match can initiate a conversation. The app goes above and beyond to make dating a safe space for women.

“Do you think those values would have been installed if Bumble was run by a man?” Wisner asked. “No, it would be another Tinder.”

The typical woman working as a designer earns $44,564 a year, just 73% of the median income of $60,944 for men in the profession. How is that large a pay gap still possible? Can any of these smart women designers help us understand — and if it can’t be explained, can we just get pissed off about it?

“I think women are conditioned not to ask for more — that it would seem greedy or presumptuous,” said Meg Vazquez, creative director at Splice. “My friends in the industry and I are all incredibly open with each other about our experiences asking for raises or title changes, and it’s helped me be so much more comfortable advocating for myself. You’re your best advocate; you can’t trust that anyone else will go to bat for you.”

Fraze added, “It is so disheartening (and enraging) to think that our work, our process, our ideas, our inspiration, and every other thing we give to our work is worth less just because of our gender alone.”

Studies show many women won’t apply for a role until they meet 100% of the hiring criteria, while men will apply with only 50% met. Betti Iannucci, VP of design at Bloomingdale’s, thinks this difference in confidence, specifically a lack of it for women, is culturally induced.

“Men seem to grasp for more even if their reach is not so broad. They try,” Iannucci said. “Women tend to be more constrained in their thinking. It’s an attitude. Which one is right? I think there is learning to do on both sides. Many people get the job and many fail the role they fought so hard for.”

“It’s an advantage to completely meet the criteria for a job listing. That’s the long game,” said Angi Arrington, creative director at Watson Creative. “Frauds are exposed, one way or another. True confidence comes from deep preparation, investment, research, and refinement. True confidence is earned. It can’t be faked. Anything less is bad business. And bad businesses eventually sink.”

“I think it again comes down to societal conditioning,” Vazquez said. “Women and people of color have to work so much harder than the next person to be seen as competent. Because of this I think we’re less likely to apply for positions that we might not think we’re a perfect match for. I remind myself that I should always be punching above my weight class because the person before or after me is definitely doing the same.”

Let’s recap

Women get paid less for the same work and get hired less often for leadership positions, even though they make the majority of consumer decisions. Now you’re going to say there’s nothing we can do about it?

Uh, no. In fact, it’s up to us to step up.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think women do themselves any favors trying to be more like men,” Arrington says. “I say double down on being a woman.”

Experience an interactive version of this article over at Ceros Originals.

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