Gender Gap – How to design a workplace that empowers women

With International Women’s day happening just a few week ago, we once again made a call to close the gender inequality gap. While the topic of gender inequality at the workplace is something we’ve all heard about (and might be tired of hearing), the topic is especially pressing in the design industry. And here is why.

Studies show that the design field is one of the areas where gender inequality is especially severe. A 2018 research by the Design Museum shows that while the underrepresentation of women is absent from an academic point of view, with about seven out of ten design students being female, many of the graduates don’t make it into the workplace successfully. As working designers, women namely only make up one in five professionals and inhibit only 11% of leading design positions.

But what are the reasons for this disparity?

No transparency in reporting

Some countries such as the UK for example have made it mandatory for companies counting more than 250 employees to report on their gender pay gaps. The problem however is that most design agencies aren’t affected by this measure as they are often much smaller than this. This makes the design field more oblivious to prevailing gender injustices.

Women remain the primary caregivers

As women remaining the primary caregiver, they average about 36 workhours per week, whilst men reach an average of 41 hours. The problem is that many companies still view working overtime as an expression of worker’s commitment and determination to a promotion, therefore putting women automatically in a second place among the candidates for a promotion. Furthermore, in search of better insurance cover and parental support, women tend to work at larger design agencies rather than independent design studios. As independent agencies are often of greater prominencey and renowned to win in competitions, helping employees to move up the career ladder, working mothers at mainstream agencies often miss out on these opportunities.

The importance of gender-identical role models

Another reason for underrepresentation of women at the top is the lack of role models in the workplace. Role models have an assuring and legitimizing effect on other women in the workplace. A study carried out by the University of Massachussets confirms this: When they run tests with same sex mentors they found that women were higher-performing. Malhotra, an Indian graphic designer and studio owner makes an attempt for explanation:

“Role-models are about seeing possibility for yourself; when you have them, there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll fulfil your ambition. “ (Source)

So same sex role models are particularly empowering and often lacking in the design field as a report from AIGA’s Eye on Design concluded that female speakers only make up 35.7% at European design conferences.

Brotherhood in the design field

Furthermore, various records of women have stated that there is a particularly strong brotherhood going on in the design field often excluding women. This group formation often makes women doubt their own validity and through this uncertainty make them more risk averse and less likely to speak up. As a consequence, this lack of bonding and being part of the “squad” makes them less likely to move up to leading positions as their capabilities are undermined.

Women face greater pushback

Another common explanation for the pay gap is that women don’t ask as frequently for a pay raise as men. A study by McKinsey however found that it is not the case that they ask less frequently but the problem is that when they do ask, they get more resistance and pushback than men, eventually causing them to cease. Adding to this is the fact that women generally receive less feedback than men, whereas they ask for it as often as men do.

Unconscious bias towards women

This unconscious bias towards women is furthermore contributing to inequality. Viewing women as less valuable and not as committed to the workforce as men has implications on our views on women and their status in the workplace. A study by Ernst & Young stated unconscious bias as one of the main reasons for the work position discrepancy between men and women.

Women’s lack of self-confidence

One thing that separates women from men in terms of their personality is the fact that women generally tend to underestimate themselves and are more modest about their achievements whereas men often dare to take on greater challenges as they’re more self-confident. Men therefore also more openly proclaim their personal achievements making themselves ultimately better at selling themselves.

So, the question remains – What can companies do to create a workspace that empowers women?

Enforcement of company policies

From a top-down perspective, one effective thing that employers can do is to create policies that discourage gender bias and harassment and that actively encourage female inclusion in the workspace. However, it is also important to realize that those regulations only turn out to be empty words if disregarded by frontline managers. It is therefore important to ensure concrete plans of actions the company wants to take and to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding the new policies. For example, the company can work to offer better child support services or at least offer more flexible models of work to accommodate working mothers.

Legally binding measures

To make such measures even more effective, they have to be legally binding. One way of doing this is by enforcing gender quota laws which make sure that there is an equal gender representation. Whether this opens the debate for more injustices and other arising problems is left aside for now. Furthermore, measures like we saw in the example of the UK, where companies are forced to report on potential gender gaps, have to be stepped up by making reporting necessary regardless of a company’s size. That way also smaller sized design agencies would need to be transparent and open up about inequalities in the workplace.

A new performance measure

Another issue, as mentioned earlier, is that women or working mothers in particular spend fewer hours at the work desk than men. This is rather suboptimal for a promotion as many employers are still attached to the view that the work hours invested is a reliable performance indicator. However, one source stated that performance measured in terms of hours spent at the work desk is not a representative performance indicator as it doesn’t take into account efficiency or productivity. If we want to create a workplace promoting female leaders we have to change this notion.

Open up dialogue

In terms of communication, companies should open up dialogue about gender bias in order to encourage women to openly address any injustices they experience and make colleagues more understanding of their situation. Also, companies can offer workshops and trainings for women that support nonviolent communication that aid women’s advocation for their rights and needs. That way they would be better equipped to stay persistent when it comes for example to salary negotiations.

Fighting bias through active encouragement and education

As has been addressed, whereas women ask just as much as men for a pay raise, they face greater pushback than men. Women have still a hard time in the workplace to be seen as valuable and credible sources of knowhow. The old image of women in the primary role of caregivers still overshadows our modern society. If we really want women to climb to the top of the leadership ladder, a general shift in mindset has to take place. Women shouldn’t have to assert themselves against men but finally should be taken seriously for all their skills and capabilities that make them a valuable addition to any company. In a women empowering workplace it is therefore also the job of the employer to actively encourage women in the company to apply for leading design positions and thereby reinforcing their capabilities. From an educational point of view it would make sense to include education on gender in the curriculum, consequently opening  up perspectives on stereotypical gender roles early on.

But one last question remains. Why should women be empowered in the first place?

Besides the obvious fact that women should have equal rights as men and therefore be treated equally, the inclusion of women in the workplace has a positive effect on the company overall.

Designed-in gender bias

As we live in a world dominated by men, we’re also prone to design a man’s world. It is proven that even when it comes to the design of things, there is designed-in bias favouring male recipients. Just to name an example, speech recognition is 70% more likely to comprehend men rather than women. In order to get rid of this “designed-in” bias, we need to recruit more women into the design field and higher ranking positions in particular. Design should be about inclusion which is not possible when we already exclude some people in the design process. Human centered design should be freed from any form of bias.

More (gender-)diverse teams have greater success

Another reason why we should actively empower women at work is because diversity is beneficial for business. As a matter of fact, diverse teams, thereby also encouraging the inclusion of women, are able to create 27% greater value than less diverse teams. Moreover, Hoogedorn et al. (2013) also discovered that gender-diverse project teams will generate greater profits, making women’s inclusion pay off in a literal sense.

Greater employment satisfaction

Other studies suggest that the inclusion of women in the workplace lead to greater employment satisfaction and engagement as well as reducing the risk of burnout. Consequently, dedication will be higher and a company’s efficiency will increase resulting in greater innovation efforts.

This article had the aim to illustrate some common causes for gender discrepancy in general and in the field of design in particular. It was followed by a set of suggestions on how to create a work environment that empowers women and ends with a notion of why the inclusion of women in the workplace pays off on all ends. Especially in a design process it is important to draw on diverse perspectives as design always should be an inclusive activity. If not, we risk to design for a men’s world. But just as Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, says “Diversity is our world’s greatest asset and inclusion is our biggest challenge” – While we still have a long way to go when it comes to including women in the workplace and it is by no ways an easy task, it will be worth it in the end.



1 Reply to “Gender Gap – How to design a workplace that empowers women”

  1. Thank you for posting this article, Nina! I found it very interesting and insightful.
    As you mentioned, nowadays gender inequality is still a big topic – in Switzerland too. Nevertheless, it struck me to read that this is a pressing topic in the design industry. Seeing design as a modern discipline linked to urban environments, I would have thought that the mindset there was more open-minded and progressive. Having said that, I appreciated the way you implemented study cases, concrete examples, as well as real data to support your ideas throughout the whole article.

    From a structural point of view, I found it inspiring how you decided to organize the content, dividing the text into three main sections: what are the possible reasons for disparity; what can companies do to create a workspace that empowers women and, finally, what are the benefits when empowering women (other than the fact that, as you also mentioned, equal rights should be guaranteed anyway). Moreover, the questions asked to introduce the content invite the reader to make up their thoughts and help to keep them involved. Also, the complementary topics enable the reader to build a logic red thread, while the subchapters give orientation and structure to the text.

    If there is something I would have done differently, I would suggest mentioning the aim of your blog post at the very beginning, so to give the reader an initial idea of what to expect. Also, I believe this would contribute to further persuade him or her to read your article. Having said that, your choice of reconnecting the post with the International Women’s day was a brilliant move, as it highlights the importance of the topic even more.

    The ideas included in your blog post are very well thought through, insightful and well supported by reliable sources. Every single paragraph, as well as the subtitles you chose to display, contains precious information that constantly supports the current sub-topic. If this was not meant to be a blog post for a school assignment, I believe it would have been valuable to address it to companies directly having, that way, a bigger impact. In addition to this, I also believe that governments play a key role in decreasing gender gap: appropriated policies, together with an education system that promotes gender equality, can make the difference.

    Overall, the great use of the language and the consistency of your thoughts add value to your piece. Your ability in writing and storytelling contributes to keeping the reader’s concentration and interest high. Your article was really enjoyable and easy to read: I would highly recommend you to further pursue and advocate your passion for writing! Well done 😉

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