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10 Design Leaders On How To Empower Women In The Workplace

Women design leaders at Uber, Facebook, Adobe, Pinterest, and more share stories of workplace sexism–and offer strategies for moving forward.

10 Design Leaders On How To Empower Women In The Workplace
[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

The tech and design worlds need more balanced leadership. Seventy percent of graphic design students are women, yet only 11% of creative directors are women. In the tech industry, which is notorious for gender imbalance, design leaders are looking for ways to support the career growth of female designers and build inclusive teams.

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At Women in Design 2017: Women Working TogetherDesigner Fund asked 10 design executives from companies like Facebook, Adobe, Uber, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Shopify, and Netflix how they create positive environments for female designers, and in particular, how colleagues can collaborate in this realm. The uniting message was that fellow women designers are one another’s most powerful assets. Read on for real stories about managing competition, examples of company-level programs that support women, and strategies to improve design team cultures.

[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

Managing a competitive landscape

With limited design leadership opportunities at tech companies, how do women approach competition when they pursue the same positions? The sentiment was unanimous: Advance the women around you, and you’ll all end up ahead.

Nancy Douyon, a UX researcher leading Global Scalable Research Platforms at Uber, shared a story about a past colleague in a higher-ranking position—and how Douyon wanted to leapfrog her. “I was trying to figure out how to do a double promotion,” she jokes.

One day, she and the senior woman were in a meeting full of men. All the men’s presentations received praise, but when the woman got up, a male colleague said, “I’m sorry, it’s too hard to see past the typos. Can we just move on?”

This caused a mind-set switch. “At that moment I realized how important it was not to compete but to celebrate each other,” says Douyon. “I now make it a point to affirm a woman who speaks up or to ask them follow-up questions in meetings.”

This idea appears in pop culture as the term “shine theory.” Coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, it means that you don’t shine if the women around you don’t shine. For example, women on Obama’s White House staff made a practice of amplifying one another’s contributions to make sure they were heard and given appropriate credit.

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These micro-level, individual adjustments add up to a bigger shift in women’s influence in the workplace. “It’s important to be deliberate about how we communicate with women,” says Laura Naylor, head of user experience research at YouTube. A recent study shows that men are three times as likely to interrupt women as they are men. This didn’t surprise Naylor, but here’s what did: 87% of the times that women interrupted, they were interrupting other women. “We need to be aware of unconscious biases and interact with one another in a way that strengthens us.”

But what happens when there is only one leadership position available and two women are competing for it? Bo Lu, product design lead at Pinterest, found herself in that situation when she and a female colleague applied for the same role.

“At the time, I wasn’t sure how to approach it,” Lu says. “Should I talk to her about it? She reached out to me first, saying, ‘I heard you’re applying for this, and I’m so glad another woman is stepping up.’ I respected her for the gesture, and we ended up going through the process in a transparent way, even expressing our insecurities. Initially it felt counterintuitive to open up to direct competition, but it made for a much more positive experience.” Lu noted that it’s a good idea to maintain open conversations after a promotion, when the relationship changes from “peer” to “hierarchy,” and discuss what the work relationship should look like.

When conflicts arise, women’s leadership coach Majo Molfino recommends nonviolent communication (NVC) to express needs and resolve tension. “NVC gives us practical tools and even step-by-step instructions to advocate for ourselves to coworkers and collaborators without alienating them,” says Molfino.

“A female designer I work with used NVC after she’d spent months re-designing a tech product and her manager launched an announcement post without crediting her,” Molfino says. “Rather than staying silent, the designer made a request to participate in future announcements, framing it in the context of her own need to feel included and acknowledged for her efforts. Acknowledging the incident in this way prevented resentment and gave her manager a clear roadmap for how to best support her in the future.”

[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

Getting institutional support

Many companies have programs and policies aimed at fostering women’s career growth. But effective initiatives are scarce: The average satisfaction rating for these programs is 2.2 out of 5 stars—the lowest-rated employer satisfaction metric tracked across 17,500 companies.

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This is unfortunate because research shows that women with female mentors are more likely to succeed and be satisfied in their careers, and that the quality of a company’s mentorship and sponsorship programs is highly correlated with female employees’ overall happiness and achievement.

Many tech companies have robust programs for women, and for good reason. Julie Norvaisas, director of user experience research at LinkedIn, discussed the pervasive micro- (and not-so-micro-) aggressions against women in tech, and described her own wake-up call: when a man told her he walked out of her presentation not because of its content, but because he didn’t like her hair and outfit. LinkedIn colleagues encouraged her to join the Women in Tech (WiT) group.

“At LinkedIn, WiT—along with other employee resource groups such as HoLA (Hispanics of LinkedIn Alliance), BIG (Black Inclusion Group), Out@In (for LGBTQ employees and allies), Veterans & Allies, and many more—fosters safe spaces for underrepresented groups to talk, advocate, and find allies,” writes Norvaisas. Women in Tech initiatives include Women Connect, a dinner event with keynotes and discussions about difficult and taboo topics, and WiT Invest, a four-month program of mentorship and access to resources.

But not every program has to be formalized. Cathy Lo, product designer at Instagram, believes in the power of connecting with fellow female design peers in informal groups: “Not everybody can have elaborate Women’s Leadership Day-type events,” she says, referring to an event for female Facebook employees that has speakers like Sheryl Sandberg and Maxine Williams. “But even now at Instagram we’ve started having conversational lunches with women designers in a smaller setting. It’s been really empowering.”

Companies can also give female designers communication tools to become involved in issues they care about. Lo uses Facebook’s Analog Research Lab, a creative space for design and art-making, where she teaches others how to use the tools to screen-print posters and other media.

[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

Supporting female designers at an individual level

Outside of a company’s policies and programs, individual men and women can create a positive design team culture and support female colleagues. That often starts with managers. 

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“My previous manager was the one to pull me aside one day and encourage me to apply for a bigger leadership role on our design team,” says Pinterest’s Lu. “It had never crossed my mind that I was qualified. He changed the trajectory of my career by identifying my potential. I would love to do that for another person who hasn’t found that voice for themselves yet. Some women don’t know how brilliant they are, or they’ve been socialized to play small when opportunities come along.”

Informal mentorship, and giving designers access to people for long-term career discussions, makes a difference. “If women on my team come to me for mentoring, I always make time for it,” says Jamie Myrold, VP of design at Adobe. “I love to help them figure out the next step, or how to make something better. There’s always an opportunity beyond what they can see or what they think is available to them.”

At YouTube, Laura Naylor says she often plays the role of mentor-matchmaker. She also has a peer mentorship relationship with UX research leader Kerry Rodden. “I can bounce ideas off her, think about the future, and have someone who challenges me.” Julie Norvaisas credits her mentor, design leader Steve Johnson (now at Netflix), for encouraging her to get involved in WiT at the invitation of colleague Sarah Clatterback. 

Managers are also in a position to combat unconscious bias. For example, women are less likely to put themselves up for promotion. “Simply by knowing this, you can tap more women in your team and try to course-correct in some ways,” says Naylor. Design managers can be mindful and give technically challenging work to men and women in equal doses, and place value on leadership strengths that tend to go unrecognized, such as accommodation, consensus, and networking.

Rachel Robertson at Shopify has each designer on her team create a “personal blueprint” to share with colleagues—a practical overview of their work quirks, how they like to receive feedback, and what people can come to them for. This sets the tone for peer collaboration and makes the design team better at working together overall, she says.

[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

Navigating The “Likeability Penalty”

Research has shown that women who are seen as successful and accomplished are also seen as less likeable, whereas competence and likeability go hand-in-hand for men with the same résumé,” says Heather Phillips, design director at Abstract. “This is called the ‘likeability penalty.’ How can female executives be perceived as strong leaders, while staying true to the personality or leadership style that comes naturally to them?”

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“I’ve been on teams where the natural communication style is to talk over one another to make a point,” says Bo Lu. “My style is to wait until someone’s finished to insert my views, and I appear less dominant. So I got feedback to be more assertive and visible. I tried it and got feedback that I was too aggressive and asking too many questions. I can’t please everybody, so I might as well be me.”

Naylor once got feedback to put more smiley faces in her emails because she appeared too aggressive. At Adobe, Jamie Myrold came to similar conclusions as Lu: “I’ve gotten feedback that I should be more assertive in meetings and speak louder, but it’s just not my style. I take the feedback and stay aware of my presence in executive-level meetings. But I’m not going to fake it just because someone says to be more assertive.”

“It’s emotionally and psychologically exhausting,” says Nancy Douyon. “I tried to fit in, and it wore me out. People had to start to take me as I was.”

She points out that being herself at work helps other women do the same. In a similar vein, Cathy Lo’s old boss, Maria Guidice, CEO of Hot Studio, taught Lo the power of individuality. “She would always be herself. What I’ve learned from Maria and other mentors, like Facebook’s VP of design Margaret Stewart, is that the key to success is to be yourself and don’t be afraid. I want to create a space at work where other people can do the same.”

[Photo: Melanie Riccardi]

The Takeaways

If we are to elevate women in design, we need to make a few investments. The first is institutional. We can implement resource groups, events, programs, and policies that create safe and supportive environments for female designers.

The second is an investment in relationships. We can be intentional in our communication with female colleagues and amplify one another’s voices instead of competing.

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And the third is our own development. We need to look within, figure out who we are and what we stand for, and practice self-care until we’re comfortable showing up as ourselves.


Nathalie Arbel is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.