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Designing Women: How outdated ideas about femininity hurt design leaders of all genders and stifle business innovation

I have held all manner of design roles in all manner of companies, from an independent contributor to the leader of large global functions. No matter the role, the industry, or my place in the corporate hierarchy—every stop along my career path has required me to navigate two distinct challenges:

  1. Being a woman in male-dominated spaces, and

  2. Defending the value of design to non-designers

 

That these challenges were actually intertwined didn't occur to me until I read this mind-blowing piece by Mauricio Cordeiro Manhaes: Designers are Treated Like 'Women' by Organizations.


Photo of Barbie wearing a T-shirt that reads "Be Your Self"
Words like "empathy" and "feedback" sound suspiciously Barbie to the Kens running many of the companies where designers work.

Manhaes, a service design consultant, conducted a study which found that designers of all genders face discrimination in organizations because our role is associated with traditionally "feminine" traits. The research found “systemic patterns of designers being belittled, obstructed, and excluded,” which mirrors how women are often treated in the workplace.

 

"People with traditionally considered feminine characteristics are treated worse than people with traditionally considered masculine ones," Manhaes wrote. "Men who align themselves with 'femininity' are treated worse than men who don't."

 

This topic is particularly timely now, with major changes afoot in the tech industry. Designers have been pushed to the sidelines. Many companies appear to be “breaking up with design” and design leaders.

 

Women, of course, have been pushed to the sidelines for millennia. And no matter how many International Women’s Day events we hold at the office, the trend continues. This very minute women are being laid off at higher rates than men.



Minimizing the contributions of design and of women are hurting businesses and their customers.

 

These issues are connected. That realization has helped clarify one of the most confounding and painful workplace experiences I've ever had. More on that later.

 

Bigger picture, it explains so much about the Sisyphean task designers face in getting taken seriously in tech. I may be shouting into the wind, but I want to say this at full volume: Minimizing the contributions of designers and of women are hurting businesses and their customers. The future of tech depends on us elevating and valuing femininity in the workplace.

 

Before we go there, let's unpack a few things.

 

Masculine vs. feminine traits

 

Gender is a social construct, but a particularly powerful one that permeates our belief systems and affects the way we interact. We cannot escape the stereotypes:

 

Masculine = bold, confident, active, strong, independent, ambitious

Feminine = thoughtful, emotional, passive, caring, interdependent, other-focused

 

It's all rather silly, of course—each of us has the potential to exhibit any of these qualities in any moment. In any event, it’s not the traits themselves that cause problems. It's how we systematically diminish femininity while “performing” masculinity in ways that are ineffective and detrimental to the business and the people who work there.


But when we “perform” masculinity at work, without taking into account our effect on the people around us, bold becomes reckless. Confident becomes close-minded and arrogant. Assertive becomes domineering. Strong becomes bullying.

 

Performative masculinity

 

The purpose of “performing” masculinity at work is to signal to those in power that we belong. We are "leadership material." We identify with the dominant social group. But when we “perform” masculinity at work, without taking into account our effect on the people around us, bold becomes reckless. Confident becomes close-minded and arrogant. Assertive becomes domineering. Strong becomes bullying.

 

Extreme examples of this are not hard to come by. (I invite you to share some in the comments!)

 

Men and women who perform these behaviors not only create a toxic work environment for everyone else, they hurt the business' ability to adapt, perform, and compete by

 

Design is inherently “feminine”

 

The stereotypes about design and femininity are nearly identical: pretty (superficially), empathetic, collaborative, creative.

 

Never mind that design, in the corporate world, is intrinsic to success. (This is such a well-documented fact that I'm not even going to link to the studies. Google it.)

 

Many people—including a surprising number of senior corporate executives who frankly should know better—don’t understand this. They still think design means fonts and colors. At most, it's the little bit of friction removed from a workflow to make an experience more "user-friendly." It’s decoration, the pretty pink bow you tie around the product, not the product itself.

 

Product! That's where the action is. “Product” is how you “win” in the marketplace. Churn 'em out and ship 'em, boys, the faster the better.

 

As design leaders, we know better. Great design means solving the right problem for customers and solving it well, in a way that expresses your brand and values. Your product (including the entire experience around discovering, buying, using, and maintaining the product) is the manifestation of your intentions. In other words, your design.

 

It’s easy to see that a workplace that devalues anything associated with femininity would, by extension, devalue its own design function. 

But the way we go about this work—listening to customers and other stakeholders, collaborating with engineers and product managers, incorporating feedback—it all sounds suspiciously Barbie to the Kens running the companies where many of us are employed. We sound like people pleasers, like hostesses at a party. Is everyone comfortable? Who needs more wine? Double whammy if you’re already a woman to begin with. (Triple whammy if you’re a person of color, disabled, a mother, old, or don’t conform to the standard in some other way.)

 

As an executive, I am so used to being vastly outnumbered by men in important meetings that I developed a habit of quietly counting heads to find the male/female ratio. Twenty to two. Twelve to one. One hundred to three. (Not kidding; this was a summit for software architects where I gave a presentation.)

 

Often in these meetings, I noticed that the only other women present were in support roles. Admins. HR. Legal. This was dismaying, but I consoled myself with the fact that at least Design finally had a seat at the table, and that I, a woman, was occupying that seat. Progress on two fronts, right? I didn't realize that in the eyes of many of the men present, I was no different than the other women. Support. Nice to have around, but non-essential to the "real" work.

 

It’s easy to see that a workplace that devalues anything associated with femininity would, by extension, devalue its own design function. 

 

And now, tech is "breaking up" with design. (Interesting phrasing, right? One doesn't need a gender studies degree to decode that.) Why? Because they’re in contraction mode, and when you’re contracting, you shed the decorative, nice-to-have-around to concentrate on core business functions. Design is subordinate to engineering as the feminine is subordinate to the masculine, as women are subordinate to men.

 

Women + Design = Super Girly

 

It was my first performance review with my new manager. I wasn't sure what to expect—our very first meeting had been unnecessarily provocative. Subsequently, the few times I mildly disagreed with him, he became defensive and bullying. I didn't take it personally. He was new in his role and under pressure from his own hard-charging boss. But even mundane exchanges had become exhausting. He could pack three forms of mansplaining into a single 30-second interaction:


  1. Ask a question, then interrupt before I could finish my answer.

  2. Tell me the answer, which was the exact thing I was trying to say.

  3. Gaslight me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

 

Despite this, I knew I was doing a good job. In advance of our meeting, I'd sent him a bullet-point summary of my team's accomplishments in the past six months that ran to five pages. And that was just the highlights!


When we sat down for my performance review, I wasn't sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn't what happened next.


I asked if he had examples of how my “heart” was affecting my job performance. He did not. He just had a feeling I might be happier doing something else.

He began by saying I had "stepped up admirably" to do everything he had asked. Then he went on to smile and say, "You're a designer…You're all heart." He said it several times. "All heart." He tried to make it sound like a compliment.


He quickly added that there was “nothing wrong” with being "all heart," but…he wasn’t sure it was a good “fit” for the organization.


I was shocked. I had never once had a performance review that was less than glowing, much less whatever this was. But I kept my composure. I reminded myself that having a growth mindset meant sometimes having to listen to and learn from criticism.


I asked if he had examples of how my “heart” was affecting my job performance. He did not. He just had a feeling I might be happier doing something else. He wanted me to be happy!


I steered the conversation back to my performance. Was there something specific he wanted and wasn't getting from me? "You've done everything I've asked you to do," he said. What could I do for the remainder of the year to win back his confidence? "I don't know," he conceded. "I owe you an answer to that."


I never got an answer. Several weeks later, I arrived at the office to find all my stuff had been tossed out in a hallway and my desk had been given to a man. Soon after, my job was given to another man, another non-designer with a long tenure at the company and no experience running a design team. 

 

Now I understand. What I endured under this manager was a particularly cringe-worthy performance of masculinity that people in my field, particularly women, experience all the time. This was not a stupid person! He was even brilliant in his own way. And yet, despite the fact that he had no design background, he had no compunction about taking credit for my work while belittling, obstructing, and excluding me, culminating in the "performance review," where he had brought no written evaluation, hadn't reviewed my self-evaluation, was unprepared for my questions, and provided no specific examples of my shortcomings, other than I was “a designer” and "all heart" and not a “fit.”


 

Where do we go from here?

 

The sun has set on the age of miracles, when every Steve Jobs appearance at MacWorld heralds a paradigm shift in how we live and work.

 

In this twilight age, I and many other design leaders discern a growing gap between what normal, everyday people want and expect from technology, and what tech companies want to deliver. At the same time, the challenges we face as a society—loss of trust in our institutions, degradation of our natural environment, epidemics of loneliness, gun violence, drugs, and rage—are as bad as they have ever been, exacerbated in part by the very technology we thought would free us.

 

...the future of tech—maybe the future of humanity—hinges on our ability to embrace traditionally "feminine" traits in the workplace. Empathy. Collaboration. Listening. Thoughtfulness. Care.

And thus we await the dawn of a new age of miracles, the rise of artificial intelligence, with hope but also, with dread, vexed by the suspicion that the companies leading the way do not care about our well-being.

 

This is why I believe, with all my (now-infamous) heart, that the future of tech—maybe the future of humanity—hinges on our ability to embrace, foster, and value traditionally "feminine" traits in the workplace. Empathy. Collaboration. Listening. Thoughtfulness. Care.

 

These are not "soft" skills. They are damnably hard to master and put into practice. Ask any designer. Or any woman.

 

What would that look like?

 

A corporate culture where creative roles are not diminished based on outdated stereotypes, but are celebrated for their contributions to our collective success. Where women are not routinely talked over in meetings because the culture values listening at least as much as speaking. Where "heart” is prized as a superpower—one essential to creating products, services, and organizations that truly resonate with the human experience. Where senior leaders lead with conviction, not because they are misanthropic egomaniacs on a vision quest, but because they have avidly and routinely sought input from a diverse range of viewpoints, and actually know what they're talking about.

 

Let's start here. Take a personal inventory. Ask yourself:

 

  • "In what ways do I feel obliged to perform masculinity at work?"

  • "What negative impacts might my behaviors have on others?"

  • "In what ways, big or small, do I uphold biases against femininity?"

  • "How might I become an agent of change?"

  • "How do I react when a woman at work displays stereotypically masculine traits, such as assertiveness or self-confidence?"

  • "How would I react if a woman at work refused to exhibit stereotypically feminine traits, such as performing unpaid emotional labor?"

 

What do you say, fellas? Is it lonely up in your Mojo Dojo Casa House? Can business and design get back together, on a better footing? Because we have some real talk for you:

 

No one asked for Internet-enabled toasters, or juicers controlled by smart phones. No one wants your bored ape NFTs, your crypto ponzi scheme, or your dystopian dumpster truck. No one asked for your overpriced goggles, or your porn-bot aggregator.

 

Technology exists to improve the lives of people, yet you have no idea what people really want and need. Let's face it: You don't know where you're going, and you won't stop to ask directions.

 

"Well, Katrina, if you're so smart, what DO people really want and need?"

 

Great question, Ken! Now you're thinking like a designer.

7,720 views15 comments

15 Kommentare


Bias's on female gender and design are two different issue. Both being a minority can’t be slotted as one. I am a woman design leader and I never felt at a disadvantage due to my gender ever or did I feel sidelined because I was a designer. It’s what you bring to the table, which makes a difference. How you present your case and how you make yourself important in the room. We need to stop counting how many ladies in the room in-fact concentrate on what each one brings to the table. The day we show what value we bring to the table we will not need to struggle for any seats. Unfortunately we don’t tell our story right!…

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Wonderfully articulated with apt analogies. Painful to read, as it resonates deeply. Thanks Katrina for penning it down so beautifully.

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Adam Oliveira
Adam Oliveira
27. März

I’m shocked and sorry to hear about how you were treated. I can attest that many of us continue to experience that kind of bullying by this individual you mentioned. There is something terribly wrong in an organization when toxic despots are placed into positions of power. It actually becomes a liability to the company, and hurts the business, having the opposite effect of “performance”.

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Amy Huckfield
Amy Huckfield
19. März

Thank you for this beautiful, warm, thoughtful, bold, assertive and humorous perspective. It resonates so much, and it is so validating to see this so clearly and persuasively put forward. Sharing it with everyone I know!

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Katrina
Katrina
20. März
Antwort an

Thank you, Amy!

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John Van Pelt
John Van Pelt
16. März

Oh my gosh, phenomenal take. I'm retired but now replaying the many dozens of fracases I've been involved with advocating for contexts and listening to readers/users. In journalism, one foundational rubric is "why does this story matter?" but how often did we answer that from a woman's perspective instead of holding this "everyman" customer in mind who, let's face it, was primarily interested in big numbers, a strong economy, winning, and other manly virtues?


For god's sake, when I was trying to bring thoughtful design into the newsroom in the 1980s and 1990s, there were still editors who called the lifestyle sections "the women's pages." Food and fashion. What then were the news pages?


I remember my astonishment at the…


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Katrina
Katrina
19. März
Antwort an

Thanks for sharing that, John. My grandmother wrote for the "Women's Page" at her local newspaper back in the 60s. She was a brilliant thinker and writer but that was the best you could do back then. I guess the rest of the paper was for the men-folk--because why would women care about world events? (!)

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