Stop telling women to fix sexist workplaces

The 10 Spearheading Businesswomen Beyond Brilliance

I am tired. I am tired of seeing articles titled “How women should negotiate better”, “Tactics for women to be heard,” or “Women, lean in”. I am tired of Chad, that late-twenties white dude in the office, telling women to just try harder. I am tired of women being told to fix sexism.

A note on diversity
Before I begin, we need to recognize that women of color, women with disabilities, trans-women and women from marginalized groups are disproportionately negatively affected in the workplace. In an effort to speak inclusively about women it is important to note that different women have vastly different experiences. I am speaking from a place of personal experience as a white woman working in creative tech and I am not a representative for every designer or woman.

The reality
Sit down with a group of women in the creative industry and you are bound to hear stories of sexism. Some recounts are clearly criminal, like sexual harassment or discrimination. Some are more subtle, like being “accidentally” left off a meeting invitation where important decisions were made. There’s the familiar feeling of coming into work Monday morning to learn that Chad got assigned the portfolio-worthy project, while you’re stuck doing annotations, all because you “missed” the invitation for impromptu beers on Friday night. There’s the years of hard work, proving your worth, and leaning in, all while Chad says “I just kinda fell into becoming a creative director.” I can personally recall all of these instances and more in my 7 years experience as a designer.

Along with these painful acedotes, statistically speaking, women in the creative workplace are still struggling for equal pay and representation. Women in creative fields continue to earn only 68% of what male creatives make. The majority of design students are women yet women make up only 29% of creative director positions. 70% of young female creatives are working in a 75% male dominated department.

But why is this happening?

A massive barrier for women is our rejected admittance into the coveted “boy’s club”.

For the past century, women have navigated an unfair professional social network led by men. Recall Erwin Griswold, dean of the Harvard Law School, asking the notorious RBG to justify taking a spot which could have gone to a man. Over 60 years later, this society of upper leadership positions are still primarily held by white men.

Of course, the tactics of Griswold are no longer acceptable so sexism has become much more insidious. Male leaders are the gatekeepers to an informal network of mentorship, education, and knowledge — gatekeepers who are unwilling to allow the addition of people who don’t look or act like themselves. Women are missing out on relationships and resources crucial to obtaining and growing our careers.

Women are held to vastly different standards than men, and the issue often trickles down from the top.

Young male creatives remind men in leadership of themselves — whether consciously or unconsciously — and thus are trusted and promoted more often. Women meanwhile must prove their abilities (via their work, rather than their social skills) to earn the positions that men are handed.

From the beginning, resumes with female names have a significantly lower response rate than resumes with male names with the same experience and education. During mid-career promotions, women will use the same career advancement tactics as men, and yet their male counterparts will still advance quicker through the ranks. Even when women work on a team and achieve great results, far more credit is given to the male team members. According to sociologist, Elizabeth Gorman, “… When a man and a woman work together on a project, people assume the man contributed more than the woman did. Even when a woman’s work is indisputably excellent, people don’t believe she’s good — they think she got lucky. … it makes sense to conclude that women have to work harder to win their bosses’ approval.”

Women report that they feel their jobs require more effort than men do, because it is harder for women. Managers hold women to a higher standard of quality and give them less credit.

Women from junior positions to top level executives must prove their experience and value before they are trusted. Meanwhile, Chad just has to agree to beers.

And when discussing solutions, women bear the brunt of advice while facing a litany of Catch 22s.

We are told to speak up in meetings.
Yet women speak far less in meetings than our male counterparts and are still perceived to have spoken more. When we do actually talk we are viewed as less competent, less creative and more aggressive and pushy. According to Susan Flemming, a specialist in leadership, women are forced “to walk a tightrope between being assertive and smart in order to be seen as competent while simultaneously being nice and warm in order to meet stereotypes of communality. The people that don’t navigate that tight rope well will be either labeled as an incompetent or as a bitch.”

And when we finally speak up and we are immediately interrupted by Chad while he simultaneously takes our idea and receives the praise.

We are told to negotiate higher salaries.
Yet people report that they would be less inclined to work with women as managers, subordinates, or coworkers when those women negotiated their salaries. Chad is confident, we are bitchy. And in the end, women who try to negotiate a higher salary are 3 times less likely to get a raise than their male counterparts.

We are told to be more confident and take risks.
Yet taking risks includes the possibility for failure, and “…because women operate under a higher-resolution microscope than their male counterparts do, their mistakes and failures are scrutinized more carefully and punished more severely”.

Teams will immediately dismiss a woman’s concept with a minor flaw, meanwhile Chad’s flawed comment is praised for the essential idea. This in turn leads to women’s anxiety to contribute. Even when women make confident choices, they are rarely rewarded. Studies show that “men are evaluated as more creative than women when making risky decisions, however, women who act in a similar way are not considered more deserving of reward … only men are considered more agentic and therefore more creative, and thus deserving of more rewards.”

We are told not to cry at work, use less vocal fry, stop ending our sentences with questions, stop apologizing, use a power stance, take up more space….

You get the idea. It’s time to stop telling women that they need to fix how they act to succeed in the workplace. Women are not paranoid or less talented. We make decisions to stay quiet, negotiate less, and make safer choices because we have learned that alternative actions will most likely result in more severe backlash.

It’s time we start actively changing the creative industry.

But how do we enact change?

  1. Believe Women

As designers, empathy is crucial to doing our jobs well, but we seem to have run out of that very same empathy for our own female team members. We need to start listening to women and trusting their perspectives.If a woman tells you that she is experiencing discrimination, listen to her. I had a female friend who felt uncomfortable being the only woman on a team. She wasn’t being taken seriously and was being treated differently than the other team members. This was a sentiment she heard echoed across the (few) other women in her agency. In a review with her male supervisor, she mentioned that she wanted to do something to support women and give female team members space to have a voice, as part of her personal career development. He responded, “we don’t have an issue with that” and ended the conversation. He invalidated her personal experiences and the shared experiences of the other women on her team, while also stunting her ability to move forward with her professional goals, and discouraging her from bringing up future issues.

You may not see it. You may even be a woman who hasn’t experienced sexism or implicit biases. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Your experiences may be different than your team member’s experiences.

As designers, empathy is crucial to doing our jobs well, but we seem to have run out of that very same empathy for our own female team members. We need to start listening to women and trusting their perspectives.

  1. Question Your Criticism

Women make excellent leaders in thecreative fields. Often even better leaders than men. And yet along with the severe lack of women in leadership positions, women also have to contend with harsher criticism and higher standards. While men are viewed as decisive, confident, and competent, women are viewed as aggressive, bossy, and abrasive for the same behavior. Whether the new junior designer or the veteran creative director, women are criticized more severely while juggling a double edge sword of personality traits.

And here’s a real kicker, even women are more critical of female leaders and other women. For our entire careers, women often see only one woman or no women in leadership. When we see so little representation of female leadership, we internalize that there is only one spot at the decision-making table for women to occupy. We are not in competition with everyone, instead we are competing against the other few women in our field for that one leadership position available. Furthermore, we as a society have unconscious biases against women. And because this is a socially ingrained way to look at men and women, everyone seems to be included in the ways in which we treat women. Even an AI recruiting program developed by Amazon showed significant gender biases by consistently ranking men as the most hirable. Why? The system taught itself to value men’s resumes based on who was deemed successful within the company already — which was dominated by male engineers. It perceived the current state of gender inequality and perpetuated the same trends. It is time that we all recognize our own blind spots.

The next time that you negatively criticize one of the only women in your meeting or your female creative director, stop and ask yourself if you would react the same if she was Chad.

Start to be mindful about the ways in which we think about and act towards female leaders and the types of standards and expectations we have for women.

  1. Manage middle management

Executive level leaders may want to see more diversity and balance on their team. Equality and fairness might even be written into your agency’s manifesto, but until middle managers are trained and required to recognize unconscious bias and actively work to promote balance, your numbers of women leaders probably won’t change. This study found that “supervisors tend to over-inflate men’s creativity while dismissing the level of creativity displayed by women.”

Middle management is where the majority of promotions are initiated. If managers are relying on unconscious biases to form their opinions and recommendations for who to promote, we will continue to see dismal numbers of female leadership.

Furthermore, mentorship is a crucial element to the growth of employees, as well as an important part of being a manager.

Managers, maybe you don’t have the same type of rapport with women as you do your male mentees, but it is your responsibility to provide the same mentorship opportunities to all employees.

Inviting women to the same formal and informal networks will only increase the amount of talented creatives of your team.

  1. Look outside your social network

It is not acceptable to state that “good female talent just doesn’t exist” or that “we will have to lower our standards” to find more women — both sentiments I have personally heard.

You may not currently have direct access to talented diverse employees because you are relying too heavily on your personal social network. Go out and actively seek diverse talent. And once you have a diverse team, equally support, promote, and encourage each team member. When an employee has a positive experience with your company, they will in turn recommend your company to their personal social network, knowing that their friends and folks from their professional network will be taken care of and respected there. Intentionally fill your team with talented women from diverse backgrounds and this will create an environment in which more women will want to join.

If you want innovative and diverse solutions for today’s creative problems, hire innovative and diverse employees.

Stop focusing on how you can train your employees to think outside the box and start hiring people FROM outside the box. Everyone will benefit from the diversity of experiences and ideas on the team.

  1. Support Women

Stop interrupting women in meetings. Spotlight women by giving her credit for her ideas and fighting for her right to speak up. Question your employees’ and coworkers’ comments when it seems like unconscious bias is at play. Provide parental leave and flexible working options for parents and caretakers. Provide a safe space for women to share their experiences or concerns. Start including women in meetings, conversations, and decision making moments.

We all have a responsibility to support the women we work with everyday through better policies, safe spaces, and fair treatment.

It’s time to stop telling women how to act if they want to succeed. It’s time for men to recognize the privilege they have in the workplace, and become an active part of supporting women. It is time we all actually work towards building balanced and diverse teams.

And if you need a couple more ideas, here are literally 100 things we can do create a more equal work environment.

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