Why should women have to “act like men” to get ahead in design?

Associating specific traits with gender is outdated and a result of society’s expectations rather than genetics, argues Nat Maher, founder at Kerning the Gap. She looks at what can be done to break down old-fashioned stereotypes and encourage design leaders to embrace a wide range of skills and qualities when employing.

Courtesy of Pekic

It seems a little at odds in the preparation for International Women’s Day to be writing about whether women need to behave more like men to succeed – like I should be putting on my Alexis Colby shoulder pads and heading out for a power lunch. Yet the conversation at Kerning the Gap frequently returns to this subject, and it’s not just as a hangover from a patriarchal status quo; scientific evidence continues to support that the rise to the top is still dominated by all things male.

In a 2017 experiment, Drydakis (et al) tested the theory that masculine qualities are more highly valued in the workplace by submitting graduate job applications across a range of sectors, all with the same academic qualifications and experience, but peppered half with skills of masculine traits and hobbies (competitiveness, hiking) and half with feminine (empathy, jewellery making). Consistently, they found 28% more interview offers for applications with masculine traits, and even found the salary offers were 5% more.

People’s abilities are judged based on their gender

Before I get tangled in a web of stereotypes and “not all men!” responses, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here — this is the world of masculine and feminine traits. These are commonly defined, and fall into boxes like strength, courage, independence, and assertiveness for boys, and empathy, sensitivity, caring and compassion for girls. Of course, anyone reading this will feel they have a blend of these skills. And you do. But what we’re up against is the perception of men and women based on their gender, and how employers value those skills on a spectrum. If you’re a dude, it’s more likely people will assume you have more masculine traits. And value you accordingly.

And that kind of makes sense, given the current landscape of diversity, or lack there-of, across our senior leadership in the workplace. If you congratulate me on making a delicious carrot cake (move over Mary Berry) and ask me how I made it, I’ll tell you exactly as I’d believe that my way is the best way to do it and will subconsciously measure all other carrot cakes against my own yard stick.

Do we pick employees who are similar to ourselves?

And so it goes with leaders. If you’re trying to work out your senior leader’s recipe for success, you’ll observe how they operate. And their experiences will reinforce their belief that the way they did it, is the way to do it. They’ll also use this benchmark to spot emerging talent, looking for those same qualities to replicate success.

Now, how many of you pictured a male boss in that example? Statistically, in design, that’ll be about 89% of you, seeing as only 11% of creative directors are women.

The interesting thing about these traits is that, while men are born with more testosterone, which is often attributed to aggression and the risk-taking traits of our caveman ancestors, some scientists and academics today attest that we’re formed by our societal influences far more than by our biology. Cordelia Fine, a professor in history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne, recently published her book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds on this very topic.

Gender stereotypes are ingrained from childhood

Our role models, our cultural norms and our immediate peer-group are the biggest shapers of our development. And while men and women are equally capable of demonstrating all these traits, a recent study found that gender stereotypes are ingrained in children from as young as 10 — pink versus blue; Action Man versus Barbie; be a man versus play nicely — so it’s little wonder that these polarising views endure.

Now, this would be a very depressing article if we left it there — if that was the whole picture, and our studios were all run by cavemen. Frankly, I’d sigh, hand you a club and say “may as well get swinging, love”. But they’re not. While design is still a male-dominated industry, the definition of masculinity is getting the major reboot it deserves in the wake of the #metoo movement, with men allied to the issues facing women, and rightly demanding a more sophisticated view of their role in society (and if it’s being used to sell razor blades, as the recent Gillette advert shows, you know it’s a thing).

People need a range of skills, from confidence to empathy

The landscape in our studios is changing rapidly too. By next year, over a third of the workforce will be millennials, not to mention the Generation Zs coming quickly up on their heels. You’ve seen author Simon Sinek’s multi-million viewed video on millennials in the workplace, but in his book Leaders Eat Last, he expands on the qualities that this emerging team are looking for: mentoring, support, empathy, collaboration, transparency, and self-confidence.

The reality is that all leaders are going to need to develop a much more complex set of skills to inspire and harness the potential of their teams. We’re moving beyond a reductive definition of masculine and feminine traits, command and control leadership, and “do as I say” management, into a more nuanced world where those in charge need a blend of human traits that empower, inspire and facilitate collaboration.

When you look through this lens, those classically feminine traits put women in a really strong position to lead. That’s not to say that we don’t also need to master the classics that have previously been classified in the “masculine” domain. Negotiation skills, the courage and approach to have difficult conversations, risk-analysis, strength and assertiveness are all critical leadership skills, and completely within the abilities of those willing to learn them.

Traits are not prescribed from birth

They are, after all, just skills. I didn’t take my first steps across the carpet, fire up a keynote deck and start holding a board meeting. I fell on my arse — several times. Because that’s what learning looks like. To expect us to come in to our careers just naturally being able to do some things and not others is both ludicrous and outdated.

And when women embrace this need for a blend, boy do we nail it. A Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman study (2012) found that at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and colleagues as better overall leaders than their male counterparts – and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows. “Specifically, at all levels, women are rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women out-scored men to the highest degree [were] taking initiative and driving for results,” says Zenger. Take that, gender norms!

Men should learn from women, and vice versa

The leaders of our design businesses need to heed those scary unconscious bias statistics. Question what you value in terms of skills for leadership. Look a little bit closer at the potential in your team, and actively encourage women to value the skills they already have, and the belief that there isn’t anything they can’t learn if they want to. Then give them access to that learning. In fact, get the men in your business to learn from them.

And to the glorious future leaders reading this, here’s the most important thing of all: make sure you do you. Seek inspiration from many different influences but find your way to do it. Channel your inner Liam Neeson and find your “particular set of skills”. And accept that you might need to learn a couple of bits that don’t feel naturally “you” just yet, because they will in time.

In the words of the great philosopher, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter: “We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.” In other words, if we can disregard outdated stereotypes, learn from ourselves and from those around us, then we’ve got this.

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  • Paul Warrington March 8, 2019 at 9:57 am

    I have been a graphic designer for over 30 years and have worked with many male and female designers. In my experience, women really don’t need to ‘act like men’ to get ahead. The only things that matters are talent, hard work, being curious and a good sense of humour 🙂

  • erika clegg March 8, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    A good, balanced piece. Well done and good luck, Nat.

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