Women in Digital Design

Our director is teaching a Business Management subject as part of a Digital Development course at one of the local universities, and was alarmed to see that out of his entire class there was only one female enrolled. That got us thinking about the current state of gender diversity in the field of digital and graphic design, and, as you can see, it's pretty sad right now.

While the statistics above the cut are bad (only 17% of technology roles and 11.2% of leadership positions in the digital design field are filled by women), the picture gets even worse when we expand our lens to include all creative industries - a mere 3% of creative directors are female. 

While this disparity certainly isn't a new occurrence, it's one that is getting more alarming, because no longer is digital design confined to a niche market, or only the information technology field. It's constantly expanding and evolving, and it's now a massive industry that impacts the day to day lives of a huge majority of the population. And, not surprisingly, half of that population are women. With such little representation in the design side of things, it makes sense that needs of the female consumer might not be met with the final product.

The unequal opportunities for women aren't confined to the digital design industry, but it is one of the fields where the disparities are perhaps more obvious. Information technology is, for the most part, seen as the domain of men, too technical for female minds to comprehend.This unfortunate assumption has travelled into all aspects of digital design, making unequal pay, the glass ceiling, under-representation and over-sexualisation issues that most- if not all -females in the industry are forced to endure. In these types of companies the views of women are often ignored in favour of suggestions from their male co-workers, leading to less opportunities for promotions and more incidents where they're treated like the PA rather than someone of equal standing.

It really doesn't make any sense. As reported by the McKinsey Quarterly, having a diverse executive team leads to a broader, better understanding of a variety of demographics, leading to better sales. From 2008 to 2010, companies with a higher percentage of culturally diverse people in positions of power were far better off financially than those whose boards were made up primarily (or entirely) of white males. Companies that ranked in the top quartile of executive-board diversity had returns on equity 53% higher, and gross earnings (before interest and tax) 14% greater than their counterparts who ranked in the bottom quartile for diversity.

Nicki Sprinz aptly summed this effect up: "Companies with women on their boards outperform those without, diverse teams outperform teams without women; we create better products and services when teams can understand and design for their diverse customers."

This information is cold comfort for women who are in the field and already facing discrimination, however. Two years ago, leading interface designer Sarah Parmenter received an out-of-the-blue email from a male designer calling her "a slutty bitch" and accusing her of "ruining" the web industry. The year before, someone bombarded social media feeds with faked pornographic pictures in an attempt to derail one of her talks. 

Of course, none of this is to say that males in the industry aren't subject to abuse, too. They are, but the abuse is of an entirely different ilk. While men are, in most cases, judged purely on the calibre of their work, women are held to impossible standards and judged more often on shallow attributes such as looks. Even when the abuse isn't forthright, there's an overwhelming feeling that women in the field are merely being 'tolerated' as tokens of politically correct diversity, rather than embraced and valued for their contributions.

Sarah has said that while she is now used to being targeted for being a woman in a 'man's industry', "this sort of thing would have crushed me when I first started." And that's a terrifying thought, because the best way to overhaul the image of digital design being the domain of men is to get more women involved - but if that's the kind of welcome they'll get, can we really blame girls for not jumping into the industry?

The recent #GamerGate scandal has served to scare many more young women away from anything related to design, particularly in the field of gaming, which is already severely lacking female representation. Last year, several women in the gaming industry, from designers to critics, were subjected to a torrent of misogynistic abuse across a variety of platforms, simply for daring to be females who enjoyed gaming and working in the industry. The harassment was vile and extreme, with threats directed at the women and their families including doxing (sharing of private information in a public domain), physical abuse, rape, death and even a mass shooting at a university speaking event. It started with a jealous male claiming that his ex-girlfriend was receiving undue credit for a popular game she had developed, and turned into a cultural storm of boys whining that women were invading their gaming spaces. While an extreme example, GamerGate no doubt serves as a harsh reminder that a lot of men aren't keen on sharing the developer limelight with women.

So how can we go about creating a more inclusive environment? It's going to take a team effort - women need to treat the deliberately derogatory differently to the innocently misinformed but well-intentioned, and men need to show women that they support and value them and their contributions. There's no need to be scared of approaching women and asking for their ideas, as many men are; it shouldn't be so difficult for men to treat their female coworkers with the same amount of respect they afford to their male ones. Women are simply people, and it's about time that they were treated as such.

Most importantly, both men and women need to form a united front against misogyny, calling out problematic phrases and actions when they occur. Keep in mind that it can be either men or women sharing the problematic views - internalised misogyny is a very real thing, and some women may be hurting their own and others' professional opportunities by continuing to perpetuate such views. Open and rational discussion is the only way for people to realise that what they're doing is wrong, and can be a great opportunity to teach them how to change their mindset and behaviour to something more appropriate.

Of course, there are already a lot of men who are also feminists, and who are already doing great things to help their female comrades carve out a space for themselves in the IT and digital design industries. We just need their voices to rise higher than the chorus of misogyny that's invaded too many workspaces.

What are your thoughts on female representation and diversity in the digital design field? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.


UPDATE 23/06/2015: Google has recently announced that they will now remove 'revenge porn' from their search results when requested. Twitter and Reddit have also taken a stand against this disgusting practice, and while it's definitely a great development there's still so much more that needs to be done to make women feel that the internet is a safe place to share their views and opinions. You can learn more about online misogyny in this segment from the latest Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Online Harassment (HBO)

Online harassment is a major problem, but it’s rarely prosecuted. If only we’d been warned about this in the early days of the internet.

Posted by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Monday, 22 June 2015

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