Women in EGD: Same as It Ever Was?

By Teresa Cox, APCO Graphics

The challenges women have always faced in the workplace—imbalances in leadership, unequal pay, juggling work and personal life, and living down feminine stereotypes—are still alive and well for women in EGD, despite the more liberal nature of the design world.

These realities create both frustrations and opportunities, said participants on SEGD’s Women in Design panel at the 2014 SEGD Conference in Atlanta June 5-7.

Women make up 45% of SEGD membership, and many own their own companies or are in leadership roles. Although our community is progressive when it comes to women in the workplace, we often interact with architects, developers, and fabricators from more traditional male-dominated fields. And leadership in the larger business world, of course, is still very male-centric.

Fast Company’s February 2013 story Where are All the Women Creative Directors? noted that although women control nearly 80% of consumer spending, only 3% of women are working as creative directors.

Yes, we’re still living in a male-centric world. But at the same time, female design practitioners and entrepreneus are finding that their leadership styles, natural orientation toward collaboration, and emotional intelligence are increasingly valued in the studio and in the corner office.

The Women in EGD panel offered advice and insights about their own career paths and challenges. The panel consisted of (pictured from left) Sarah Huie Coleman, Huie Design (Atlanta); Chris Calori, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants (New York); Tali Krakowski, apologue (Los Angeles); and Danielle Lindsay-Chung, Skidmore Owings & Merrill (San Francisco). As moderator (pictured, far right), I posed some questions to them and to the audience.

What advice do you have for the women in our audience when they find themselves the only woman at the table on a project?

While Tali Krakowski said she has “acted more like a man” to earn respect in certain settings, she also believes her female characteristics are an asset on projects, and men know it. “We are natural collaborators, we are excellent communicators, and we care about people more than the bottom line,” she said. 

Chris Calori has been in the field since the 70s and she has spent her career being the only woman at the table. Her advice: “Do your homework. Always know more than anyone else there. That counts more than anything.”

Danielle Lindsay-Chung quoted Pentagram Partner Paula Scher as saying, “How I envy my male partners who are invited to speak based on their achievements and prestige as opposed to their sex. I cannot separate my own achievements from being a woman.”

In our profession, is equal pay for equal work the rule?  Why are we as women hesitant in asking for fair compensation and how can we overcome that tendency?

Panelists noted equal pay is still a big issue. And following Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg’s statements, many mainstream business publications have recently published stories about the rampancy of unequal pay in the business world in general. The design world and EGD are no exceptions, said the panelists.

“It’s a moral and ethical issue. Why isn’t it being addressed? Why is this STILL the elephant in the room?” asked a conference participant.

What does it take for a woman to be a successful entrepreneur in EGD? How can one be strong and direct, without being given the “B” title?

Sarah Huie Coleman says it takes nerve. “Have courage. Just do it and don’t look back.” Coleman has experienced occasions where her directness in meetings has raised eyebrows, but advises, “Be who you are.”

“The thing women have yet to learn is that nobody gives you power. You just take it.” (Roseanne Barr)

Do you think women have intrinsic advantages over men working in EGD?  What are those advantages and how do we leverage them to benefit everyone?

While the panelists acknowledged that “leadership” is traditionally defined in terms of male characteristics—decisiveness, assertiveness, and independence—women are realizing that their innately “female” characteristics of being communal, nurturing, collaborative, and supportive provide distinct advantages in the workplace, especially when it comes to directing team efforts and developing talent.

“We are good at understanding and dealing with people; we tend to be able to see all sides of a situation,” says Krakowski. “It puts us at a distinct advantage in leadership roles.”

Danielle Lindsay-Chung, who researched statistics about women in the design field, cited Women Matter 2010: Women at the Top of Corporations: Making It Happen stating that “Companies with more women in their executive committees have better financial performance.”

And while women’s role in leadership is increasingly being recognized, women still have a lot to learn from men when it comes to advancing themselves up the corporate ladder. An internal Hewlett-Packard report revealed that women only apply to jobs if they perceive they meet 100% of the job requirements, while men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements.

Did you have a mentor early in your career?  Have you had the opportunity to be a mentor?  Why do we need to foster and support the role of women in EGD?  How can we bring more women into the field?

Architectural associations in Canada and the United States have been examining the role of women in the field for at least a decade, and the AIA is going after the lost percentage of women who earn architecture degrees but never practice. (Only 16% of the AIA’s members were women in 2012. Only 2% of licensed architects in the U.S. in 2012 were African Americans….another important panel topic, to be sure…) Their publications and initiatives have focused on mentoring and leadership development programs for women. The SEGD panelists echoed those ideas, advising women designers to seek out leadership programs, find mentors, and form networks with other women to share advice and best practices.

Chris Calori was a true pioneer in EGD: as she entered the then-new field there were almost literally no women practicing. Decades later, she and her work/life partner David Vanden-Eynden still lead the discipline, in 2007 Calori wrote the seminal book Signage and Wayfinding Design, in 2009 she and Vanden-Eynden were named SEGD Fellows, and she has taught and lectured throughout her career. “We all mentor and share in the best ways we can. That’s a beautiful thing about EGD: we are a very caring, sharing community.” Calori always loved science and was a born entrepreneur (selling her drawings of mermaids by fourth grade) and found that graphic design satisfied both her need to create beautiful things and her desire for order. “It was the perfect job for me.”

What about work/life balance?

“I have none. You’re asking the wrong person,” laughed Calori.

Tali Krakowski, whose baby daughter was born this year, notes that so far she has found motherhood energizing and inspiring. “I thought my daughter might hurt my career, but instead she’s been a good-luck charm.” Balancing mothering and work may make women even more organized (albeit tired), panelists agreed.

Coleman and audience members pointed out that many men working today (thankfully) face much of the same career/family balance challenges that women do. “Now more than ever we’re in this together,” a male audience member shared. “We’re figuring out how to have a satisfying, successful career without sacrificing our personal lives.”

I’d like to thank our accomplished panelists, and the audience, for a fascinating panel discussion about this important topic. We need to keep up the dialogue. Luckily, our SEGD community excels at working together and sharing information and experiences. We need to model that for other design disciplines and other professions.

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