9 Ways Design Leaders Can Help Women Succeed

Mia Scharphie
12 min readMar 13, 2019


I spend the majority of my time guiding high-potential women in design through their career growth, but that’s not the only coaching work I do. I also work with leaders of design firms, helping them understand how to make their companies better places for women to succeed, and places that women want to stay and grow their careers.

In my bias trainings I use a design thinking approach. I encourage participants to look at the unconscious bias that exists in most companies as a design problem, mapping where it shows up in our companies and crafting solutions.

The majority of the leaders I work with in those rooms want to be part of the solution. But unconscious bias is often invisible, and the pressures of the day-to-day work of running a business take up a lot of mental space and time.

But the truth is, if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of maintaining the status quo.

In my workshops we work to identify simple habits or actions that creative leaders can add to their practice of leadership to become part of the solution. It’s through practicing these habits that leaders can really make change and help make the workplace safer and more open to women and their brilliant ideas.

There are so many ways that leaders can advocate and empower the women they work with, but here are a few of my favorites:

1. Run a Personal Mentorship Audit

Without an intentional strategy, we often gravitate towards mentoring others with the same gender and race background as us. And while we all get to be friends with whoever we want, when we are in a position of power in our companies, who we invest our time in is an ethical decision.

We’re either or actively creating the equitable world that we believe we should live in, or simply upholding the status quo.

So start with a personal mentorship audit. Keep a notepad on you for a week. As you go through the week, record who you are mentoring, whether it’s some ad-hoc in-the-hallway help on a difficult client or who in your office you go to lunch with. At the end of the week, look at the list and ask yourself: Who is on the list? Are they similar in race, gender, background to me?

Then go through the list name by name and ask yourself: What am I mentoring this person on mainly? What do we do together? What potential do I see for this person? Who am I most deeply invested in?

Try as much as possible to look at the list dispassionately with curiosity and not with judgment.

Resist the urge to review the list in order to conclude that, in fact, you are not biased. No one else has to see this list.

You may conclude that it’s time to initiate a new relationship with someone who’s not like you, or strengthen or deepen a relationship with someone you already mentor but less intensively.

2. Mentor Women on Money and Business

Women’s leadership expert Susan Colantuano found in her research that women tend to be mentored less than men on financial leadership skills. She shares the story of one executive who told her, “”I had two protégés, a man and a woman; I helped the woman build confidence, and the man learn the business. I didn’t realize I was treating them differently!”

While women are mentored in how to manage teams and project personal confidence, they don’t get mentored as much as men on the high level financial and strategic matters that drive business growth. Consequently women end up in middle management unable to progress, and not knowing they’re missing out on a critical set of skills.

Why does this happen? Maybe because we’re more likely to see men in roles leading our companies. Perhaps because we don’t do a great job societally of telling women they can succeed at math and business. (I can’t tell you how many times a woman I’m coaching who’s doing complicated stormwater calculations on the regular has told me she’s not ‘good at numbers.’)

When I coach women I ask them to take themselves on a learning tour. In this tour they look for opportunities to expose themselves to the financials that make a successful project and a successful business.

But even this process has flaws; it puts the responsibility on women to first realize they’re missing out on a critical perspective that will grow their career, and then to go ask for that perspective. It’s a lot of extra work, not to mention the fact that these women are often facing unconscious bias because “we just don’t see them in those roles.”

So next time you’re looking at the projections for next quarter invite a woman you’re mentoring to look over and interpret them with you. Bring her to your client fee negotiations. Ask her if she sees possibilities that you don’t, since she’s wrapped up in all the politics that you are. Ask her to put together the staffing plan. All of these opportunities will help her become more comfortable with financial literacy and strategy, and she’ll be more open to learning since she doesn’t have to push her way in.

3. Mentor at Lunch and Breakfast

Are you mentoring people of the opposite gender less than you wish? Turns out it’s not just you.

You may be responding to societal pressure that says that when older or more powerful men or women spend time with a younger person of the other gender, it can only mean one thing.

That pressure is real. It can affect your reputation and that of the person you’re mentoring. But this societal pressure translates into a systemic disadvantage to women growing in professions in which the majority of leaders are men.

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg shares the story of Bob Steele, an executive at Goldman Sachs who decided to have all his casual meetings with employees over breakfast and lunch, not over dinner or drinks. He felt uncomfortable going out for drinks or dinner with female employees and he wanted to make access to his time equal for both male and female mentees.

This is a designed solution. Societal realities are just that: reality. But we regularly listen to clients who describe the idealized company, lab building, and home we aspire to achieve — the one in which we save energy and recycle. We create spaces and we create structures to live the way we hope to.

It’s time to bring that design optimism to the design of our workplaces.

4. Invite Women to Lunch

“The guys in my office go out together and I know that while it’s officially ‘just social’, important conversations and business insight are being shared. How do I get invited?”

This was one of the first questions I encountered in the early days of Build Yourself.

In The Inclusion Dividend, authors Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan write about a woman — the only engineer in her office — who left her job. While she told her bosses she was leaving for more work-life flexibility, that wasn’t entirely true; it was just the easiest answer for her to give, and for them to hear.

The truth was that it was a thousand little slights, like having her coworkers apologize for swearing around her, not being included in key decisions and conversations, and not being invited when all the guys went out.

When I first heard the question above, I advised my student to ask if she could join lunch the next time, to take one of the guys aside (and oh-so-casually) ask him to be invited next time, or to be the inviter (if you’re not invited to the party host your own).

These are great strategies, but it shouldn’t be on women to seek ways into those conversations if their male colleagues are just getting invited in automatically.

Be a leader by recognizing when women are being left out.

You’ll not only make it more likely for women to stay at your firm, but you’ll model the behavior you’d like to see in your employees. And that changes the culture.

5. Amplify Women’s Voices

There is a classic moment that I hear about again and again when I’m working with women;

“I shared an idea and no one paid attention. And then a guy voiced the same idea and everyone thought it was a great idea.”

This isn’t just paranoia. It actually happened to me a few years ago when a collaborator of mine voiced an idea of mine as his own in a client meeting (he’d be mortified to know he’d done it). It’s a phenomenon that has been so well documented that it even has its own slang term.

We actually know from research that women get interrupted more than men. Not just by men, but by women, too. Women are just not heard as often as men.

In the first years of his presidency, President Obama had a male-dominated staff, and the women working in his administration really struggled with getting their voices heard. So they decided to use a strategy called ‘amplification.’ Every time a woman made a comment or suggestion they thought was good, they would repeat it, crediting her. They made the voices of their female colleagues louder just by giving credit where it was due.

As a leader you can amplify. Doing it once or twice daily can help you turn it into a habit. The next time you’re at a meeting, write down the name of each person who is speaking. Give yourself an assignment to amplify three good ideas that come from women in each meeting. Not getting enough of them? That’s good data too. See Tip #3 on mentoring.

6. Share Your Platforms

There’s a problem in most fields, and it’s evidenced by the website Congratulations, You Have an All-Male Panel. It’s still all too common to go to an event or conference and see mostly white male faces on the stage.

In one recent coaching session, a woman I worked with shared three goals: Build her visibility, bring great work into the firm, and build the team. I spotted a strategic move: Why not engage the team in the visibility building enterprise? Being asked to present — to own the narrative of your work — makes one more engaged in it.

So what can you do?

Make it a habit to give away one out of every three speaking or visibility opportunities you have to a woman or person of color.

It’ll free up your valuable high-billable-rate time, tie them more deeply to your company and engage them with you as a mentor, and move us towards a better visibility balance.

7. Refuse to serve on panels that don’t include women and people of color

Or you can take it a step further, like one of my mentors John Cary does. He refuses to sit on panels or participate in panels that don’t include women and people of color on them. From his place as a white man, he stands for the value of equitable inclusion and visibility. This means he has the opportunity to continually translate this value into action, through communicating it to those in power. Michael Bernard of Virtual Practice Consulting has a similar practice as well — if he’s asked to sit on a panel that doesn’t include women or people of color, he asks the organizers to add one.

I won’t serve as a volunteer in food-serving or event-planning capacities in my synagogue unless there’s already a balance of men and women serving in those roles, or if women are the minority.

While I don’t have my own children, it’s important to me that the children in my community grow up seeing men and women in those roles, and in roles like synagogue president and head of the real estate committee. While I don’t get asked very often to volunteer in those roles, when I do, it gives me an opportunity to communicate my value around this issue and to initiate a conversation on the state of things in the synagogue. One of these conversations recently spurred my male partner to volunteer for the kiddush (weekly food serving) committee.

8. Volunteer Others: Both Men and Women

In many offices, women are much more likely than men to take on ‘office housework’ like being the one to write the meeting notes, or manage the office materials library.

Women are much more likely than men to volunteer for these tasks. A recent Harvard Business Review Article revealed that women actually feel pressured to volunteer, as if — though it’s never been explicitly stated — women know it’s considered their place to do these tasks. And the article shows that managers (regardless of their own gender) are actually more likely to volunteer women for these tasks.

And the problem is that while these tasks help the firm, they’re often considered ‘‘non-promotable.’ While we say we value them, we don’t consider them for career advancement. These are exactly the kinds of habits and behaviors that keep women stuck in their roles, or make them feel so overwhelmed that they don’t think they could advance to the next level.

I recently coached a woman who thought that she wanted to leave her job. While she had an incredible mandate in the role she’d been promoted into, she was burned out, overwhelmed and not enjoying work anymore.

So I put her on a ‘no’ diet.

She had to say no to doing at least one extra task every day. And wow. The energy she had at our next session was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

It turns out she was more overwhelmed with all the little things she was doing for everyone else (even down to making project management plans and managing other people’s projects for them) than she realized. It was no wonder she couldn’t even start to make the space to dream about what she wanted to do in her new role. Within a few weeks she started doing what she’d been promoted to do, and she felt reinvigorated in her work.

Make “office housework” equitable by taking note of all the ‘little things’ that get done in your office. For you that might mean decorating for the holidays or cleaning up the server when it becomes a mess. Then choose: either turn those tasks into part of a rotation, or make sure that they stop being ‘promotionless.’ Recognize that they add value and build a company culture (not a nice to have but a need to have, especially in an economy that favors labor) by rewarding them with promotions and compensation.

9. Ask More Than Once

Women are more likely than men to fall prey to internalized bias. In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg documents a study on job applications that illustrates this.

Men were more likely than women to apply to the job with confidence when they met 3 out of 5 qualifications.

Women were more likely than men to *not apply to the job* when they only met 4 out of 5 qualifications, believing they weren’t qualified enough.

And this is a persistent pattern. Women are less likely to put themselves out for stretch assignments, fearing that they’ll fail, or that they won’t be able to handle competing life and work priorities. They are less likely to proactively seek the next level in their career, or to even turn down a promotion opportunity because they don’t feel ready.

But we know that often, we learn how to do the next level job not by being ready beforehand, but by doing it.

The women you are managing may need to hear more from you that you think they can handle it, and that even if they can’t in the moment, you know they’ll make it through. And that that’s part of the process.

These are simple ideas, but the impact they can have on our workplaces is profound.

We get caught in the day-to-day. And while we have the intention to live by our equitable values, those vague intentions do not translate into real change without specific commitments. In the absence of those commitments, business as usual takes over.

So make the choice to adopt a new habit. Let’s build the world that gives women and men equal chances to evolve into what they’re capable of in our businesses.

One habit at a time.

Inspired by these ideas? Click here to get a downloadable cheat sheet to share.

If you’d like to bring these design thinking for equity workshops or leadership-level sessions to your company or industry, learn more and get in touch.



Mia Scharphie

Maya Sharfi is the founder of Build Yourself, a coaching and training company that helps creative women move from doing the work to setting the agenda.