Lead by Design

Sylvia Vaquer

I grew up being an optimist at heart, truly believing that long-lasting, systemic change is possible. Surely,my parents — a doctor and a civil servant — had much to do with this, as they have always put full effort into improving the conditions around them for the community at large.

When I graduated over a decade ago and started my professional design career, I was optimistic about the future. Though having worked in my native Puerto Rico where chauvinism and discrimination in the workplace was notorious, I wanted to believe that the work culture in the States was more equitable. Don’t get me wrong, it was better: there were no blatant sexual advances and the ideas from young female designers were heard with equal enthusiasm as those of their male counterparts — and that fueled my flames. It kept me pushing through countless all-nighters and 80-hour work weeks. I worked hard, at times much harder than my fellow male designers. I was content and determined to succeed. But then I started noticing a trend: there was still a huge gender gap in terms of leadership. A majority of young female creatives (70%) have never worked with a female creative director.

Early in my career, the gender breakdown of the design departments I worked in was approximately 60%male and 40% female, at least in entry and mid-level positions. As the years passed, more and more of my female colleagues’ careers plateaued, while male designer friends were able to seize opportunities that weren’t extended to the women on our team. Were the award-winning women designers at these agencies less talented? Was motherhood a barrier to promotion? Did these highly regarded mentors lack the skills to effectively manage? Not at all. Despite possessing the talent and skill, women only make up 11% of creative directors. With the exception of those who decided to buck the trend and start their own ventures, many who remained in more traditional agencies saw their career growth and compensation stall out. Others, once they started a family, opted to leave the agency world and freelance to achieve a work-life balance that supports motherhood.

As Silicon Valley began to praise designers, I was thrilled to see the value we bring to the business world elevated and brought to the forefront. Nevertheless, I saw the same patterns persist: a mostly male, ethnically homogeneous group that dominated discussions and thought leadership. As a designer who ventured to start my own business, I struggled to find women peers/role models to openly discuss topics like alternative management styles or avoiding burnout. And these were not just my experiences and observations. Many other women have openly discussed how challenging it can be to succeed in this male-dominated industry and have noted thelack of role models that they can identify with as an issue perpetuating this pattern.

While pursuing my Master’s Degree at UC Berkeley, I learned about the deep and long-lasting psychological effects that power structures and unconscious bias can have in actively shaping the reality around us. It is through the lens of those studies that I have started to understand what happens in the design and entrepreneurship communities. I must confess, after my graduate studies, I became a bit disenfranchised from the design community at large — not because of a lack of love for my profession — but because most designer gatherings seemed to perpetuate the status quo I had begun to repudiate.

Nevertheless, I have come to understand that effective and lasting change rarely comes from dissenters preaching from the outside and more often from evangelists that help change the tides from within. The design community first needs to be aware of their lack of diversity within leadership positions (and thankfully as of the recent 18–24 months, this is a topic that has started to be discussed). However, awareness is only the first step towards solving a problem. We must understand why such a small percentage of female designers make it to leadership positions, so we can then trace ways in which we can help them build their careers and improve the work environment.

I want to be a catalyst for change. I want to be the mentor I never had. And for that reason, I will host a panel titled: (Designing) Women in Charge: A Conversation Around Leadership, Diversity & Design on June 9, 5–7pm, at SocioFabrica during the San Francisco Design Week. The goal of the event is to provide actionable insights to women designers/entrepreneurs to better equip them to further their careers. We aim to move the conversation (and women) forward. Please join us to discuss this very important topic. Register at sofab.agency/wmn.

May 27, 2016