The Gender Equity Toolkit by Disrupt Design in Collaboration with AIGA Women Lead

The Gender Equity Toolkit: A Design Intervention that Busts Gender Bias Through Equity and Empathy

Leyla Acaroglu
Oct 31, 2016 · 13 min read

For the last year, I have been exploring the issue of gender and how it impacts leadership opportunities. As a result, I collaborated with the Women Lead Inishative at AIGA and designed a toolkit to help bust through tightly held gender biases that impede equality. Reflecting on the design process, I wanted to share the experience and the insights that this fascinating project uncovered.

Why Gender?

Gender is an intriguing social construct and a somewhat archaic framework for how we should perform in the world. Depending on many social factors–– such as your location, your age, the composition of your family, your race, your religion, and the other unique contributors that make up your individual worldview — the construct of gender will impact you differently. But one thing holds true all around the world: we define, and possess strong personal opinions on, the roles of women and men, often assigning expectations without even knowing it. The deep-seated and unconscious reference frames that we place on things in the world around us are called implicit biases.

Implicit gender expectations are fueled by stereotypes which pervasively impact the ways in which we encounter other humans. Stereotypes are actually important evolutionary tools– quick ways for our brains to categorize the complex world around us– but the current manifestation of this is that we have a collective habit of homogenizing the other into a set of rigid rules to define things we don’t quite understand.

As a designer and sociologist, I am fascinated by the way the world works and the phenomena that impact us in our daily lives. It didn’t take long for me to begin to cultivate a keen interest in gender issues related to professional settings. Being a woman and working across diverse industries, I’ve encountered many moments in which I had to question if my gender, rather than my capabilities, was impacting others’ personal opinion of me.

I, like many people, have experienced some interesting barriers throughout my professional career– from being intentionally ignored during meetings in which I was the only woman, to being treated as the receptionist while serving as an artist in residence for a huge corporation, to the countless times I was told to be less ‘aggressive.’ I became more and more fascinated (and at times frustrated) by these experiences, and I started to question what the underlying cause of these interactions was based on. Although there is more awareness and conversation around the gender issues in professionals settings today, more so than in any other time in history, I found myself perplexed by some of the recurring situations, the odd expectations of me and the ways in which these micro experiences manifest on a larger scale. I started to question other people and look for the different work-arounds people were using to jump the hurdles of gender in professional settings.

The Gender Equity Toolkit, in collaboration with the AIGA, box and collateral design by Deb Adler Design

Gender Bias

The stereotypes that feed biases around gender start well before one even goes to school. I’m not just talking about the obvious gender bias that childhood toy stores have (the marketing is more gendered now than it was 50 years ago), which has gotten a lot of attention from designers and engineers thanks to the trend of creating STEM toys specifically for girls. The science around this says that children begin identifying their gender through labels at around the age of 19 months. Gender is a physiological reality as much as a social construct, but how does it negatively impact the opportunities we have for reaching equality– a state wherein we embrace people’s skills and capabilities over what gender role we assign them?

The ramifications of gender binaries and the expectations we have placed upon us, both for women and men, feed and reaffirm the myriad of cognitive biases that hold people back. Before you know it, a whole new cycle of mass acceptance of traditional gender constructs has manifested, and we find ourselves having the same conversations about workplace inequalities, gender based pay gaps and question why new sectors — such as tech — are dominated by men.

Gender binaries impact women and men alike, as they provide rigid frameworks that people have to squish themselves into. For every woman who can’t get up the corporate ladder, there is a man silently suffering as he is expected to ‘man up’ and do his job, even if he just wants to be at home with his kids. These are just a couple of the narratives of personal experience that I discovered through my yearlong deep-dive research project into gender and leadership, which I conducted through a collaboration with AIGA.

Exploring Women’s Leadership in Design

I started working with the Women Lead Initiative at AIGA and set about using my Disruptive Design Methodology (a 3-part change making process that uses mining, landscaping, and building for creative solutioning) to explore the experiences inhibiting leadership for professionals within the design industry. I see all problems as opportunities for creativity and production, so the challenge of diving deep into the underlying issues of gender inequity enabled me to conduct a fascinating project across the USA. The result? The Gender Equity Toolkit, which provides a practical, research-based intervention to affect change not only for improved gender relations but also for better personal and professional experiences and opportunities.

The statistics on the number of women in leadership roles in the design and tech sectors are not encouraging — even the best performer still only employs 23% women! The gender pay gap in the US is 20% on average, with women earning 80% of what men earn, and based on the current rate of leadership progression, it will be 2085 before we reach parity of women and men in equal positions of leadership. From my personal experience, I found it very curious that creative industries have a higher female graduation rate, yet have a very low executive presence in the workplace.

Mining the issues at hand: gender and leadership

I started to explore and mine the current status quo by pouring through the most recent literature on all things gender and leadership. This helped me to get a baseline understanding of what had already been researched, analyzed, and determined (check out this pinterest board for a snapshot of some of the recent studies on this topic). Gender biases are a big source of fuel for the current status quo; this was further corroborated by the face-to-face interviews I did with men and women across the different positions within the design industry, from C class to agency founders. Below I’ll explain some key findings that set the stage for the creation of the Gender Equity Toolkit. But first, here’s the video video format of the key findings:

It’s not just a glass ceiling, but a sticky floor and sometimes a glass cliff.

It may be obvious that the glass ceiling has been busted through, but there’s now the pervasive sticky floor syndrome, whereby women get stuck in the bottleneck of middle management. And, in case a sticky floor wasn’t enough, we also have the glass cliff phenomenon, wherein women are put into positions of leadership during turbulent times, with increased likelihood of failure, at no risk to a company that is already on shaky footing (it’s important to point out this has also tellingly been dubbed ‘Think Crisis: Think Female’ in response to the ‘Think Manager: Think Male’ global phenomenon). Being awarded a leadership position in times of turbulence also comes with the implicit expectation that she will soften the blow of hard times in a company, thanks to stereotypical qualities that are traditionally expected of females, like being collaborative and understanding.

The structure of the workplace impacts mobility.

A strange experience has emerged in our workplaces: women take responsibility for the silent office housework, from cleaning up after a meeting to organizing social events. These types of activities fit in with the outdated gendered stereotype of womanly activity. What’s more: research has discovered that this type of extra work reduces women’s opportunities to progress, as they commit valuable work time to activities that fall outside of their job description. One woman told me her work around for this was a blanket rule to never cut cakes in the office! There is a gendered expectation that women will do these activities and, often, they don’t get credit for them; yet when a male performs a ‘community’ task, he tends to be praised for his contribution.

It’s still a boys’ club; success is still heavily defined in terms of masculine attributes.

One of the most fascinating insights emerging from the academic literature review was the issue of the frame that leadership takes. As pointed out by Judy Wajcman in her 1998 book, Managing Like a Man, the very presence of women in male-dominated workplaces is itself a significant disruption to the status quo: “When a woman occupies a position traditionally filled by a man, the significance of her sex, for both how she operates and how she is treated, is subjected to scrutiny in a way that the ‘normal’ hierarchical order is not.” Let’s not forget that women in executive positions is a new reality. In 1980, there were no women in top executive ranks of Fortune 100 companies; by 2001 it had jumped to 11%. On one hand, we can praise the progress that has been made in the last 25 years, yet on the other hand there is still so far to go: in 2013, only 16.9% of corporate board seats and only 14.6% of Executive Officer positions were held by women, 10% of companies had no women serving on their boards and women filled only 8.1% of all top earner slots. Massive power players such as Google employ 70% white men. One contributing factor is the considerable ambiguity in performance criteria, which can allow the focus to be on personality traits (with a preference to classically ‘male’ success attributes) rather than concrete performance outcomes. Tying assessment of performance to personality leads to a gendering of expectations that is still heavily based on male attributes, such as assertiveness, self-confidence, competitiveness, emotional stability, and ambition.

Collecting Stories and Gaining Insights

Primary research is a critical part of understanding any problem arena, and in order to develop an empathetic understanding of other people’s experiences, I always incorporate qualitative interviews and workshop sessions into the mining phase of my research process.

Over 150 people from across the United States participated in either a semi-structured interview (30 total: 24 women, 6 men) or a full-day workshop. I asked a range of questions anchored on three central points of inquiry:

  • Can you tell me about a situation you have encountered wherein you felt your gender affected your ability to progress or enhance your leadership role?

So many insights were gleaned from these experiences. I heard countless stories of opportunities impeded, from both sides of the gender divide. The expectations placed on ourselves and others vary widely, but the implicit gender biases are strong for most people. Gender stereotyping affects both women and men, because of the implicit gender-related expectations that we all have. This manifests itself in all sorts of pervasive ways. For example, the men I spoke with seem to almost have to sign a silent contract that states they’ll be 100% committed to the job, even if that means staying so late that they miss out on their kids’ extracurricular activities and compromise their work-life balance. But for women, there’s more understanding and acceptance around needing to leave the office (however, this does NOT mean that women aren’t willing to make the same personal sacrifices as men or lack the same ambition). Women are expected to be caring and less ambitious, and when they demonstrate otherwise they are cut back down to size by the work environment. So many people were frustrated, confused and felt isolated in their experiences. This is just happening to me right? Gender based discrimination has moved from the overt to the covert.

Descriptive gender stereotypes are pre-structured ideas of what women and men “are like”: women are expected to be communal, and men are more individualist and competitive. Women find they must adopt male leadership traits to get into a leadership position, but once there, they are penalized for not fulfilling the gendered expectations of the typically female stereotypes of being sensitive and caring.

Another example of how unconscious gender biases affect both men and women is in the scenario of what one interview participant referred to as being seen as the “creeper dad.” This is the harsh judgment passed onto men who are taking their children to the park or in a playgroup during typical workday hours. When a man who “should” be at work shows up in a female-dominated environment, he’s dismissed with quizzical assumptions about his intentions, his ambition, or his masculinity. And of course, these same issues play out with the female who decides to be the family breadwinner instead of the family caretaker.

Though collecting hours of insightful narratives, I was able to identify a bright spot among these cases: organic peer-to-peer mentorship (when someone just informally helps you out, showing you how to overcome obstacles in the office or just offering extra support) is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone to leapfrog into a leadership role and when someone received this kind of support, it was almost always the case that they then paid forward the experience to someone else.

I also identified the root causal relationship point in this complex system: the root cause of professional, personal, and social barriers to leadership equality is that cognitive biases are impeding our abilities to understand and support, much less provide, equity (equal access to all resources for growth and opportunity) for all people in the workplace. And so, busting through cognitive biases became my intervention point for the Gender Equity Toolkit.

Cards from the Empathy Building Activity in the Gender Equity Toolkit

Busting Through Bias by Design

Overcoming bias (in this case the centuries old, deeply ingrained gender bias) is not an easy design challenge. If you’ve ever tried to convince someone that a thought they deeply believe is actually wrong, then you’ve probably experienced how difficult overcoming bias actually is!

“Biases are the invisible air we walk through- exerting their influence outside of conscious awareness.”- Neuro Leadership Institute

When core beliefs are challenged, it creates a very uncomfortable feeling for the holder of said belief; it’s so uncomfortable that the person would often rather reject new information than feel it. So how do you go about challenging a subconscious understanding and replace it with a better idea? This is exactly what I challenged myself to do with the quick activities in the Gender Equity Toolkit. After over 12 months of testing and exploring through workshops at the UN and the headquarters of Google (and beyond), I had developed a range of cognitive intervention based tools. The final set of resources that are on offer in the Gender Equity Toolkit seek to bust biases and build new experiences that can help overwrite stereotypes through creative solutions. There are four key themes that I decided to focus on for the toolkit based on the deep research and systems exploration work:

1. Creating Connections

Humans are storytelling creatures; we connect through shared values and experiences. But our brains like to form schemas and structured references of one another, and this can lead to misconceptions and accidental prejudice. Connecting through stories can help us rewrite the narratives that build stereotypes. The activities in the toolkit help groups bond and gain powerful insights into one another, by seeking shared values as points of connection. The net result is a positive payoff that helps shift perspectives, challenge biases, and forge human connection.

2. Fostering Empathy

Empathy is a visceral experience of understanding the way in which someone else feels about something in their life. It’s a very powerful human tool for overcoming stereotypes and implicit biases. It’s not as simple as just understanding; it’s about gaining insights that allow for a shared feeling or experience. The toolkit offers ways to rewire the brain biases by exposing our shared human vulnerabilities and turning them into connections, thus cultivating a deeper appreciation and empathetic view of one another.

3. Role Playing

Practice is great way to build the mental muscle to tackle complex career hurdles, such as asking for a raise or negotiating a salary deal! What’s even better is testing out what it’s like to be the other person, to get an understanding of their perspective. These activities provide a hard activity (intentionally!) to flex those brain muscles in order to invest in the experience, commit it to the memory bank, and build confidence in communicating.

4. Exploring Organic Mentoring

Unlike a formal mentorship program, which can feel stiff and be a total waste of time, organic mentoring occurs when a natural relationship of support and guidance forms between two people in order to assist one person to learn new skills and leadership. This can occur in different social situations, from workplaces to friendships, and is usually informal in nature. The Gender Equity Toolkit offers ways to overcome career blocks by facilitating guided conversations around topics one does not usually share. It also helps to frame the opportunity to get advice on how to overcome complex obstacles.

How to use the Gender Equity Toolkit

Toolkits for Change

I have created several toolkits to help make change by design, and I’m incredibly proud and excited about the opportunities that this toolkit presents to creative, and wider, industries. Engaging in cognitive bias-busting and empathy-building activities will allow many people to overcome the predetermined mental ruts that inhibit our professional and personal lives. I create interventions based on a deep exploration of the underlying systems that make up a problem set. Gender is a huge arena that I make no claims in being able to address on my own! Thus, this toolkit, like the rest, is designed as a provocational intervention, one that seeks to start or shift a conversation about a critical problem arena that impacts us all.

Fighting for gender equality is serious business, but the Gender Equity Toolkit makes it fun. The toolkit is can be used in boardrooms and classrooms alike. Once you begin recognizing your own implicit biases in one arena (in this case: gender), you’ll be tuned into all of the preconceived beliefs in your worldview that could be keeping you from gleaning deep understanding and fostering meaningful connections.

You can get more information here to help rewrite the present narratives around gender biases, as well as recalibrate the expectations for the future, so that we have more equitable and progressive workplaces that provide merit-based rather than gender-based opportunities for all.

— — — — — — — — — — —

Check out all our toolkits for change making here >

Find out more about the toolkit on the AIGA dedicated site here >

Download the gender equity toolkit here >

Interested in the Disruptive Design Method? You can take classes here >

Find out more about the Women Lead Initiative at AIGA >

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo.

Leyla Acaroglu

Written by

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of, &

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

Leyla Acaroglu

Written by

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of, &

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

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