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Career advancement as a woman leader in design

Things to watch out for the higher you go

Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

Yesterday, I had the opportunity of participating in a graduate student’s thesis project around women leaders in tech. I offered an hour of my time because I am genuinely interested in the topic, and want to learn how to keep the door open for others who want to know what it’s like.

For the for the longest time I was on the outside looking in, and now that I’m “in,” I’ve made it a personal mission to share what I learn. In the design industry specifically, there are equal numbers of men and women that start out in the field, but only 11% of women ever end up in leadership. I’d like to be a part of changing that…as long as I don’t get tired.

So, back to the interview. One a-ha moment I had while answering one of her questions was that male managers have amplified my career progression 10x more than female managers have throughout the course of my career. Surprisingly, the interviewer acknowledged that this was a common theme among all of the women she spoke with.

I highly doubt women are intentionally trying to not support other women, so I decided to do a little digging.

So, what’s happening here?

In the course of 14 years as a designer in the tech industry, I’ve worked at a number of small, mid-sized, and large companies (including Google) and have had about equal numbers of male and female managers. So how is it possible that when I look back, every milestone acceleration in my career from promotions, contract to full-time conversions, to delivering huge impact on highly visible projects has been because of a male manager or a skip-level manager who sponsored or advocated for me?

Contrast this with the women managers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing that exemplified leadership traits such as being compassionate, organized, and honest. In hindsight, it was also glaringly obvious they were held to higher standards and seemingly needed to do more to prove themselves than men. In general, I’ve found my interactions with women managers to be more supportive and psychologically safe (and really, I can’t imagine having the same level of support with a male manager when I navigated a miscarriage or sought approval to permanently work remote in the before times for family reasons in a no-remote office), but these also meant lateral moves, staying in the same level for much longer, and commiseration that we need to fight the good fight together. I could also see how much more women managers were trying: trying not to rock the boat, trying to be 110% perfect, and simply trying to stay in their job. After all, women are also forced out of leadership roles 35% more often than men.

So, what can women do to thrive aside from ditching corporate life and starting a business?

(More women than men did this in 2020 btw.)

Turns out — surprise, surprise — it’s a systemic thing. It’s difficult for women to hold the power when there’s not as many of us. It impacts the sponsorship we get, and in turn, the opportunities we are able to offer to others.

Janice Fraser gave a great talk on Why Women Don’t Advance into Senior Leadership and What To Do About It. Here are the main takeaways:

Ask yourself: Is this something I’ve done before?

70% of advancement comes from stretch assignments. So, monitor whether that new project you get is a stretch assignment or a lateral move. Get clear on where the growth is, or if this new project is something you’ve done a thousand times before. Women are constantly asked to “prove it again” while men are offered opportunities and are given the benefit of the doubt that they can succeed.

It took me 13 years to get a management position, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. For a good 5–6 years I stagnated as a senior level designer, bouncing from teams and companies in different industries, lured by promises of working remotely, a flexible schedule, a new industry I could drive impact in. But the projects. All. Felt. The. Same. I wish I had realized sooner that lateral moves were not helping me, and I was simply being asked to “prove it again.”

Be wary of the glass cliff.

If getting handed stretch assignments is rare for women, women are also predisposed to getting stretch assignments that are likely to fail more often than men are. A double whammy. Janice cautions here to keep your eyes wide open: if it’s a growth opportunity, that’s fine. Just know when you’re being dealt a losing hand that’s packaged as a growth opportunity. Otherwise, you may want to pass and find an opportunity that amplifies success instead of mitigates failure elsewhere.

Luckily, several of my glass cliff assignments paid off, and I was in it for the growth it offered. As for others, I probably stayed a few months too long in projects that led nowhere.

The fork in the road to C-Suite.

Janice explains that the Director level is where women start to move to “Staff” roles that are not directly tied to revenue (think HR, accounting, sometimes marketing) while men are placed in “Line” roles that directly impact revenue (R&D, Sales).

As a designer, I’ve been lucky enough to stay in the R&D “line” role, but I have also seen design be perceived at companies as a “staff” role when the design maturity isn’t quite there. It’s the difference between getting executive support in knowing design can greatly influence the product and to staff up research resources, versus asking the design team to color in the lines of a predetermined, biased, mostly unproven solution. As I continue my design leadership legacy, I will continue to push for design strategy and design as a “line” role. It’s helpful to have the words for it.

Sponsor and get sponsored.

When you’re not in the room, do you have senior leaders who would advocate for you? Here, you’ll need to work on expanding your network and building rapport with those outside of your day-to-day. There’s a lot of resources to do this, and many articles on the topic.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of bias for women at play. Women are judged more precisely while men get a lot more leniency; women tend to be seen as “not strategic”; and women’s successes are attributed to luck while men’s successes are attributed to skill. Sponsorship requires someone to risk some of their political and social capital to support you, so imagine how all of that bias can rear its ugly head by the time a talent review or calibration happens. Given that 20% of advancement comes in the form of sponsorship, it is a path worth the effort. Find sponsors, and be a sponsor.


My initial reaction to realizing more men helped boost my entire career than women leaders have made me think that women managers were doing something wrong. Luckily, as a designer (and woman!) I had a feeling further research needed to be done, and I’m glad to have pieced together the story from the pipeline problem to the systems in place that may be influencing this. The more we’re all aware of the problem, the easier it will be to combat it.

So, be picky about your next project and role, and be intentional about sponsorship. Don’t stay in the wrong place for too long, because your next growth opportunity could be right around the corner!

Lia Fetterhoff is a product design leader, writer, and creator of Swishie, providing content and community for women of color to thrive doing the work they love. Lia’s passion is exploring the intersection of design and life, amplifying the journeys of women of color, and sharing insights as a mom, creative, and woman of color in tech. She lives with her husband and two kids in Roseville, CA.




Swishie provides content + community for women of color who want to thrive doing work they love from creative careers, side hustles, lifestyle businesses, being a mom, or all of it. Get the freebie for clarity on thriving doing work you love: https://www.swishie.com/download-self

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Lia Fetterhoff

Lia Fetterhoff

Inspired by life. Designer, writer, mom of two. Creator of swishie.com.

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