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Gender Disparities in the Design Field

Walk into any design classroom, at any college in America, and you’ll see a comfortable mix of male and female students. Turn your attention to the front of the classroom, or down the hall to the faculty and staff offices, and that wonderful gender balance starts to skew. Travel outside the campus, and there’s really no balance at all.

But why? If there are design classrooms across the country with a 50/50 blend of men and women — and in many classrooms, there are more females than males — then why doesn’t the design field represent the same ratio? Why does creative employment still showcase a male-dominated presence? What happens to these passionate and educated females? Certainly, there must be more to it than child-bearing — or is there? Is a more gender-balanced field really all that important? Why, or why not?

Mixed Media Printing1
Gender disparities in the design field is a controversial as well as a complex topic. Image credit: Choichun Leung2

These questions and many others accompanied me to a design and technology conference this past fall. Minnebar, an annual Twin Cities conference that celebrates vision, niche technology and collective wisdom, provided the perfect platform for such inquiries. I hosted a session aptly named “The Equal Sign” to pitch the dilemma of the field not representing the classroom. I played the role of discussion facilitator, and was eager to see where the conversation would go. What I hadn’t realized, was that I wasn’t the only one perplexed by this phenomenon.

First, the Stats Link

According to Findings From A List Apart Survey 2009, a poll created by and for Web designers, 82.6% of Web designers are male. Ironically, 66.5% of the same respondents stated there is “definitely not” a gender bias in the design field. Web design is just one segment of the design world, but the statistic is nonetheless chilling.

My audience for the session? Predominantly female. It seems the topic itself is more intriguing for women than men. What these women had to say was sobering. One mentioned that it’s foolish to expect a male-dominated field to be able to design interfaces that appeal to how women want to interact with technology. In other words, young girls put off as consumers of technology aren’t likely to desire to create in that arena.

Another common theme during the discussion was that of heroes. So few female designers exist, and of them, few are known superstars in the industry. Of these, even less are known by individuals outside of the industry. Lack of visible female heroes results in lack of female interest. But there are countless male role models in the field; why can’t they be heroes for young girls with computers? The same reason why I’d rather aspire to be Run DMC, than Mariah Carey.

Second, the Perceptions Link

In the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, two researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that “research shows that both males and females believe that males are better than females at computing” (Clarke, 1992; Spertus, 1991). This finding is nearly 20 years old, but this mindset could easily have been held by the parents of today’s college students. Going to college can be hard, but pursuing a degree with little support from mom and dad makes it even harder.

There is also an unspoken expectation that women are very creative and make great print designers, but aren’t wired to splice the intricacies of new and constantly changing software and platforms — as noted in a article written by designer Matt Davies. The field generally represents the occurrence of women holding positions in print, illustration and photography, with noticeable scarcity in more technology-dependent roles such as Web design, animation, game design and programming.

Google used to return the correction “Did You Mean: He Invented” for the search “she invented”. It generated a lot of buzz4 throughout the Web.

Third, the Conditioning Link

Conditioning is perhaps the most obvious and potentially controversial (but definitely the most changing) of all the reasons why there aren’t more women designers. Video games and scrapbooks are cliché, but a telling, cultural phenomena. Traditionally, young boys have been fascinated with video games. The constant newness of the technological capacities; the integration with other male stigmas, such as television and computers; and certainly the intense competitive nature of the games, whether against a friend or the software itself, have all catered to masculine characteristics.

Scrapbooking, on the other hand — often a self-involved, self-rewarding, aesthetic, process-oriented affair — has appealed to feminine sensibilities. Great; but what do video games and scrapbooking have to do with gender gaps in creative fields?

Everything. And, it’s changing. In the Newsweek article “’Where’s My Crazy Hot Guy?’ A Female Designer On Women and Videogames,” award-winning female game designer Brenda Brathwaite confessed, “There was a time literally, within this decade, when I knew every single female game designer out there. Personally….” Video games, or more specifically, the video game format, have found their way into almost every media component of our lives.

Log in to Facebook, and in no time you’ll end up fielding requests from friends to play “Farmville.” Shop your favorite store online, and you may be prompted to click a link and dress a sophisticated cartoon character to help you with your purchasing decisions. Save some time at the grocery store by going through the self-checkout line, and you’re confronted with the all too familiar series of buttons, colors and graphics to ease your way through the credit card swipe and out the door.

Video gaming isn’t just something engaged in by teenage football players. It’s a format that is relevant to men and women, boys and girls, and this inclusion of the female population is invariably causing more females to ask themselves how it all works, and how they can be a contributing factor.

Fourth, the Status Quo Link

All things design — video games, Web design and graphic arts — can bring two genders together and create acceptance and encouragement, which fosters the potential to level the creative employment playing field. You must ask yourself, “Is this a good thing?” There are numerous reasons why more women are needed, and need representation; but is the “female designer dilemma” really all that bad? If a city of people stormed the doors of their school district demanding more male kindergarten teachers, they might be mercilessly scoffed at.

Similarly, few are tooting the horn for more female firefighters, or male nurses. Our culture has built functioning gender-based roles, and has birthed young boys and girls excited to fill them. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? If gender balance is achieved in the creative industry, will it be adding new jobs for females, or replacing jobs that males had? If the latter is the case, what will happen to these men? My audience at Minnebar had blank faces, and empty responses, when I asked them.

All of this matters for one reason: I don’t want to face my female students every day with the thought that more than half of them won’t ever be designers, and of the few that do, what exactly do they have to look forward to? They will have to deal with their peers, employers, clients and families being both impressed and confused when their sisters, friends and coworkers create designs that aren’t “girly” and “cute.”

Lisa Firke, a woman embodying that rare combination of female and Web designer, commented on Zeldman.com5: “I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that 90% of my clients are women. Perhaps taking women seriously as designers goes hand-in-hand with taking women seriously as Web consumers.”

Sources Link

Fisher, A. and Margolis, J. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Editor’s Note Link

This post is an article from our series of “opinion columns,” in which we give people in the Web design community a platform to raise their voices and present their opinion on something they feel strongly about to the community. Please note that the content in this series is not in any way influenced by the Smashing Magazine’s Editorial team. If you want to publish your article in this series, please send us your thoughts6 and we’ll get back to you.

— Vitaly Friedman, Editor in Chief of Smashing Magazine

(sp) (rs) (ik) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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John Mindiola III is a full-time faculty member of the School of Technology and Design at Rasmussen College in Brooklyn Park, MN. In this role, he teaches courses for students seeking degrees in Digital Design and Animation and Web Design specializations. John has a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Wisconsin–Stout. John is an AIGA.

  1. 1

    This is why my company employs women almost exclusively. We purposely target clients who have mainly female target audiences for their brands, websites, marketing, etc and we are BETTER at understanding how to create for those audiences.

    That’s not to say that we haven’t or can’t design for male or mixed audiences, but that when it comes to the very biased world of design, we have a hand up in a lot of ways.

    And I agree with you Fipp…women have to be willing to show that they can do it, take their talent and run with it. (not to mention work with other women, not against them, as tends to happen in the workplace). We can do it and we will :D

    • 2

      Not knocking you but its funny that if I said the same thing in male terms – I have a mainly male company in order to target male brands, audiences etc because we are better at understanding those audiences – I would probably get my ass served to me.

      That being said, you can argue that the same case applies to this article – serving a predominantly male audience in gaming… which is the stereotype the whole article is about.

    • 3

      If you only employ women because you feel that they better understand women as an audience and therefore are better designers for your client, I guess that is acceptable.

      I agree with Rob though that you cannot fight sexisms with more sexism.

    • 4

      lets face it you are discriminating against male workers, your company will never be as good as it should be because of it. And to say that male designers cant design for the female audience is total ignorant of you to say.

    • 5

      i like your comment and i would like to know more about your views on the topic. I am in the process of creating a space for women and i would like to know more. If you want to share.

  2. 6

    Interesting round up of the information but, as a woman in web development, I’m getting tired of these sorts of articles written by men about how more women should be in this sector.

    Every article is like a finger pointed at me and how I’m so different to be working in IT. Work is work whether it’s completed by a female or male.

    • 7


      I complete agree with Emma. I’m so tired of this articles… and i found interesting that 90% of those articles are written by mens…in my opinion this kind of articles only gives enfase to the sexisme in work. Why see employers like “mens” and “womens” and not “employers” only? Why, instead of publicate interesting work of womens, the mens insiste in write about “how this is a work of mens”.
      I think that no women is cared about work with more mens that womens if mens don’t have the atitude “oh you are diferent from us”
      Currently, i make a stage in France in the field of UI Design. In the design company here i work there is much more females that mens working in the jobs of project management, interaction design and information architecture.

    • 8


      Women are capable of doing any job, if they don’t do a job it is because they don’t desire to do so. Trying to make women and men evenly placed in every possible job is not going to ever happen.

      If you are going to take this path, then men are under-represented as nurses, baby sitters, and a myriad of other jobs that in society seem to be female centric.

    • 9

      Renata Hernández

      November 12, 2010 7:48 am

      I just loved they way you put it. I agree with you. It’s totally true and unsexist.

    • 10

      Agree with you 100%, why not write an article on how there is not an equal mix of people with blue and brown eyes in web design, and what can be done about it? As long as everyone feels free to pursue their own career without prejudice, then i see no point at all in highlighting the distinction between men and women.

    • 11

      For every woman like us that stayed in the field, there are countless more that didn’t because they got discouraged by the disparity or the fact that they weren’t taken seriously. I don’t see why it’s a problem to examine that issue. I see it as incentive to inspire more women.

  3. 12

    I’m a female web designer/front-end dev and didn’t realize there were so few of us!!!

    • 13

      Me either. I thought about it though and really thought it would be nice to have another female friend who was a designer.

      I’ve never really felt pushed out of a position because of my gender. I’ve never felt that I was discouraged to do what I do either.

    • 14

      Wow. Are you seriously suggesting to become “equal” or get into this business is to stoop to a lower level of manipulation? Maybe it’s just me, but I wasn’t hired because I look good or have long hair or could manipulate men to my advantage. I have tattoos, piercings, and a blond mohawk and can probably sport a suit better than any of the men in this office so I’m pretty sure that was the last thing on anyone’s mind when I was being interviewed–not to mention I’m black. Unless they were trying to fulfill their minority quota all in 1 swoop, I don’t find this to be true at all. If anything, that could have been ample reasons for them to have turned me down for the position.

      I’d like to be believe that I was hired because I have talent, confidence, and have been blessed to stay on board because I get my sh!t done and continue to research, learn, and contribute positively to the agency. Women don’t need to manipulate men to work themselves into this industry and I don’t know why anyone would think that is okay or even want to work in an environment where they had to pose as some sex pot just to get the position. This is web development, not Hollywood!

    • 15

      Oh I realized it ! I’m one of the oldtimers, I had such high hopes for tech’s potential to be a level field… but I was naive.

      Kudos on the earlier comments Jamie and Nicole.

  4. 16

    Sorry if this comes out wrong
    but as a guy, why do I care?

    Obviously if women wanted to be designers, they can be. There is nothing stopping them from being designers and developers. If they are under represented, then there is a reason for this, less women than men want to be web designers / developers.

    “One mentioned that it’s foolish to expect a male-dominated field to be able to design interfaces that appeal to how women want to interact with technology.”

    What, do they want more pink buttons? If you are going to say there is a problem with the interface and delicate females can’t comprehend how to use it, then tell me and I will make it more girly accessible.

    “Going to college can be hard, but pursuing a degree with little support from mom and dad makes it even harder.”

    I did not have support from mommy or daddy either. I made it through, but I guess that is because of all of the connections that being a “man” provides me. All the support I get from my fellow man for being a designer?… oh wait the support that also includes the constant teasing that I must be gay because I am a designer. I gotcha, you are right women have it so hard.

    Seriously who out there doesn’t take women serious as designers? Feminist Nazi crap for sake of Feminist Nazi crap is pointless and tired. I realize you are a guy and perhaps you hope to come across all sensitive to the plight of women who are being held down by the evil oppressive man, however all you are actually going to accomplish is negatively reinforcing that women are helpless creatures confused by “mans” world of technology.

    • 17

      You’re right. What would you care? Why would you care if people with a different ethnic background or a different sex or a different whatever aren’t as represented in your field as in other ones? Why would you care about anybody but yourself? It’s not like equality’s important, right?

      • 18

        equality for the sake of equality is pointless. People in the United States rise and fall within a particular field because of talent. If they are talented and have drive, then they will succeed. In other countries this might be a problem, but the United States has gone past this. If you are seeing discrimination in the hiring process, then perhaps you should look at your portfolio and not at the “oppressive men” holding you back.

        Of course there is racism and sexism, it is part of the human condition and it is claimed by both sides of the isle. It also only makes up a tiny fraction of the reason why women, men, Africans, Latinos, Asians, etc… don’t find work.

        Most discrimination that people face these days, is self discrimination. A mental blocks that tells them that they can’t do that or that they should do something else.

        Instead of focusing on why more men than women are web designers, perhaps you should focus on baking me some cookies. <– That is sexism

        Jane decides to pursue a career other than web development <– Not sexism

        • 19

          In the same comment you manage to say that people in the US fail because they lack talent and still acknowledge that racism and sexism exist. But hey, that’s life? Why do something about it? It’s not like humanity hasn’t fought for equality for ages? Be careful, your privilege is showing.

          Not even to comment on the bit where the US is implicitly superior to the rest of the world because ‘it’s gotten past this problem’. It must be interesting to live in your fantasy world…

          • 20

            Yes, my privilege as a black / native american


            oh wait like I care, I am sick of whiny people, you succeed because you have talent and drive.

            If you don’t succeed in this field it is because you have no talent && || are lazy. <– Amazing grammar skills on display

          • 21

            Privilege? Would you care to provide your definition privilege?

            By the world’s standard, the fact that you’re sitting in front of a computer, making a living, have enough food to eat, means that you are more “privileged” than 80% of the world’s population. I think what’s really showing is your class envy. Never mind that you’ve made a rather nasty blanket implication about people of wealth.

            The point Jeremiah is making is sound. Even if racism and sexism were rampant in the western world – which they aren’t – that wouldn’t be an excuse for not succeeding.

            We live in a world where everyone – EVERYONE – faces some type of hardship. For example, try getting into top level management as a short man, i.e. less than 5’7. Before we open our mouths the interviewer is making horrible assumptions about character, drive, tenacity, will-power, and so on.

            I’ll would be willing to bet you don’t even date short guys! Neither did my wife, and yet, here we are closing in on year 15.

            The broader statement is that, the moment you let your circumstances define you, whether it be black, female, too short, too fat, too thin, too handicapped, too “ethnic”, that is the moment you lose, not to some external oppressor with a chip on his/her shoulder, but to the oppressor that lives within.

          • 22

            @Jamie. You’re the one who brought up privilege, and used it as an weapon. That alone seemed to indicate a rather self-centered worldview, so I asked or clarification. So, if Jeremiah’s privilege is “showing” can we now safely assume that yours is as well? Or is it “different” somehow, now that it has been pointed out?

            “Yes, everybody has some hardship to face. Now if you equal being a short man to being handicapped, seriously no.”

            That’s about as bad a straw-man as I’ve ever seen. Since you are not a man at all, let alone a short man, or a tall man; since you have never been a tall man interviewing a short man, or a short man being interviewed, I reject your dismissal, as you did Jeremiah. Done.

            I also happen to have a severe form of dyslexia and I wasn’t able to read until I was in my late-teens. Handicap? Sure. But on the lucky end of that spectrum, I think we’d both agree.

            “I don’t want to paraphrase your last paragraph but if I read it right you’re trying to say that if someone tries hard enough they’ll succeed.”

            Nope. That’s not what I said at all. Success is not, nor should it be, guaranteed for anyone. What I’m saying is that the best outcome for anyone is to work toward becoming the master of your circumstances, rather than letting them master you. Easy? Hell no. Necessary for self-improvement? Hell yes. The worst thing anyone can do is see themselves as a lifelong victim of circumstance – even if they’ve actually been victimized by them.

            “Do you think any group who fought for some equality didn’t try enough? Do you think people currently fighting to get the same rights as any other citizens, wherever that is, including Western countries, aren’t trying hard enough? ”

            To say that there is a severe disparity in the rights of one group vs. the another group – in western countries – is not only stupid, it’s an insult to people who face REAL oppression in other cultures.

            If you were truly concerned for the plight of oppressed women, your focus wouldn’t be on perceived societal slights, but rather for those living in hard-line Muslim nations, where genital mutilation (i.e. female circumcision) is still legal and practiced, where many women are legally beaten into submission on a daily basis, and have virtually no protections under the law. You say you have perspective of just how privileged you are, but your words do not show it.

            “Unless you have the means and opportunities to start a revolution but that’s a different story. The statement that sexism plays absolutely no role in this is ignorance and/or denial.”

            Don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t believe in absolutes one way or the other. I said even if those things do exist, then it is simply the hand you’ve been dealt. You can either play it to the best of your ability, or wait for someone to come along and rescue you. However, one should be wary of the rescuers, as they usually take more than they give, and end up being the destroyers rather than the saviors.

            “@Jeremiah: yeah because being black obviously tells you what it is to be a woman or a person of Asian descent or any other thing that can set you apart in certain circumstances. Also nice use of the word ‘Nazi’. That is totally not offensive and disrespectful.”

            As though being a woman of Asian decent gives you the platform to judge everyone else’s situation as lesser than yours. I’m sick of this me-ism. It’s not about you. It’s not about your victimhood. It’s not about your race. It’s not about your gender. It’s not about the level of your attractiveness. None of those things will determine how far you go. Success, at the end of the day, comes down to your talents, and how efficient and effective you become at using them.

          • 23

            Yeah, it exists, but what else is new? That isn’t the reason why these statistics are so staggeringly disjointed.

          • 24

            @Beau, the system won’t let me answer your comment directly so I’ll answer mine.

            I don’t know what point you’re trying to make with your first paragraph. If you think I don’t know how privileged I am, you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m very, very aware of it and have read countless discussions on a wide variety of subjects where this was made all the more clear to me.

            Yes, everybody has some hardship to face. Now if you equal being a short man to being handicapped, seriously no.

            I don’t want to paraphrase your last paragraph but if I read it right you’re trying to say that if someone tries hard enough they’ll succeed. Do you think any group who fought for some equality didn’t try enough? Do you think people currently fighting to get the same rights as any other citizens, wherever that is, including Western countries, aren’t trying hard enough? Who’s got the power? The ones who make the laws, the ones who held upper positions. Until you can make them listen *and* they’re willing to listen, nothing changes. It has to come from both sides. Unless you have the means and opportunities to start a revolution but that’s a different story. The statement that sexism plays absolutely no role in this is ignorance and/or denial.

            @Jeremiah: yeah because being black obviously tells you what it is to be a woman or a person of Asian descent or any other thing that can set you apart in certain circumstances. Also nice use of the word ‘Nazi’. That is totally not offensive and disrespectful.

          • 25

            @Beau. Just wanted to say I’m sorry I can’t continue this discussion further. I’d like to but the lack of threading at this point makes it awful.
            Just one thing, though, and kind of a rhetoric question tbh: why would you assume I’m a woman and apparently also a person of Asian descent? (If clarification was needed, I’m not Jamie from comment #23).

          • 26

            @Jamie I agree, the lack of threading bites.

            For clarification, you had told Jeremiah that his being black can’t give him perspective on the things that set us apart, which is kind of a self-defeating accusation, because you can’t see what it’s like to be him either. Being a woman or a minority doesn’t create one iota of external insight into what it’s like to be one of the more “privileged” you mentioned earlier.

            To hold in contempt a group of people because they were born into WHAT YOU PERCEIVE as an easier life, is every bit as unfair as any other type of discrimination, and is in essence just a form of bitterness which will contribute to failure more than success.

            Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Blessings onya.

        • 27

          I agree that there shouldn’t be quotas or anything like that. If making a conscious effort to include more women in web design lowered the quality of overall output, that would be horrible and we shouldn’t do it!

          But what we’re talking about is the institutional factors around the lack of women in web design, and that has nothing to do with quality of work.

          Have you ever walked into a craft store or somewhere else staffed by women and felt weird for being the only dude there? Like all the women were judging you and hoping you’d leave? Like you have to explain to them why you’re there – “I’m not gay, it’s for my wife” etc?

          Being a woman programmer is still weird. Even if guys support it, they’re still confused by it, and they still make hiring decisions based on assumptions they’ve made about women without even realizing it. It’s not about telling women who’d rather be baking that they have to be programmers, it’s about making it less awkward for men to go to the craft store or women to go to the hardware store. It’s about making sure the people who want to devote their lives to this can and do.

          When the programming world isn’t filled with weird BS about women, we can have that awesome meritocracy you want.

          • 28

            Sure I will agree I do find it weird and strange when I meet a female programmer. I am also very happy when I do. Of course there is going to be “weird BS” about women in programming and that is because so few decide to do it. It is not about women and the perception of them being designers and programmers, it is about the rarity of finding women who share similar interests. I don’t know of one company that isn’t grateful to find qualified and talented females to do this type of work. Heck, we want it. It is about finding women who actually “want” to work in this field and who do excel.

            In the programming world there are millions of men who “program and design” out of that million only about 5% are actually any good.

            The same statistic will probably hold true for women. So if you have 1,000,000 men programming and only 100,000 women, the job pool of qualified applicants is just that much more reduced.

            It doesn’t have anything to do with mens perceptions, but of womens perceptions.

            I think the worst thing for women trying to enter this field, is other women… not men.

          • 29

            Actually, I’ve found being the only male in the craft store by myself gets me more help and attention from the employees, like they’re impressed that a male would want fabric to make a blanket as a gift or something >_<

            Sexism exists in many forms, but the important part is that it doesn't become systemic. The reactions of male designers of surprise at a female's abilities that are being told here are the type of thing that needs to be stopped, but I have to ask: is it ALL males who get surprised when dealing with a competent female? Or do the actions of a small number of men brand the sentiments?

    • 30

      I agree. While the numbers are shocking I think more and more people are finding that gender is a moot point. It would be interesting to see a break down of those statistics including age (perhaps it was in the poll and I just missed it.)

      I was also confused by the notion that women are better at designing for women. I don’t really design for a gender base unless the product is geared toward a female audience or alternately for men.

      Younger people are all using technology at pretty equal rates. My 7 year old niece as no problem using a computer to draw. Eventually this phenomenon will probably be a thing of the past. More than anything I attribute my interest in computers to my parents.

      I do hope other women get into the field, but honestly I don’t think there is ever I difference in the final product either way.

      • 31

        J.D., you may not consciously gear your work towards men, but by being a man, you probably think in male terms. Just as our work is affected by our experiences, yours–and my–experiences are affected by being male. Now, doesn’t that mean your work will be more likely to be male-oriented? It’s a bit hard to see this, I know. A bit like how does the fish ever realize he’s swimming in water?

    • 32

      i love work with other womens but i don’t care if there is more mans that womens since the mans don’t descrimine me. And until now, the thing that i more hate is realy this kind of article that do how you says “women are helpless creatures confused by “mans” world of technology.”… until that with no intention, this is what is caled “positive descrimination” is like the “Day of women” ( i don’t know if there is this day too in other countrys, i’m from portugal).
      We don’t are like childrens or incapacity persons who needs protection , special days and special atention.
      I hate the comment “oh there is because the womens want have babies” because reinforce the sexiste stereotype.
      i’m women; i’m a UI designer and i love technology and i hate babies and pink…and no, i’m not lesbian. And yes, i know a lot of womens like me!

  5. 33

    I don’t see this concern towards men in female dominated human services fields whatsoever. I don’t even see any concern about the decreased ratio of men to women in colleges and universities either.

    I don’t care that women don’t have any role models in web development. I don’t care that they don’t have role models in graffiti art either. I don’t care that fine art or engineering is male dominated either much like women don’t care that social work, teaching, psychology, and accounting professions are female dominated.

    It’s all about the work and the result – that is why I read “Smashing.” Putting emphasis on gender is rotten way to get traffic by creating a ad hoc gender war.

    • 34

      You don’t care because it doesn’t affect you. You would if it did.

      And I have read a lot of articles by people concerned with the male/female ratio in colleges, so some people are very concerned about it.

      As for human services – perhaps there’s no outcry because there aren’t many men who want to go into those fields. Or maybe not. Just so you know, though, our current and last head of HR are men, so maybe female domination in the field isn’t a problem for men in the field. If it was – wouldn’t there be articles about it written by those men for whom it was a problem?

  6. 35

    Interesting article. As a woman, and a freelance programmer, I primarily work with men throughout the day; yet I’d never even thought of the disparity. I’ve done numerous “career day” presentations at an elementary school level and can say that the children who show the most interest are definitely girls. I wonder if the same statistics will hold true in ten to fifteen years?

    • 36

      I notice the disparity, but I’m used to it. I’m always a part of some kind of male-dominated environment. The only women that are usually at the places I’ve worked were designers or secretarial type employees. The majority of people I knew while in school in the same program ended up drifting into another branch of the field instead of becoming actual programmers. They ended up designers or in motion or something else in the interactive field, but not in the development realm.

  7. 37

    Renata Hernández

    November 12, 2010 5:48 am

    I’m a female web designer aspiring to become a webmistress :)

  8. 38

    Probably a lot of women have babies and then become full time mothers.

    • 39

      This was already acknowledged in the second paragraph of the article. The author felt though that this alone was an insufficient explanation.

      Hence this exploration of other possibilities and contributing factors.

      • 40

        Its a huge factor though and thats not sexist. They haven’t necessarily mean they have abandoned their career, but modified it. I’ve known a LOT of design moms that went freelance/work-from-home. Other careers require you to choose, but design can be a perfect at-home career given the opportunity.

    • 41

      Not to argue the amount of thumbs down, but statistically, in the workplace (in America), this is true. Sure, they then go “freelance” but I was always relieved I could go to the office and have those little moments to myself and a hand free while my wife had her hands elbow deep in diapers and baby spit up. Hats off to the men and women who stay home with the kids!

  9. 42

    It’s an awesome article to read about this well known fact .We, people perticularly male designers always wants a series of creative flow from both the genders in the society
    But I think not only us,the female designers also need to step forward with a movement in their mind,not to kill their passion after completing a web/graphic designing course in some reputed institution. I personally feel there is a vast chance of girls getting huge success in this web design field but still after giving so much motivational push i saw some of my girl friends used to get married after completing the course,as if they just doing that design course for getting a precious welcome in their in-laws house.I hope very soon girls will overcome this difficulty and will surely come and work beside our male designers..

    • 43

      Ask yourself why some women think they’re meant to be mothers and men are meant to support them and why some men think so as well. Ask yourself why so few men take time off work to raise their children but expect women to do so. Ask yourself what society’s doing to contribute to maintain such gender-assigned roles.

      • 44

        Are you suggesting that there are no gender assigned roles for men in society? Look at the flip side of the coin for a second. What does society typically say about a man who decides to be a stay-at-home dad?

        I’ll tell you what they say: “He’s lazy. He can’t provide for his family. He’s not a REAL man.”

        The reality is that it is not some societal “expectation” of women take time off from work. I would argue that in Western culture in particular women have more freedom to work or stay at home than men do.

        The odd reality is that, an overwhelming number of women, once they become mothers, also birth a strong desire to nurture and raise their children. That is not my opinion, that is a well researched, study based phenomena.

        As much as we would like to explain everything away as some type of oppression, the truth itself is often less controversial, and much more obvious than we’d care to admit.

        • 45

          I’m not suggesting that in the least. It goes both ways. That’s why I said ‘some men think so as well’ but I should have made that clearer. There was and still is a bias against men in some professions as well. However, I don’t think one can compare the general bias against women to the general bias against men (in terms of equal employment opportunity, wage disparity, …).

          You can’t say it’s easy for women to take time off work to raise their children and hard for men both for practical reasons and because of the possible social repercussions and, at the same time, say that women aren’t expected to take some time off by society. Don’t you see the correlation? If one of the parents take some time off and the parents are a man and a woman then who’s expected to do so? Because laws make it easier, bosses make it easier, it’s a lower income loss or whatever other reason.

          Not going to comment on the ‘strong desire to nurture and raise their children’ bit because this is not the place for a debate about the so-called maternal instinct…

          • 46

            “Don’t you see the correlation? If one of the parents take some time off and the parents are a man and a woman then who’s expected to do so? Because laws make it easier, bosses make it easier, it’s a lower income loss or whatever other reason.”

            Wait, let me get this straight. Due to the FMLA women can take off up to three months from work to be with their babies, they do this WITH pay for three months, and can take an additional three months off without pay, and have their old job back, or one with the same salary, and this is somehow discrimination?

            What is it called when a woman takes the entire half-year off, and then decides not to return? Which is what happens in a majority of maternity leave situations.

            There is NO LAW that says women have to go back to work, or stay at home. Societal expectations are NOT laws, and you can shirk them at anytime, and usually have the law on your side if you so choose.

            “Not going to comment on the ‘strong desire to nurture and raise their children’ bit because this is not the place for a debate about the so-called maternal instinct…”

            I think it is the perfect place to bring it up, because in that label “so-called maternal instinct?”, we very clearly we see that you are bigoted towards women who choose motherhood over their careers, as though that somehow is a step backwards for women everywhere.

            As for wage disparity. Do some research on how they come up with those figures. I think you’ll be surprised to find out just how ridiculous those numbers are. Maybe this isn’t the place to debate wage disparity either.

      • 47

        “Gender assigned roles”? a lot of it comes down to biology, like it or not, men and women are not the same.

        • 48

          Design is not a biologically-assigned skill. If skills that needed to be learned – like cooking, design, architecture, etc. were biologically based then there would be no male chefs, no female designers, no female architects. We used to use this argument of biological differences for why women couldn’t become chemists, airplane pilots, doctors – all of which they can and have done successfully.

          A lot of what we think of as “biological differences” are actually cultural expectations and ideas about gender deeply embedded in the culture. Go shopping for a child’s toy and ask yourself if the toy manufacturers really need to gender toys so aggressively. Yes, girls usually like playing with dolls and part of that is probably biologically based. But do all the dolls need to be pink? Does everything toy-related and specifically marketed towards girls have to be pink and sparkly? Since pink used to be the colour for boy children in Victorian times, I think it’s safe to say that those sorts of things are purely cultural and foisted upon girls from an early age by parents, marketing, the general culture.

          The science of what is biologically determined is still emerging, still being studied and added to – most of what are our general assumptions about gender are simply lazy cultural constructions, “recieved wisdom” or stereotypes. I know this because I can and have done web design but in my current company all the women were cordoned off into print. It has everything to do with our department’s ideas of “what women are good at” – and it’s an antiquated, patronizing view that limits our career options.

          • 49

            Men don’t give birth, thats the female’s job is suppose. Nobody minds female taking maternity leaves if only they return after that.

        • 50

          “Design is not a biologically-assigned skill.”

          No its not.. But every learned skill is made up of smaller biologically ingrained skills. Not everyone of us can be pavarotti, no matter how much training we got. Not all of us can be quantum physicists, no matter what training we got.

          The basic scientific fact is that men and women are different and have different specializations. Our brains are a different size, shape and even have different regions with different colors and functions.

          On top of that, men and women have different biological tendencies and preferences on what to value. Different careers satisfy different needs.

          • 51

            Gender differences overblown in studies

            Not only are a lot of gender studies using very small groups of people in their studies, the physical information is often interpreted to mean something that we cannot scientifically assert it actually means. Our understanding of the brain is not as complete as we think – a lot of aspects of neurology are still unknown or only partially known. You have to be careful about science research in the news – I recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science book as a starting point for how to tell if a scientific study should be considered valid science or not. Journalists often report scientific studies in very simplistic, often misleading ways – never mentioning how many people were in the study, what the control was, whether the data was interpreted, whether the study has stood up to rigorous peer review, etc. A healthy dose of skepticism is required, especially when people claim to know what parts of the brain definitively cause what personality traits. Race and gender studies should be looked at especially carefully using scientific rigor – sometimes there is an agenda behind what the study is trying to prove that can lead to blanket statements that are proven later to be simply not true.

            large study shows genders about equal in math ability – but the article mentions the consistent stereotypes presented to girls as they grow up that they aren’t good in math. Some people – males and females – hear something for long enough they simply absorb it and believe it. Like that women and men are incapable of having any crossover in their interests, skills or talents. By the way, in Japan there is a cultural stereotype that woman are good at math and men aren’t – “everyone knows that.” Math teachers tell boys to get their older sisters to help them. Setting up a cultural expectation might have something to do with beliefs and choices. All I ask is that you expore these ideas instead of assuming your knowledge of neurobiology gives you a complete and accurate picture.

  10. 52

    thank you for this article!
    my comment is from a european perspective, maybe that’s a totally different aspect, but i doubt it.
    i agree with lot of points here, but would argue that it is not only a gender disparity, as you go with the timeline.
    my years as a student were also very pleasantly mixed, but many colleagues got stuck in jobs that do not have anything or little to do with their qualification, REGARDLESS whether girl or a boy.

    it is a hard game of enetring into business, and finding clients especially when you’re just out of the alma mater coziness of an art college.

    many times , the clients are not found easily, or one is just overwhelmed with a task, and the money needs to be earned, so many turn fast to a job , which after a while is quite a dangerzone for getting back into track, especially in a technologyheavy environment changing every year – i would get depressed, if i had the feeling i got stuck with an ages old photoshop version on a PC, while others trotted to classes already with their powerbooks in the rucksack.

    but of course, even within college, the profesors were sometimes making sexist jokes or openly show off their preference for male students – especially when it came to technology ( 3d rendering techniques, work with cameras, et sim).
    if there were a question about a software, or if some production step did not go well, very fast the colleagues and professors alike would come to the conclusion,” ’cause she’s a girl”.
    the student years – and soon afterwards – are the productive years of life – of course a lot of us have a child.
    which depends a lot of the country you live in – i write from germany , and its a desaster with child daycare… try and concentrate on a CSS sheet or on javascript acting awkward, when a baby is constantly climbing chairs, putting fingers in all kinds of electrical devices, or is simply fascinated by the clicking sound of a keyboard – and wants to try !
    and there is still a vast public opinion ( and i am sure a lot of men will agree on this one) – when you say “i am a designer” – the picture of nice colours and pretty pictures is the first thing people would associate with your work ( “all you artsy people” et sim)
    recently , a client was moaning about a flyer he had to produce, and the printshop complained because he “layouted” it in “Word” ( … ).
    i was working on his website, and told him i could compose a new one in 15 minutes. he (utterly surprised):”can you do that?! you can layout?”
    i am sure , my male colleagues had such moments as well.
    now that PLUS being a girl, and try even having long hair to go with it – you have to have an extra elbow packed in your bag!

    i think a combination of many of these factors, plus men being definitely more perceived as tech savvy and presenting them that way, is a big chunk to chew on, but still, look how many techie books are written by women. look how many of the “women in tech to watch” lists there are – and even a popular crime scene show casts a woman that can hack even into pentagon… so i would worry too much about the gap getting bigger. au contraire

  11. 53

    You forget the part where women, like many other human beings, would like to work in environments where they feel welcome, treated as equals, paid the same wage for the same work, and not have to prove themselves to anybody by working harder just because they have different genitals, don’t have to deal with sexism and/or harassment… If you’re really interested in the subject you’ll read the many, many articles written by women (and men) on the subject. You can start with

    [Not saying this happens everywhere, of course, but it does happen and one might want to wonder what image the techy/design/… sector gives as opposed to other work sectors.]

    • 54

      Definitely. What was that saying, “work twice as hard for half the pay”? I find myself constantly working to prove myself as “devoted” to my job or as tech-savvy as my coworkers, and my coworkers are a smart, if-not-feminist-at-least-not-not-feminist bunch of guys.

      The worst is the bemused, surprised reaction I get when I get an especially nice piece of jquery working – “Oh, you know jquery? I thought you just handled the CSS”.

    • 56

      When I first experienced the preconcieved notions of women simply not being as good as men in design I was shocked. Because I had worked at places before where it simply wasn’t an issue – everyone, male and female, was a geek and “one of the guys”. I felt like I had stepped back in time. Just replace the words “woman” or “female” with “black” or “asian” and it becomes more apparent that it’s a pointless prejudice and not something based on “reality” or “biological science”. Now imagine you are black and you work somewhere where everyone subtly lets you know that they feel black people aren’t really capable. Somehow, though, when it’s an issue of gender, peope feel entitled to this view and don’t see it as simple prejudice.

  12. 57

    I think the issue is, what happens when young female design graduates look for jobs as web designers? Do they get hired at the same ratio, assuming qualifications? Or is every job they interview for mysteriously ‘filled’?

    Then, what happens when they make a mistake? Is it a natural part of the young designer’s learning process or prima facie evidence that the poor girl just can’t cut it?

    Guys make mistakes too. But those get written off as working too hard or going too fast. Not indictments of half the sky.

    But do any of us wonder what would happen if I tried to get hired in many web agencies? I’m not only female – I’m 50 years old!

    • 58

      Mary brings up another issue which no one seems to address in these articles. I think a bigger problem in this field is ageism. If you are female and over 45, you have a double wammy against you.

    • 59

      I know that in some places I worked there really was no thought to what gender the applicant was. It was all about the work quality and can we get along with this person. In other places I’ve worked there simply will never be a woman hired to do anything remotely tech-related in web. They never make it to the interview stage. This type of prejudice is insidious and subtle but has a profound effect on an organisation’s make up and general culture.

      It’s better to go for the places to work where gender isn’t an issue. But part of me really hopes there are some go-getting women who force their way into those other companies and maybe even change some antiquated attitudes (but I’m not holding my breath).

  13. 60

    To be honest I do struggle to find motivation and inspiration in our field. While I do work with many talented men, I can’t really say “I want to be just like him”. It’s not a lack of talent, there’s plenty. We all love what we do, but we have different ways of doing things, different ways of looking at it, different priorities. That’s not a bad thing of course. But, oh well you know what I mean.

  14. 61

    I just had this discussion with my husband the other night about gender bias in the field. He pointed out that decades ago men dominated much of the advertising/marketing/design world which let’s face it; it’s a tradition that that hasn’t changed in years for a variety of reasons. To the eyes of a client who will invest thousands of dollars into a project they are more comfortable talking to a man about it; there’s something that says solid and confident. The sad thing is that in many ways I can see that, many of the female designers I’ve known, seem to lack confidence in themselves and that sends a big warning sign out to people. After all if you don’t believe in yourself, how do you expect anyone else to?

    We as women need to be firm but not stone, we need to be confident not egotistic and most importantly we need to let someone know dead in the eyes that we are in control. I can’t tell you the number of times I have thrown someone off balance by simply taking a step forward in a handshake or by asking one question “why?”

    Eventually we will see more of an equal ration it’s going to take some time and a little moxy!

  15. 62

    I’ve been in web design professionally for the past 8 years or so. In the last 2 years I’ve shifted my career path towards being a developer, and now work full time as a software engineer.
    Just last week I attended a 4 day Microsoft developers conference in Vegas and the ratio between women & men was easily 1/60. I didn’t care and I doubt any of the male developers did either.
    I have an edge in the field because I can where both hats as a designer/developer. My gender has nothing to do with my talent.

    • 63

      And you probably look really good! Who needs plants or pin-up posters, if you can hire a real-life girl to be in your office and fetch coffee for the men and motivate them when they need to finish a project?

      • 64

        Dude, seriously! I really do hope you were being sarcastic because it’s that kind of attitude that’s the problem in very male dominated job roles.

        Thankfully I’ve never had my gender thrown in my face (with regards to my job) and that any men that I have worked with have been very positive and encouraging.

        Also, I think that perhaps I’m actually more employable because I am female and therefore fill the gap in an otherwise all male team – I’ve certainly used it to my advantage in interviews!

        Perhaps it is simply that naturally women don’t have the ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality that comes part and parcel with the creative industry…? This is why I’m glad that during my time studying, we spent just as much time learning how to defend our thoughts and concepts as we did learning design history and principles.

        Great article btw, I really enjoyed reading it and also the comments that followed. Very mixed bag of reactions.

      • 65

        do not feed the troll

  16. 66

    I am the only female web designer at my company and I was the only female web designer at the company I work at previously. I find I DO have to prove to my co-workers and employers that I am “technical” and I have to work to prove that I “know my stuff”.

    My first day on the job, I solved a css problem I was told was impossible, sparking the open apology from a co-worker who had advised management not to hire me because I’d end up being another “paper pusher” and unable to pull my weight of billable work. I was shocked, but even more shocked that the other girl in the office believed and openly stated the women were not technical (she no longer works here).

    I love working with guys and I don’t care how many women actually work in web, but I do care that I still have to prove that I can handle the work like the guys, even thought my resume and past work experience say I know my stuff.

    • 67

      Fantastic! I’m glad you were able to prove them wrong! Keep up the good fight =D

    • 68

      Emily, This is exactly how I feel. Just echoing your thoughts. I find it interesting that when being critiqued by designers online where my gender is not known to them they refer to me as a male.

    • 69

      That co-worker was a sleezy idiot. Those exist in any company. If a man comes on board that he does not like, he will make up another sleezy remark to management. This kind of stuff happens to men all the time as well, it’s just office politics, not sexism. If you would get less pay because you’re a woman, that would be sexism.

    • 70

      well lets face it women are less “technical” than men which is very true, women have to work a lot harder to become remotely close as good.

  17. 71

    I’m interested in everyone’s opinion on the roll that family plays in the design field as well as every industry where women are (regrettably) compared to men. If I’m not off-base, and please set me straight if I am, a woman who starts a family (either with a man, a woman or as a single mother) more or less chooses to focus on that family for a period of time which leaves others (males, mostly) with more time to pursue a career. If expertise is measured in hours spent in a field (ie, something arbitrary like the “100,00 hour rule”) isn’t the time spent on family going to impact the time required for expertise? I’m assuming no gender bias, of course (which is naive) and only looking at this from a family / career time balance perspective. Opinions?

    • 72

      This is a good point. But the problem happens when the prejudice comes before the woman has taken time off to have kids – just assuming she’s less of a designer because she’s female or that her opinion isn’t as good as a man’s. That’s what’s sexist. Or assuming that because she’s taken time off for children that suddenly she’s not capable of doing the same things she was doing previously. Obviously others have moved ahead while she took time off, but that’s the price you pay with that choice. However, you shouldn’t have to be seen as suddenly unable to use previous knowledge and experience. I suppose in a fast-moving tech industry, some reskilling would have to be the price you’d pay to convince people you could still keep up.

      If a woman takes several years off of work for children, of course she can expect not to climb as high in her career as someone who didn’t. And many woman who want kids are fine with that. It’s the lack of respect from the get-go that is the problem – or the assumption that a young childless women will know less than a young childless man with the same degree and experience level… not less women at the top of the ladder. The top of the ladder is only accessible for those who spend all their energy striving for that, which excludes people who focus on other things. That’s not sexism, it’s just an unfortunate fact of corporate life. However, not hiring women because they aren’t “good at design” or paying them less because “they aren’t as good as men”. These are the perceptions and problems woman are still grappling with in a lot of places, whether they have kids or not. Not all though and it is getting better in general.

      Anyway, I don’t think your question was sexist at all – very realistic in fact – and I think that the more people discuss these things, the better it is and the more ideas are thrown into the mix.

  18. 73

    As a female web developer, I design and program. It is part of my job requirement. And… I have to do both well.

    Do I find my job difficult to do? No. What I find difficult to come to terms with is attitudes. I am often viewed with trepidation by my male colleagues and sometimes obnoxiousness. Unfortunately (at least in my situation), I don’t see any change in the near future because I am the only female web developer within my work place of 5,000 plus employees. What makes my job bearable is the all male team I work with have accepted me–but I have run into gender bias for a very long time… since 1994 to be more specific.

    Overall, I believe it is a social misconception about women and their supposed lack of ability to design, program or troubleshoot a database– or anything technology based. It is much like the nonsense I grew up with for example “women can’t do math well…” It’s a myth that needs to put to rest. I also don’t believe it has anything to do with motherhood (I have four children) but rather the challenges of juggling a family while keeping current with the trends and constant changes in this evolving field but that could be said about any professional field.

  19. 74

    Holy crap this article is stirring up some controversy, I’ve never seen so many thumbed down comments in a Smashing article before O_O

    • 75

      Was that thumb down just to be spiteful or humorous?

      Well, I find it amusing.

    • 76

      Iris Kopic (Editor at Smashing Magazine)

      November 12, 2010 1:55 pm

      @Mohawk Kellye: Yes you are right, but after all, this is part of our Opinion Column. Everyone has different opinions on the subject and as mentioned above in the article, gender disparities in the design field is indeed a controversial as well as a complex topic!

      @John: I agree with you and would also like to thank everyone for their comments and opinions. Exactly what this article is about. Would also kindly like to ask everyone to respect each other’s opinions and focus more on the web design community!

  20. 77

    Forgive me for being simplistic, but could it be possible that more men answered the “A List Apart” survey than women and that skewed the stats? Some of the most prolific Web designers I’ve seen have been women: Kelly Goto, George Oates, Molly Holzschlag, and Ducky Sherwood, just to name a few. Go on any Web designer mailing list and you’ll see a mostly-equal representation of both genders. In fact, I have more female industry contacts than male, by an almost 2:1 ratio. Look at the biggest Web conferences today and look at how many women are headlining these events.

    I’ve never seen gender discrimination in Web design; you can be sure that if I did, I would petition to the best of my ability to make the situation fair, but in my circles this has not been the case. I’d also have to look at each case individually rather than blanketing the entire industry, because sometimes what people perceive as discrimination is actually just random chance (for example, I know far more brown-haired people in Web design, but I don’t feel that blonde-haired people are discriminated against because of this fact).


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