In honor of the recent anniversary of the Women’s March and the millions of people who took to the streets around the world for a second year in a row, it feels apropos to take this time to reexamine how we’re doing in terms of gender equality and breaking down the barriers women face in the workforce.
Women in the workforce and gender bias
When the respected journalist, Carrie Gracie, found herself in the middle of a media blitz after accusing the BBC of a “secretive and illegal” gender bias in pay, she astutely asked, “If we are not prepared to look at ourselves honestly, how can we be trusted to look at anything else honestly?”
Although diversity programs have proliferated since the late 1990s/early 2000s (designed, at times, to preempt lawsuits) some question the effectiveness of these initiatives for leveling the playing field or dispelling gender-based stereotypes. In “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev argue that, while there have been some improvements in terms of the proportion of black men and white women in management roles for companies with 100+ employees, they assert that, by and large, “equality isn’t improving in financial services or elsewhere.”
According to Dobbin and Kalev, studies suggest the reason why many diversity programs fail is because they tend to police managers’ thoughts and actions and, as social science has shown, that approach can provoke people to rebel in order to assert their autonomy. In other words, a force-feed approach for diversity can spark backlash or actually activate more gender bias than it mitigates!
Nonetheless, according to Dobbin and Kalev, nearly all Fortune 500 companies and almost half of mid-size companies still adopt this type of diversity effort—even appointing “diversity officers”—and often with lackluster results: “Even in Silicon Valley, where many leaders tout the need to increase diversity for both business and social justice reasons, bread-and-butter tech jobs remain dominated by white men.”
A recent, infamous example of problematic diversity efforts in tech involves James Damore, the male software engineer working for Google at the time, who posted a controversial memo, “Google's Ideological Echo Chamber.” In his 10-page document, Damore criticizes Google’s diversity efforts and suggests that women may be unsuited for tech jobs, sparking vitriolic responses across the internet, from those who wholeheartedly supported or opposed his stance, to those who debated the implications of Google later firing Damore.
Add to that the growing and unprecedented list of men accused of sexual misconduct who held positions of power relative to their alleged victims (mostly women), and occurring in a range of industries, such as journalism, the arts, government, and tech.
Okay, then, where does that sobering news leave women in the workplace? As a woman of color who now works in tech, I wonder where women—especially if they’re about to take on a career shift or re-enter the job market after a gap (perhaps after starting a family, for instance)—can thrive in their careers and experience a healthy work environment?
For mothers, in particular, factors such as short maternity leave, rising childcare costs, and the uneven division of household chores with their male counterparts can further complicate a career shift or return to the workforce. Is there an industry creating a different narrative—one that posits a more equitable future for women?
Right now, according to InVision’s Rebekah Cancino and Shaina Rozen, women make up only 30% of the tech workforce, so like many industries, UX design has a ways to go before closing the gender gap. That said, what we’re noticing here at Designlab is pretty promising: an increasing ratio of women (70%!) enrolling for UX design courses, suggesting a growing appeal to women who are interested in making a career change into an industry that offers healthy salaries, long-range employability, and more flexibility. According to Glassdoor’s “50 best jobs in America,” UX design roles ranked 9th on the list in terms of job satisfaction. In other words, it’s a job seeker’s market in UX design, and women are primed to flourish!
Our own team at Designlab, too, includes more women than men (at the moment, 8 of 14, to be precise). We hope these promising trends are indicators of what’s to come for women in UX design—that significant inroads will continue to change the landscape of what has been historically a male-dominated field.