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Photo: Maxime Le Conte des Floris (Unsplash)

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.

Stories from Designlab's community

For inspiration, here are stories about three amazing women—all mothers!—from our Designlab community who took the risk to make a career change and talk about how their UX design thinking impacts their lives today.

Zita Rovó earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and worked at an internationally-recognized lab, however, she wasn’t sure whether the instability of being an academic in her field—sometimes requiring a move every 4-5 years for post-doc positions or the potential risk of not finding a permanent position—suited her goals. As a mother of two young children, Zita realized that “if you already have a family, this is not what you want.”

She decided to pursue UX design because she believes that “designers play a catalytic role in creating a positive impact on people’s lives” and is also attracted to how the field offers lots of challenges, deliverables, and creativity. Recently graduating from Designlab’s UX Academy, Zita notices a connection between her experiences as a mother and the types of problems she wants to help solve. She says,

Experiencing all the dark and bright sides of motherhood makes me feel more empathy to others... I cannot really tell you whether my children influenced me in my professional trajectory. But it is true that first and foremost I want to use human-centered design thinking to help children of asylum seekers and refugees.

When Madi Waggoner (who heads operations for Designlab) decided to shift careers a few years ago and enrolled in UX Academy’s six-month program, she was already working part-time doing lead generation/outreach marketing, working part-time for Designlab, and watching her young son without childcare. When asked if she felt any concerns related to being a mother entering a new career, she said, “I was worried that, because I had a child, people might wonder if I could get the work done, that I couldn’t work all the time because I had a family—all of those worries that I’ve heard other mothers say.” However, whenever Madi experienced any self-doubt, she remembered the reasons that inspired her to make a career shift:

I use [my son] as a lens for what I do with my life….It’s because of my child that I’m doing something I might not otherwise do. That little boy means the world to me and I want to create the best life and set the best example for him as possible.

For mothers seeking a career change, Madi advises to

find support—whether it’s friends, an online community (UX Academy’s was great for staying on track with coursework), a spouse, or some other group of people….I sought out online communities of women and moms. Boss-Moms was my favorite.

Wendy Pei began researching UX design bootcamps while her infant daughter was napping, ultimately deciding to enroll in UX Academy because she “liked that Designlab showed how much they cared about their students' futures through the job guarantee policy". While balancing new motherhood (her daughter was only a few months old at the time!), she pursued UX Academy to make a career change, moving from her role as the customer service manager at a rapidly growing startup to her current role as the senior product designer for Microsoft.

When asked about how motherhood has impacted her approach to work, she said,

I’ve always been really efficient about getting things done, but I still procrastinated in the past because I thought I had all the time in the world... but once I had a kid, not only did I have limited time, I also got a clear view of mortality and I’ve learned to identify small moments of the day where I just have downtime to use by writing a quick email so things I used to dread, I just do it and get it done.

One might wonder if Wendy’s current position for the tech giant, Microsoft, would be stressful in comparison to her former jobs, but in fact, she describes the positive shift in work-life balance. Instead of working twelve hours days and thinking about work 24-7 in a former position, she says, “When I got the job for Microsoft, my hours became more reasonable. I made the right choice and realized it’s possible to get a tech job where there’s a clear distinction between work time and personal time.” 

Wendy also appreciates the generous health and life insurance benefits for her family, as well as the progressive policies that apply not only to parents, but also to family caregivers; allowances for fitness and health, plus programs that offer additional support (e.g. backup care for her daughter’s preschool) for when her family accompanies her during business trips. About the inclusive work culture at Microsoft, she says,

The fact that everyone I work with has a spouse and a child—in this culture and environment, they know what it’s like to have a kid, so I don’t have to feel bad if I need to take care of certain parent responsibilities.

Because Wendy strongly feels that UX design can be a great industry for women, she describes how she recently encouraged her cousin to explore the field:

The way I appealed to her is that I know she’s an artist and problem solver. The key is understanding what product design/UX is and how it can benefit you as a person. I told her that product design can meet those needs for problems that you have, so cultivating the passion for it is what drove me to do the rest. I wasn’t passionate about it when I first got into it, but once I figured out the ways that UX can help fulfill my own passions, then I went with it and felt it’s worth changing my schedule and the challenges of making this career shift happen.

Wendy applies her product design background to motherhood as well. She says,

Being a parent is the ultimate design job— I’ve had to make so many things more efficient and design my parenting style. I’m constantly doing user testing with my daughter [laughs]. ‘Is she liking this? Does this work for her?’ I’m using a lot of what I do at work at home too.

5 Ways the UX Design Industry Can Contribute

To help break down the gender gap, we offer five ways that the UX design community can foster a more equitable and inclusive workplace for working mothers:

1. Introduce remote working: The option to work remotely would offer the opportunity to close the gender gap, writes Andrea Loubier (CEO of Mailbird), and that “companies need to adapt and change their structures to give employees a healthy work-life balance especially if they want to keep retention rates high.” She cites a Pew Research Center study about how the lack of flexibility impacts the workplace, which resulted in 51% of women feeling that “being a working mother made it harder for them to advance their careers while only 16% of fathers felt the same way.”

2. Use flexible schedules (vs. one-size-fits-all): Claire Cain Miller, a correspondent for The New York Times, emphasizes that “flexibility regarding the time and place that work gets done would go a long way toward closing the gaps, economists say.” She highlights the company, Werk, which was started by co-founders and working mothers, Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean, and focuses on negotiating “for flexibility with employers before posting jobs, so employees don’t have to.”

3. Embrace mentoring and role models: In our article, “How Mentors Help You Master Design Faster,” we offer several ways mentors make meaningful impacts:

...if you’re a career changer—especially from underrepresented communities—you may feel pangs of the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome.’ Working with a mentor who is already in your desired field can be invaluable since they will reinforce your value and affirm your presence and contributions, offering you the boost of confidence needed to persevere and navigate unforeseen challenges.

For mothers considering a career shift, Wendy offers this advice: “the fact that you probably come from a non-design background makes you a great product designer already”.

4. Find more flexible ways to foster diversity: In “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Dobbin and Kalev note that more effective diversity initiatives involve less control, opting instead for a more flexible approach:

It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability—the desire to look fair-minded. That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses. Some of the most effective solutions aren’t even designed with diversity in mind.

5. Do diversity right: Michael C. Bush and Kim Peters (CEO and Executive Vice President, respectively) from the research and consulting firm, Great Place to Work, highlight the positive impacts of diversity done right in terms of increased employee commitment, innovation, retention, revenue growth, ability to handle adversity, and cultivating a sense of community. They include several best practices by the 50 companies on their “2016 Best Workplaces for Diversity” list, such as creating employer resource groups for different communities that hold regular events and advocating for diversity awareness, among others.

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