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Un-doing disrespect: women and design

Respect Illustration. Elizabeth Tunstall

Having recently attended my university’s graduation ceremony, I noted again what seems to have become a global trend — design is becoming a field where the majority of practitioners are women. I have made similar observations in India, China, and the USA.

The question that arises when a field, in which men were the majority, becomes one in which women become the majority is this: what does that shift mean to occupational prestige of the field and the respect women experience within it?

Design has globally gained greater respect over the past 20 years. Yet, studies show that women in general are shown less respect than men, and that it is might be the lack of respect towards women, not necessarily gender stereotypes, that result in women’s discrimination. So in terms of respect as a human value, what future scenarios might be imagined for the design field as its practitioners become majority female?

Australian design at the tipping point

First, let me establish that the demographics of design are shifting. According to the 2011 Australian Census, there are a total of 71,220 design workers. Of these, 52% are men and 48% are women. There are great ranges across the design fields – 85% of fashion designers are women and 87% of multimedia specialists are men. In graphic design, which is the largest employer of the design fields with 25,513 workers, 52% are women and 48% are men. This is an increase of women by 7% since the 1991 Census, in which women were 45% and men were 55%.

Yet, if my recent graduation rates are an indication, the number of women will only increase. Counting the names in the graduation booklet, I confirmed that approximately 57% of the graduates who received a Bachelor of Design degree were women, while 43% were men. Will these female students find more or less respect when they are the numerical majority as professionals?

The context for (dis)respect

Aretha Franklin singing Respect Live in the 1960s.

American sociologist, Richard Sennett defines respect as the relational recognition of the:

intrinsic worth that each individual has that entitles that person to be treated with dignity and regard.

A recent study by Kristen Schilt on transgender men and women highlights in fascinating ways how women are shown less respect. As reported in the New Republic, female to male (FTM) transgender individuals expressed how their everyday work experiences changed after their genders changed. Ben Barres is quoted regarding his experiences as a biologist at Stanford:

“People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today — but then his work is so much better than his sister’s”. (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.)

The disrespect that Ben recognises that he experienced when he was a woman aligns with what psychologist Lilia Cortina and her Gender and Respect in Organisational Lab describe as general incivility as a form of modern discrimination. She has created a 12-item Workplace Incivility Scale:

During the PAST YEAR, were you ever in a situation in which any of your supervisors or co-workers…

  • Paid little attention to your statements or showed little interest in your opinions.
  • Doubted your judgment on a matter over which you had responsibility.
  • Gave you hostile looks, stares, or sneers.
  • Addressed you in unprofessional terms, either publicly or privately.
  • Interrupted or “spoke over” you.
  • Rated you lower than you deserved on an evaluation.
  • Yelled, shouted, or swore at you.
  • Made insulting or disrespectful remarks about you.
  • Ignored you or failed to speak to you (e.g., gave you “the silent treatment”).
  • Accused you of incompetence.
  • Targeted you with anger outbursts or “temper tantrums”.
  • Made jokes at your expense.

Working within design, I was surprised by my own ratings as to the relative frequency in which I have experienced these incidents in the past year. And of course, as a woman of colour, I have the double jeopardy of experiencing both gender and racial bias. Thus, the scale helps to identify what actions of disrespect people might experience in design, especially women.

Design’s occupational prestige and respect

Whether women’s numerical majority in design results in positive or negative scenarios of respect also depends on design’s occupational prestige itself. If design as a field has little respect, then it might compound any disrespect that women face.

My Swinburne colleague, Professor Allan Whitfield, and his student, Gillian Smith have done extensive work on design’s occupational prestige. According to Siwha Chung and Whitfield’s 1999 study of design’s occupational prestige in Australia and Korea, design has intermediate prestige, with the different sub-professions being fairly undifferentiated.

Designers were ranked higher than barpersons, cleaners, and generally mechanics and ranked lower than doctors, judges, solicitors, and architects based on the following criteria:

  • Social standing
  • Education
  • Responsibility
  • Income
  • Usefulness
  • Proportion of women in the profession.

Interestingly, the study showed that the Australian perceptions of the different design sub-professions were marked as female (i.e. fashion and interior design), gender-free (i.e. graphic design) and male (i.e. industrial and furniture design). While all design fields were ranked low in the levels of responsibility and usefulness, industrial design was rated higher than graphic, fashion, and interior design for Australians. Might this reflect a slight bias towards the design field that remains majority men?

Future scenarios for respect and women’s majority in design

A negative future scenario for design might be based on the experiences of women who have entered in large numbers high prestige fields, such as law. Released in 2014, the 2012 Law Council’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report found that 47% of women and 13% of men said they experienced discrimination based on their gender and 50% of women and 38% of men said they experienced bullying or intimidation.

Reflecting items 1 and 2 on the Workplace Incivility Scale, one participant in the study said:

Well I think that people like people like themselves. So if there’s an idea that’s being generated by a bloke for consideration by a bloke QC then I just think that idea is more likely to be accepted or given due consideration than the equivalent idea from a female, particularly a younger female. (Female, Government legal, 30-34 years)

A positive future scenario might be based on reports on societal changes regarding the description of gender-free occupations. In 2011, Donna Crawley replicated her original research in 1991 on gender bias in perceptions of occupational prestige. She found significant changes in attitude among her samples of Canadian college students:

In the studies reported here, the participants did not show overt sexism or racism in their ratings of occupational prestige. They did not estimate that women’s occupations might be worth less in salary than men’s work, as was the case 20 years ago.

This echoes the responses of four out of the six Australian women creatives who were asked by Desktop online magazine in 2012, Are women underrepresented in design? Capturing the general consensus, Designer, Biddy Maroney stated:

I’ve always found good work to be rewarded, regardless of gender…

Perhaps, the tangible nature of design allows the work to speak for itself, without an emphasis on gender.

The most likely scenario is somewhere in-between the continued disrespect experienced by half of the women lawyers and the lack of gender bias among young, college-educated people. The important thing is recognising the intrinsic worth of women by giving them respect in design.

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