Driving Design as Women: Challenges & coping strategies


It’s 2017 and thankfully ‘Mad Men’ misogyny is a thing of the past (in the UK at least).  So why am I even talking about driving design as women? Is it still relevant?

As an experienced designer, apparently I am either respected or hardened enough not to notice gender inequality on a regular basis, and therefore I haven’t given it a lot of thought recently. However, I was reminded that it’s still an issue. Many of my female colleagues are still facing challenges that make them feel discriminated and powerless.

Sheryl Sandburg wrote extensively in her ‘Lean In’ book about the barriers women still face in the workplace, including “blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.”

It is too important an issue to ignore – we need more empowered female designers, at all levels. Jen Heazlewood, Creative Director, Head of Experience Design at R/GA London says “11% of creative directors are female, while 73% of consumer purchasing decisions are made by women, [accounting for] $20 trillion of the world’s annual spending,” in her Combatting unconscious bias in design article.  Research also shows that gender-balanced teams outperform predominantly female or male teams.

It was Never a Dress image
Ref: itwasneveradress.com

We’re fortunate at RMA that we have a high percentage of female employees, equal pay and an inspiring #ItWasNeverADress sticker on the Ladies toilet door! However, we do work very closely with clients from male-dominated industries, and dealing with gender bias (whether it’s conscious or unconscious) requires social skill, tact, determination and self-belief.

Ladies that UX recently talked about the importance of senior female UX designers mentoring and sharing their experiences. Inspired by this, I got together with two of my fellow female UX designers with 20+ years’ experience, Jo Hoy and Clare Munday to open up a lunchtime discussion on the challenges female designers face and to share the coping mechanisms we have developed over the years.

Driving design as Women group discussion.

1. It’s hard to get our voice heard

The most common barrier facing our team is taking part in meetings. One talented designer said that she was completely ignored in a round of introductions where she was the only woman, another said that she experienced a male supplier physically posturing during a meeting to show his perceived ‘dominance’ when she questioned him, and most of the group regularly get interrupted. These problems are so widespread that there are terms for the behaviour and an app to combat it:

  • Manterrupting: Unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man
  • Bropropriating: Taking a woman’s idea and taking credit for it.
Kanye West manterrupting Taylor Swift
Ref: Just Jared

RMA women are not alone. Even superstar Taylor Swift was famously (and very publicly) interrupted by Kanye West. A 2014 Harvard Business Review report found that: “Women say that they feel less effective in meetings than they do in other business situations. Some say that their voices are ignored or drowned out. Others tell us that they can’t find a way into the conversation.”

Many women suffer from Imposter syndrome, when they feel like a fraud and that they don’t deserve to be in the room. Being the only woman in the room can amplify this feeling. Interestingly, it works in exactly the same way when men are in the minority. When Jonathan Sands, OBE was the Token Man at a table full of women he felt intimidated and said “I had this feeling I wouldn’t be able to contribute to the conversation around me. I felt like a loner. I felt very self-conscious.”

Our coping strategies:

  • Interrupt positively: By starting in a positive way you will receive a better reaction. e.g. “I hear you…” “Good point…”
  • Modify your reactions to the personalities in the room: We’re not suggesting that you change who you are – just adjust the ‘volume’ of your natural-self up or down as necessary to get the best results.
  • Lean In: Body language can make you appear more authoritative. Sheryl Sandburg chose the title of her book for a reason – you need to physically lean in during meetings and be a participant rather than a spectator.
  • Speak authoritatively: It is tricky to change your voice but you can consciously try to speak slower, stop mumbling and speak up. And never apologise before speaking.
  • Be more direct: Don’t say or write: “I believe that…”, “I think that.” When you are writing emails re-read, edit and keep them brief. (Although our European colleagues warn that being too direct can make you appear rude).
  • Remember you’re not an imposter: If you get ignored – call it out. You deserve to be in the meeting as much as anyone else.
  • Experience will give you confidence: With time your confidence will grow. Just do whatever you can to build your self-belief and make that day come faster.

2. We don’t like conflict

Perhaps part of the reason we are finding it difficult to be heard in meetings, is that we prefer to avoid conflict. As a group, we agreed that we take conflict personally and find it disruptive, upsetting and embarrassing. Frustratingly we all acknowledge that it’s often very physically obvious when we’re agitated or ‘emotional’. Our voices go higher, we talk faster, go red (not in a Jane Austen blushing heroine way) and sometimes we even cry!  Ah the shame! I know I have cried from anger as much as sadness and it infuriates me.

So, we avoid conflict, take on the role of a peacemaker and search for a consensus rather than focus on meeting our own needs.  In contrast, some men use conflict as a tool to position themselves and show authority. Audrey Nelson, PhD and Claire Damken Brown, PhD, reiterate this and states that “both female and male coworkers expect women to display greater empathy towards the feelings of others and to be more supportive and nurturing — thus avoiding conflict rather than embracing it.” Read more.

Our coping strategies:

  • Pick your fights: You can’t avoid all conflicts, and sometimes you have to confront things, so pick your battles wisely.
  • Don’t make it personal: Target things not people, be controlled, keep it fair and focused.
  • Be the solution: Don’t just present the problem, present the solution.
  • Come up with Plan B: Occasionally people won’t listen to you. Trust your instinct – provide an alternative solution. In the short term it’s more work but in the long term, it can make people trust your judgement and give you internal recognition.

3. We’re Heidi… not Howard

Many of us are repeatedly told to be more assertive and confident. It is therefore ironic that when we are assertive that we are seen as ‘bitchy’ and aggressive. This is a phenomenon that was proved by the Howard vs Heidi study. If you don’t know the study it’s worth reading. Students were asked to give their opinion on the achievements and character of Heidi Roizen – but half were told her name was ‘Howard.’ The students rated them as equally competent, however they liked ‘Howard’ but thought Heidi was selfish and someone you wouldn’t like to work with!

Neat man vs Vain woman image
Ref: khwargo.wordpress.com

Our coping strategies:

  • Don’t judge women unfairly: The Howard vs Heidi study shows that women as well as men are critical of Heidi and not Howard. Be aware of your unconscious bias and don’t be judgemental of strong women.
  • Be yourself: You can’t fake it. It’s too exhausting.
  • Build networks: Create relationships where you can be yourself and with people who will respect you for who you are.
  • Give credit (to yourself and others): However uncomfortable it makes you feel be proactive about getting credit for your accomplishments. (We recently asked women in the office to write a few sentences about their achievements for International Women’s Day blog and it was like pulling teeth). Give credit when it’s due – it will make you (and the recipient) look good.

4. We don’t like your language

As a group, we had all experienced different issues with language and office banter – from patronising gentlemanly behaviour to the sexualisation of women.

Jo recently felt condescended to by a senior peer who adapted his language in the ‘presence of a woman’ and she questioned why he felt this need to treat her more delicately, simply because of her gender. While she appreciated that he was trying to be gentlemanly, this behaviour perpetuates the feeling of a boys club and the exclusion of women.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had all heard less gentlemanly banter about women. Hearing ‘harmless banter’ in the workplace reinforces the notion that women can be sexualised and disrespected.

Ref: sheilas.org.au

Our coping strategies:

  • Call it out: The only way to change how people talk to and about women is to call it out. Once you do, you will see others support you and then do the same.
  • Don’t be a hypocrite: If you are uncomfortable with being objectified – then be careful not to do the same to men. A man wearing a kilt does not give women automatic permission to lift it up! 

If none of these tips work, you can always try the suggestions made in 10 Ways to fight the Boys Club at Work but I’m not sure I’ll be calling anyone “bro” or complimenting their socks anytime soon.


It’s not just a girl-thing

What became apparent during our meeting is that these problems are not just gender related – it is very often cross-gender interpersonal politics.

Many men also find it hard to get their opinions heard, prefer to avoid conflict, find it hard to be assertive and experience sexism. This can be even more detrimental to their confidence and careers as they are not following type. That’s why we ran a second meeting to include the men in our office as we felt they could also benefit from discussing challenges and the coping strategies.

What can colleagues, clients and employees do?

Reducing gender inequality is not just the responsibility of the ‘victimised’ individual. Peers (colleagues and clients) and employees all have a duty to look out for bias behaviour and act to stamp it out.


  • Ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, not just the loudest person in the room. Some leaders have gone so far as introducing a ‘no-interruption policy.’
  • Back up your female colleagues and help build up their confidence.
  • Don’t make assumptions based on people’s appearance. Just because she’s not power-dressed doesn’t mean she’s not powerful!
  • Watch what you say – don’t treat us like delicate flowers but do show our gender some respect.
  • Call out sexism when you see it, whether it’s manterrupting, mansplaining, objectifying women or being unfairly judgemental.


  • Equal pay is essential for mutual respect and self-worth – full stop.
  • Celebrate both your female and male employees’ achievements (not just the loudest).
  • Offer flexible working conditions when you can.
  • Have a diverse workforce and more women in power – you will see more women speak up and reap the benefits.
RMA took part in the #BeBoldForChange campaign
Taking part in International Women’s Day #BeBoldForChange campaign

We’re fortunate to work at an agency like RMA, where 50% of the staff are women. They proactively ensure equal pay, have a Diversity and Inclusion Policy, celebrate our female staff’s achievements on International Women’s Day and host Ladies that UX meet ups.

It was a great experience to openly discuss the interpersonal barriers that we face at work and to provide some tips, which we hope will empower all our designers to drive design.

Ladies that UX meetup at RMA offices
Ladies that UX Meetup at RMA office
Kathleen Dolan has worked at RMA for the past year. Previously she held senior positions at BT and Virgin Media, as well as ran her own company in New York.
Jo Hoy has worked at RMA for 6 years,  run design studios for 40 people and driven design and direction at HSBC for 5+ years.
Clare Munday recently joined the RMA family having previously led the design teams for BBC, Monsoon, Savills, Coutts, Sony, Ocado, Emirates, and many more, launched the first red button interactive TV interface and the first BBC news app… the list goes on.

If you like our approach to Diversity and Inclusion and would like to join the RMA team please check out our current vacancies or contact hello@rma-consulting.com

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