Women in Design

We've come so far. So far to go.

On International Women’s Day a year ago, I sat on a panel of women entrepreneurs. In preparing to lead another panel this year, I looked back on my notes from that day. I was struck by how optimistic I was. My talking points were all about how, for the most part, discrimination and harassment were in our rearview mirror. After all, it was March 2016. I was speaking at the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company that consistently wins awards for its diversity and inclusion, and it looked like we were months away from electing our first woman president.

We’d come so far, right?

What a difference a year makes.

Unfortunately, some things remain the same. Women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women, and there is still no woman in the Oval Office. And now there are some new and disturbing wrinkles in the fabric. We’ve elected an openly misogynistic president. While Silicon Valley struggles with diversity in its workforce, women engineers are fleeing dotcoms with tales of sexual harassment that are right out of the 80s. Intimate photos of Marine Corp women were shared by their male counterparts on a members-only Facebook group.

It would be easy to despair. But the reality is, in my lifetime, we have come far.

Looking back to the real 1984.

My career dates back to the last century. 1984 to be exact. It was a different climate for a young woman. It was not unusual for me to make an entire presentation to a client only to have them address all their comments and questions to my older, male colleague – with the expectation that I would take notes.

One of the first year-end bonuses I received came in a card with a hand-written note suggesting I use the money to buy a black dress because “You look great in black dresses.”

These types of occurrences were daily, common and even expected. In thinking back on those times, it’s amazing how much energy I spent every day just navigating situations instead of focusing on doing my actual job.

We’ve found positive change; now what do we do with it?

We now have a voice and a strong legal framework to use in pushing back on this type of behavior. The institutional barriers we faced have not been eliminated, but they’ve at least been mitigated.

This has opened the door for women to begin to fundamentally change the way we work and live. On International Women’s Day 2017, I was fortunate to lead an AIGA discussion, called “Women in Design: Leading with Intent and Integrity,” with two powerful female voices in design.

Left to right: Susan Bennett, Nikki Juen, Tereasa Surratt. Photo: Tyler Fonville

One was artist Nikki Juen, a graduate and lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design and a founding faculty member of the MFA in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The other was Tereasa Surratt, global group creative director of experiential at Ogilvy Chicago and owner of national historic resort Camp Wandawega.

Here are some insights from these remarkable women that I think most of us can learn from.

From Nikki Juen

Nikki observed that for women trying to be artists, wives, mothers, educators and socially responsible human beings, life seldom has linearity. Instead of a ladder, think of a circle –  fluid, contiguous and totally lacking in hierarchy… When you compare yourself with others, you’re coming from a place of fear and jealousy. We all have inside us an “itty bitty shitty committee.” Those feelings can make us divisive…Instead of asking yourself, how can I do it all? Think about being, not doing. Give yourself permission to have a messy life. Trying to keep your career and your creative and personal life all tidily separate takes too much energy. We’re trained to be zipped up. Once, in front of mostly women students, Nikki had a breakthrough moment: she let her guard down and showed her authentic self. Sometimes, she said, being emotional can be a super power.

Nikki Juen. Photo: Tyler Fonville

From Tereasa Surratt

Don’t limit yourself. Someone once told Tereasa she couldn’t write a headline for Kotex because she was the designer, not the writer. She not only wrote that headline, she’s written entire books.  It helps to be an underdog because you’re always working a little harder. Make them need you more than you need them. When it comes to leadership, Tereasa also dismisses the ladder metaphor. Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. As long as you do what you love, keep your hands dirty and stay curious, you’ll lead by example. Brick by brick, leadership can be decentralized. And it’s important we all try to do this. Listening is the most important thing you can do. So work to support other women because their voices often don’t get heard. She shared a technique the women at Ogilvy have: in large meetings, they’ll repeat or paraphrase what the woman who spoke before them said. Preface it with, “I want to make sure you heard that.”


Tereasa Surratt. Photo: Tyler Fonville

We are all one point on an arc.

Impatience is my normal state. I often have to step back and remind myself we’re changing millennia of roles, behaviors and beliefs. We’re on a long-term trajectory – so long we won’t see the end in our lifetimes. And, as Nikki said, “I’m one point on the arc.”

Understanding that we’re each a single point on the arc is liberating. It frees us from the tyranny of the end game and allows us to focus on what we can impact today, tomorrow, next week. It encourages us to look at, listen to and support other women on that arc, whether it’s women like Nikki and Tereasa or the 22-year-old design school graduate who’s just getting started. Looking at the bigger picture allows us to swallow our disappointment about the election outcome and see Hillary’s run as a success in one important way – it confirms the possibility of our full voice and equality, even if we’re not yet there.

That possibility is my fuel. It keeps me committed to taking action and speaking the words that will move us further along the arc, with an eye on the things that will impact my daughter’s and ultimately my granddaughters’ lives.


Photos:  Tyler Fonville