10 Design Leaders on How to Empower Women in the Workplace

The tech and design worlds need more balanced leadership.

Seventy percent of graphic design students are women, yet only 11% of creative directors are women. In the tech industry, which is notorious for gender imbalance, design leaders are looking for ways to support the career growth of female designers and build inclusive teams.

At Women in Design 2017: Women Working Together, Designer Fund asked 10 design executives from companies like Facebook, Adobe, Uber, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Shopify, and Netflix how they create positive environments for female designers, and in particular, how colleagues can collaborate in this realm.


Heather Phillips (Director of Design, Abstract) led the evening’s panel, which featured Jamie Myrold (VP of Design, Adobe), Nancy Douyon (Global Growth User Experience Lead, Uber), Bo Lu (Product Design Lead, Pinterest), and Laura Naylor (Head of User Experience Research, YouTube). They shared personal stories about their relationships with female colleagues, discussed company-level programs that propelled their careers, and gave practical tips to empower female designers in the workplace.


Majo Molfino (Show Host, Heroine) led a brief workshop on nonviolent communication (NVC), offering female designers practical tools they can use to advocate for their needs to coworkers and other female collaborators.

In a lightning talk, Cathy Lo (Product Designer, Facebook) explained how designers can lend their voices to important causes. Julie Norvaisas (Director of User Experience Research, LinkedIn) discussed the barriers facing women in tech and how companies can help mitigate them, and Rachel Robertson (UX Lead, Shopify) gave advice on creating a collaborative and inclusive design team culture. Steve Johnson (VP Product Design & Creative, Netflix) spoke about global perspectives in the workplace and hiring for diversity.

The uniting message was that fellow women designers are one another’s most powerful assets. Read on for the top takeaways from our speakers and join our community newsletter to receive in-depth explorations of these topics over the coming months.


Managing competition

With limited design leadership opportunities at tech companies, how do women approach competition when they pursue the same positions? The sentiment was unanimous: advance the women around you, and you’ll all end up ahead.

Nancy Douyon, a UX researcher leading Global Scalable Research Platforms at Uber, shared a story about a past colleague in a higher-ranking position—and how Douyon wanted to leapfrog her. “I was trying to figure out how to do a double promotion,” she jokes.

One day, she and the senior woman were in a meeting full of men. All the men’s presentations received praise, but when the woman got up, a male colleague said, “I’m sorry, it’s too hard to see past the typos. Can we just move on?”

This caused a mindset switch. “At that moment I realized how important it was not to compete but to celebrate each other,” says Douyon. “I now make it a point to affirm a woman who speaks up or to ask them follow-up questions in meetings.”

At that moment I realized how important it was not to compete but to celebrate each other. Nancy Douyon

This idea appears in pop culture as the term shine theory. Coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, it means that you don’t shine if the women around you don’t shine. For example, women on Obama’s White House Staff made a practice of amplifying one another’s contributions to make sure they were heard and given appropriate credit.

These micro-level, individual adjustments add up to a bigger shift in womens’ influence in the workplace. “It’s important to be deliberate about how we communicate with women,” says Laura Naylor, Head of User Experience Research at YouTube. A recent study shows that men are three times as likely to interrupt women as they are men. This didn’t surprise Naylor, but here’s what did: 87% of the times that females interrupted, they were interrupting other women. “We need to be aware of unconscious biases and interact with one another in a way that strengthens us.”

But what happens when there is only one leadership position available and two women are competing for it? Bo Lu, Product Design Lead at Pinterest, found herself in that situation when she and a female colleague applied for the same role.

“At the time, I wasn’t sure how to approach it,” Lu says. “Should I talk to her about it? She reached out to me first, saying, ‘I heard you’re applying for this, and I’m so glad another woman is stepping up.’ I respected her for the gesture, and we ended up going through the process in a transparent way, even expressing our insecurities. Initially it felt counterintuitive to open up to direct competition, but it made for a much more positive experience.” Lu noted that it’s a good idea to maintain the open conversations after a promotion, when the relationship changes from “peer” to “hierarchy,” and discuss what the work relationship should look like.

Jamie, VP of Design at Adobe, agrees that cultivating strong relationships is vital. “I tell my leaders that at least 75% of their job is to build relationships. We’re designers who spend a lot of time in front of screens, but we also collaborate and brainstorm. I’ve seen that designers who put effort into building a relationship—even with a difficult personality—have a lot more success in the way they deliver their work.”

When conflicts arise, women’s leadership coach Majo Molfino recommends nonviolent communication (NVC) to express our needs and resolve tension. “NVC gives us practical tools and even step-by-step instructions to advocate for ourselves to coworkers and collaborators without alienating them,” says Molfino.

“A female designer I work with used NVC after she’d spent months re-designing a tech product and her manager launched an announcement post without crediting her. Rather than staying silent, the designer made a request to participate in future announcements, framing it in the context of her own need to feel included and acknowledged for her efforts. Acknowledging the incident in this way prevented resentment and gave her manager a clear roadmap for how to best support her in the future.”


Getting institutional support

Many companies have programs and policies aimed at fostering women’s career growth. But effective initiatives are scarce: The average satisfaction rating for these programs is 2.2 out of 5 stars—the lowest-rated employer satisfaction metric tracked across 17,500 companies.

This is unfortunate, because research shows that women with female mentors are more likely to succeed and be satisfied in their careers, and that the quality of a company’s mentorship and sponsorship programs is highly correlated with female employees’ overall happiness and achievement.

Many tech companies do have robust programs for women, and for good reason. Julie Norvaisas, director of user experience research at LinkedIn, discussed the pervasive micro- (and not-so-micro-) aggressions against women in tech, and described her own wake-up call: when a man told her he walked out of her presentation not because of its content, but because he didn’t like her hair and outfit. LinkedIn colleagues encouraged her to join the Women in Tech (WiT) group, and she became a passionate advocate for women in the corporate world.

“At LinkedIn, WiT—along with other employee resource groups such as HoLA (Hispanics of LinkedIn Alliance), BIG (Black Inclusion Group), Out@In (for LGBTQ employees and allies), Veterans & Allies, and many more—fosters safe spaces for underrepresented groups to talk, advocate, and find allies,” writes Norvaisas. Women in Tech initiatives include Women Connect, a dinner event with keynotes and discussions about difficult and taboo topics, and WiT Invest, a four-month program of mentorship and access to resources.

Jamie Myrold’s team participates in Adobe’s leadership programs for women, such as Women’s Leadership Circle, a year-long leadership course which helps women form bonds with colleagues they may not otherwise have met. The Adobe & Women Leadership Summit connects, develops, and inspires employees, and features speakers like author Brene Brown, Black Girls Code co-founder Kim Bryant, and Comedy Central producer Samantha Bee. And there’s support for designers who teach with Girls Who Code (Jamie Myrold’s team members have taught two summers in a row), and a very active women’s Slack channel.

Bo Lu participates in Pinterest’s Creative Women’s Group. “I’ve hosted workshops on how to manage one’s inner critic and access one’s inner mentor,” she says. “It was empowering to see that women who I view as confident and capable have the same fears I do. They may not go away, but we can learn to manage them.”

Cathy Lo, product designer at Instagram, mentioned Facebook’s inspiring Women’s Leadership Day for female Facebook employees, with speakers like Sheryl Sandberg and Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Global Director of Diversity. She also believes in the power of connecting with fellow female design peers in small, informal groups: “Not everybody can have elaborate Women’s Leadership Day-type events,” she says, “but even now at Instagram we’ve started having conversational lunches with women designers in a smaller setting. It’s been really empowering.”

Companies can also give female designers communication tools to become involved in issues they care about. Lo uses Facebook’s Analog Research Lab, a creative space for design and art-making, where she teaches others how to use the tools to screen print posters and other media. She designed posters and postcards for the 2017 Women’s March after the US election, which spread around the world with the support of her company. “With these incredible tools, as artists and designers, we can help bring people together,” she says.

Naylor points out that in addition to these types of programs, companies should implement top-down policies that support women. “When we increased maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks at Google, the rate at which new moms left the company fell by 50%,” she says. “And it’s more than just having the policies in place. My team knows I’m highly supportive, and so is YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, which fosters loyalty across the board.”


Supporting female designers at an individual level

Outside of a company’s policies and programs, individuals can contribute to design team culture and support their female colleagues. That often starts with managers.

“My previous manager was the one to pull me aside one day and encourage me to apply for a bigger leadership role on our design team,” says Pinterest’s Lu. “It had never crossed my mind that I was qualified. He changed the trajectory of my career by identifying my potential. I would love to do that for another person who hasn’t found that voice for themselves yet. Some women don’t know how brilliant they are, or they’ve been socialized to play small when opportunities come along.”

Some women don’t know how brilliant they are, or they’ve been socialized to play small when opportunities come along. Bo Lu

Informal mentorship, and giving designers access to people for long-term career discussions, makes a difference. “If women on my team come to me for mentoring, I always make time for it,” says Myrold. “I love to help them figure out the next step, or how to make something better. There’s always an opportunity beyond what they can see or what they think is available to them.”

At YouTube, Laura Naylor says she often plays the role of mentor-matchmaker. She also has a peer mentorship relationship with UX research leader Kerry Rodden. “I can bounce ideas off her, think about the future, and have someone who challenges me.” Julie Norvaisas credits her mentor, design leader Steve Johnson (now at Netflix), for encouraging her to get involved in WiT at the invitation of colleague Sarah Clatterback. This changed the course of her career and stoked a newfound passion.

Managers are also in a position to combat unconscious bias. For example, women are less likely to put themselves up for promotion. “Simply by knowing this, you can tap more women in your team and try to course-correct in some ways,” says Naylor. Design managers can be mindful and give technically challenging work to men and women in equal doses, and value leadership strengths that tend to go unrecognized, such as accommodation, consensus, and networking.

Rachel Roberston at Shopify has each designer on her team create a “personal blueprint” to share with colleagues—a practical overview of their work quirks, how they like to receive feedback, and what people can come to them for. This sets the tone for peer collaboration and makes the design team better at working together overall, she says. “It’s really important to show a genuine interest in the people you work with. It also gives me context that helps me lead my team better.”


Research has shown that women who are seen as successful and accomplished are also seen as less likeable, whereas competence and likeability go hand-in-hand for men with the same resume,” says Heather Phillips, Design Director at Abstract. “This is called the likeability penalty. How can female executives be perceived as strong leaders, while staying true to the personality or leadership style that comes naturally to them?”

“I’ve been on teams where the natural communication style is to talk over one another to make a point,” says Bo Lu. “My style is to wait until someone’s finished to insert my views, and I appear less dominant. So I got feedback to be more assertive and visible. I tried it and got feedback that I was too aggressive and asking too many questions. I can’t please everybody, so I might as well be me.”

Naylor once got feedback to put more smiley faces in her emails because she appeared too aggressive. At Adobe, Jamie Myrold came to similar conclusions as Lu: “I’ve gotten feedback that I should be more assertive in meetings and speak louder, but it’s just not my style. I take the feedback and stay aware of my presence in executive-level meetings. But I’m not going to fake it just because someone says to be more assertive.”

“It’s emotionally and psychologically exhausting,” says Nancy Douyon. “I tried to fit in, and it wore me out. People had to start to take me as I was.” She points out that being herself at work helps other women do the same. In a similar vein, Cathy Lo’s old boss, Maria Guidice, CEO of Hot Studio, taught Lo the power of individuality. “She would always be herself. What I’ve learned from Maria and other mentors, like Facebook’s VP of Design Margaret Stewart, is that the key to success is to be yourself and don’t be afraid. I want to create a space at work where other people can do the same.”

So how do you stay true to yourself? Know what you stand for and bring that inner knowledge everywhere you go. “Understand who you are and know your non-negotiables. That’s true authenticity,” says Myrold. “Go home and make a list of your core values—what do you really value in your life? What can you bring to the workplace that would give you the power to be the fierce leader you need to be?”


Building diverse teams for more inclusive products

As female designers working together, we can bring our unique perspectives to the table. If our companies are building products for diverse audiences, we need a diverse group of decision-makers creating them. This means that women designers need to be hired, need to lead, and must encourage one another’s voices.

Steve Johnson, VP of Product Design & Creative at Netflix, points out that diversity in design teams helps companies shape product decisions that are more representative of their target audiences (and of course, it’s just fair). As Johnson puts it, “When we’re thinking about building products and services around the world, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Who am I building it for?’ If our company doesn’t have people who reflect that, we start shaping these products for us, not someone else.” The 3 Percent Movement points out that women influence the majority of consumer spending and social media sharing, so to have only a small percentage of creative directors be women — and very few of them women of color — is “business suicide.”

“At Netflix we’re supposed to build compelling stories,” says Johnson, “and people in managerial positions are trying to figure out how to resonate with people all over the world. I can only do that if I have the organization that’s reflective of my target audience.”

Nancy Douyon champions this work at Uber, as she’s done in past roles at large tech companies like Google, IBM, Cisco, and Intel. She helps engineering teams incorporate global insights into their products and build for inclusivity. “Our measures were to help people understand a diversity of acute issues coming from people around the globe,” she says. “I would look at product teams and tell them how their products’ use cases differ with accessibility, gender, sexual orientation, and limited infrastructure context in emerging markets.”

A current female coworker (and past Google coworker) made all the difference in bringing Douyon to Uber. “She was incredibly honest about all my questions—who will be my mentor and what will my development be like? This made me feel safe to take on risks and speak my mind about creative solutions before joining,” says Douyon. So as you recruit, you can make a difference by creating room for this work and personally championing female hires.

Our speakers said that creating supportive environments for female designers will pay off in the long run. For example, the engineering field is notoriously lacking in female representation, and Naylor posits that the cultural groundwork just hasn’t been there to fix it. After receiving her first degree, Naylor spent three months as a front-end engineer, but left the role because she didn’t feel that her work was good enough. It was only 15 years later, after speaking to female engineers at Grace Hopper Conference who all experienced career isolation, that she realized her disenchantment was probably less about her skills than about being the only female engineer at that job. “If I knew everything I know now,” says Naylor, “maybe I could have set myself up differently. That was a real moment for me, realizing how important it is to create inclusive environments that support people in the right way.”


The takeaways

If we are to elevate women in design, we need to make a few investments. The first is institutional. We can implement resource groups, events, programs, and policies that create safe and supportive environments for female designers.

The second is an investment in relationships. We can be intentional in our communication with female colleagues and amplify one another’s voices instead of competing.

And the third is our own development. We need to look within, figure out who we are and what we stand for, and practice self-care until we’re comfortable showing up as ourselves.

Thank you to Adobe for hosting Women in Design 2017.

Special thanks to our collaborators Google, Shopify, Mailchimp, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest for their generous support in making this event possible for our design community.

Women in Design 2017 was orchestrated by an all-female team, spearheaded by Elena McCallister, Kelsey Aroian, Heather Phillips, and Majo Molfino.  All photos were taken by Melanie Riccardi.