Why is there a lack of women in design leadership roles?

Tom Scott


September 3, 2019
Design Leadership

There are currently 34 female CEO’s in the Fortune 500.

For me this is shocking, this is 2019, not the 1900’s. 53% of designers are female, but 11% are in leadership roles.

How are we going to fix this situation?

More events?

More awareness?

I do think there is a lot of gender politics, but many people are not taking it seriously.

For me, we need to focus 👇

— The masks males wear at work such as the stoic, alpha, know it all, sexual masks. This is at the top level will always make it hard for females to be taken seriously.

— HR/People leaders breaking down male ego in the workplace.

— Overarching D&I strategy. Not just a part of the website saying “look at us we hire a diverse range of people” and then have 80% white males in the office.

— Redefining what leadership looks like. We need to put pressure on companies to challenge this stereotype that age, gender, background, strengths should be judged instead of looking at what company they come from and recent experience.

Don’t get me wrong who cares if you’re white, black, female, man, gay, straight, however, you look to be identified if you’re good enough, but we need equal opportunities for EVERYONE to develop the next generation starting from school, college, universities and how society views equality.

Here is a few responses I thought were worth forging into an article 👇

Abi Turner

From my perspective, there are two few women in technology, a fifth of the tech workforce is women and they leave at a higher rate too at 45%. If you look at the Fortune 500 list and filter in the technology sector, 42 are listed but only 5 of those have women as CEOs. Surely it needs to start from encouraging girls into tech through STEM education?

Stephanie Bazin

One of the pain points identified is family life. Talking about Heterosexual couples, women are still more engaged in taking care of the kids than their partners. The period when women move up the career ladder (eg. in their late 20–30s) collide with the time they’ve got their first child, which leads to a career slow down or a career cut. Onsite nursery or childcare services would be a good first solution.

Esther Duran

Tom, I couldn’t agree more! Being an I&D lead myself I have to say more work has to be done. Events, conferences, workplaces, etc need to be more diverse. We need to allow people to bring their true self to work and create an equal opportunities environment. It has to be promoted and nurtured from everyone, specially people on the top. I&D has to be part of every business strategy and not just a box to tick.

Soren Hamby

It’s also unconscious bias — we feel favorable about people that remind us of ourselves and we can “see ourselves having a drink with.” Since the leadership is mostly white heterosexual men, they keep “seeing a young self” or potential leaders in young white, heterosexual men that they relate to. Not to mention that gender diverse people, LGBTQ people, and women are often subject to harassment in the workplace and since it’s not taken seriously, they just move on to another job and they don’t receive the benefits of training, senior managers investing in them, etc. It’s not that men and women act so differently at work, because genders are not that different, but we are treated differently and have different experiences and expectations just by being assigned male or female at birth. As a society we expect men to focus on their careers and self-realization, while we expect women to be more nurturing and a domestic manager whether childfree or a parent. I highly suggest reading Delusions of Gender and also Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home.

Michelle Scott

Interesting perspective. There are many ways to solve for inequality, so I definitely appreciate you sharing lots of options. To be fair, at least, in the corrupt capitalist establishment system called the US, big corporations are not incentivized to share leadership roles with diverse people just for the sake of it. The wealthiest companies, like JP Morgan, Walmart, McDonald’s, etc., are incentivized to keep power conglomerated amongst themselves to basically control the economy to maintain their billionaire wealth status quo. They’ll put their friends in leadership positions first to support and protect each other. When wealth and power are already concentrated in one small demographic, and we want to distribute that wealth and power to others, those billionaires will not give up their power easily. If we want to address inequality, we all must come together and dismantle and re-engineer the systems that have oppressed people for generations. It’s not male vs. female, it’s powerless vs. powerful.

Madeline Mann

Great points, I’ll add that we all tend to mentor those who remind us of ourselves. However, this creates a greater divide as successful men tend to mentor men who they see in their image. If we can encourage more mentorship between these leaders and underrepresented groups it can give a boost to those less often seen at the leadership table.

John Makin-Shaw

D&I strategy has to be more than just words. Starts with company culture but then businesses also need to be brave. If you truly care about D&I then make it part of the tender process when selecting partners — only work with like-minded businesses. Maybe the wrong comparison but it some ways it feels like green-washing 10+ years ago. Just before the market crash, there was a huge focus on the environment and carbon-neutrality reached the public consciousness. But few businesses went beyond saying “we’re carbon neutral”. Some did though, changing their business model to encourage sustainability amongst their customers as they themselves embarked on change.

Anne Farrelly

There has been a major ideological and actual shift since the last recession — some women have decided to take the shortcut and formed their own businesses/ become their own CEO — still; it would be nice for said women to be able to negotiate /form partnerships — at a high level — with women still employed in Fortune 500 — so any support for women at the top is a win-win and I think that developing the next generation is great, but lets also not forget the intellectual capital laid waste by layoffs.

Christopher King

I agree that much needs to be done on this. But I actually think it’s as important to look across the whole spectrum, from the ground roots up. After all, a female CEO for a fortune 500 company has to start somewhere.

‘Business in general’ has been a male-dominated area for so long, especially in tech for such a long period, the effort must be made to make it more diverse and inclusive, but mostly accessible in the most senior positions. But without a) More women involved in this area in general b) more representation at mid-level to be considered to take up that chance to be elevated to these positions, the problem will persist due to fewer candidates viable to create opportunities to create and thus a smaller percentage variable to drive such a shift. So yes, I fully agree. But it needs to be across all levels of seniority. The effort cannot be limited exclusively to leadership roles.

Jessica Trammell

I think it starts at the very beginning; we have to raise young women and people of colour to believe they are as capable of achieving success in these roles as their white male counterparts. That comes from programs geared towards involving girls in STEM and leadership in addition to working towards policies that eliminate the education gap between rural, urban, and suburban schools.

What can we do about this problem?