A Male Controlled Industry
I entered the design industry during a time when men dominated the creative field. Designers, photographers, writers, all predominantly male. At the time, though, I didn’t know this. Gender disparities and inequality in graphic design wasn’t something I had researched or thought about and it wasn’t exactly my experience.
What I did experience was the systemic oppression of female designers. Women in creative fields were often left to languish in junior to mid-level positions their entire careers. Never encouraged or empowered to seek out those leadership positions many of them so coveted and deserved. We were content to allow our male creative directors to take credit for our work and acknowledge us as little more than obedient puppies being house trained.
1999 – Vinyl Graphics Designer
I am twenty-two years old. I enter the industry with no education and a small child. I have abandoned college in favor of full-time work. I manage to find a local position that pays decent wages. The company is a small town vinyl graphics company. The owner is a graphic designer and also their primary designer. He hires me to take over those responsibilities. We specialize in vehicle graphics. All of our applicators are young men. I am the only woman employed at the company. I think I’m hot shit.
I saw the reality of it immediately. My first month there we were tasked with creating giant banners for the 1999 Woodstock festival. Immediately after my hiring, we spent a weekend on-site. Me and four men, in campers, tents or our vehicles. I was faced with gross sexist and sexual remarks and jokes right away. One evening while driving through the crowds in the bed of the company pickup one of the male employees requested that we stop and give a couple of girls a ride. So they climb in, all smiles and giggles and flirting. They were even topless, having beautiful murals painted on their breasts. This wasn’t a big deal for me. After all, I own a pair myself and I was young. I didn’t think much of it. What I did question was their obvious sexualization of these young women while being “on the job” and our employers’ apparent acceptance of this.
Later that evening he actually made each of my male coworkers come to me and apologize for their behavior. Even the one of them that didn’t act inappropriately. I immediately felt uncomfortable. Then one of them said it, “He’s just afraid you’ll sue him.” I blew my cigarette smoke in his face and turned away. Never a comment or apology from the man in charge. Not ever. I did, however, field several comments about my bathroom habits, choice of undergarments and various other trash while on that trip.
Over the course of the next year with them, I was subjected to comments about red haired women and their sexual prowess. Apparently, all Irish red haired women are “fiery” drinkers who are great in bed. And then there were all of the other genius jokes about every other demographic of female that weren’t directly related to me. It was NOT my dream position after all.
2000 – Production Designer
I left there to create ads for our local PennySaver. I learned Adobe software and had my first experience working in an art department. If there were gender disparities in the industry, this experience would have told me a completely different story than what was reality.
We had 10+ designers, two of them were male. Our entire promotions department was female, including their Creative Director who was in her 60s at the time. Our Creative Director was a man. He oversaw all of us and we ran two shifts. I honestly don’t know when the man slept.
We worked a regular work week. Monday through Friday 8-4 plus two night shifts, Wednesday and Thursday 3-11. We also worked Saturdays which was the day we went to print. Saturdays were typically another 8-10 hour day. After roughly two years we eliminated Saturdays and eventually were often out of work by noon on Friday. Even though we lost several designers over that time span without replacing them. We also had way too much downtime during the week and night shifts were nearly non existent by the time the company was bought out in 2006. In that time, none of us were given the opportunity to excel our positions. We were not informed of Directors positions that were opened within the company except when our male counterparts informed us that our Creative Director had informed them of such positions. All this while the Promotions department (remember, 100% women) were rotating women into leadership positions regularly. When our Creative Director decided to hire an assistant he did promote one of the women in the art department (not that he had much choice) although it was among rumors of an affair. Rumors like that were not rare, unfortunately. I happen to know that many of them were actually started by the one male designer that was left when the company folded. Not surprised.
2007 – Director
When the PennySaver was bought out I stayed on for a while while looking for a new position. I found one at a machining company that manufactured after-market Harley parts, engine vibration dampers and turbine motors. I was hired to replace their (formerly male) Marketing Director and I had zero experience. They were a predominately male, family owned business and I enjoyed the environment very much. They were some of the most considerate, kind people to work with. Especially the motorcycle division where I spent most of my time. They allowed me to learn web design and programming, product photography and all of the other responsibilities that would essentially prepare me for what I do today. When I married in late 2007 we decided to move South and so, I was allowed to recommend, hire and train my replacement, a woman I had worked with at the PennySaver. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I think back on it is all about having that power in a mostly male company and being trusted and seen as competent.
Back to the Kiddie Pool
Unfortunately, men aren’t the only ones who oppress female employees. In December of 2007 I was hired on as Junior Designer at a PR agency. I was excited because it was woman owned and the staff, including creatives and sales were mostly female. The Creative Director was a woman and it was the first time I realized how rare that was. Initially I loved the position. It was sort of like a honeymoon period where you don’t see all of the flaws until it’s too late. I thought I would be safe in a woman owned business. No risk of being talked down to, taken advantage of or marginalized. I would get the experience I craved and be able to excel and move up in the industry.
Turns out, the female owner of the business was the worst boss I’d had when it came to valuing female employees. She regularly gaslit her employees, but only the females. She spoke to us as if we were children and often used words like “precious” and “sweet” to describe us to clients in meetings. We were treated as something akin to a highly skilled pet. Something that she would never think of doing to a man. Regardless, I was offered the Creative Director’s position when she left (because of the abuse) and accepted. I had been there less than nine months. As Creative Director I developed a project tracking system and did my best to create a buffer between my staff and the owner in order to allow them to do their jobs. When I decided to leave and go freelance she replaced me with a man and paid him nearly twice what I was making, On my last day she told me this: “You’ll never make it. This will be the biggest mistake of your life.” These were the parting words of women who had built a business to a fellow woman leaving to build her own.
A decade later
I am thriving and changing and growing. Clients continue to recommend me and they stay loyal for years. The average time I work with a client is probably 4-5 years. I’m not looking to just fill my portfolio with projects. I’m looking to build relationships.
I see many more female designers in leadership these days. Even though I know that gender disparities still exist in our industry, I see these leaders moving forward. Some of us have moved up into those ranks. I’ve seen the work that organizations are doing to try and reorganize the history of graphic design to include the women we’ve overlooked for so many decades. Some of us are still up and coming and when we get there we are going to blow your minds.
My favorite demographic are the women I work with. The ones who dared to step outside of what society deemed acceptable. They are nurses, creatives, dancers, partners, mothers and professionals. Nearly all of them have expressed their feeling of being unworthy. I assure you … they are the most worthy of all. Each one of them inspires me daily. They aren’t rich and powerful like my last boss. They aren’t out there making huge speeches about politics or leading whole movements. We work quietly, mostly unnoticed, teaching our children and their children how to overcome. These women and I are leading, even quietly, a new generation into the new workplace where they will lead and thrive. Like the generations before us, we will contribute to our communities and families, each in a unique way.
Women are strong and capable. I still get taken for granted. Sometimes I believe it’s because of my gender. Mostly, though, I don’t feel like it’s because a male client sees me as incompetent. It might be that they’re intimidated though … I’ll take it.