The Edge of Chaos
Machines Who Think
Aaron's Code
Women in Design
A Different Gaze

As a result of our book, The Futures of Women, a major manufacturer of furniture and interiors commissioned this report. The firm asked Nancy Ramsey and me to explore different aspects of women in the design field: how they fared, how their influence was felt, and of course how those two questions might play out in the future. The firm also wondered about its future customers. With women gaining significantly more corporate influence, who would be buying the firm's products, and what kinds of features might they look for? What might the future workplace look like? 

We used a combination of literature search and interviews (about thirty interviews in all, mainly but not entirely women and men in the design field—architects, museum curators, industrial designers). While the final fifty-page report must remain company-confidential, we can offer the outline below that represents our major findings.


Women, Design, and the Future Workplace

Drawn from interviews and a literature search

Nancy Ramsey and Pamela McCorduck

April 15, 2006


  1. Introduction
  2. Issues specific to the design field
  3. Larger issues with implications for the design field
  4. People in the future workplace
  5. Larger issues for designersand everyone else

1. INTRODUCTION [Contents]

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars—except when they aren't. Many popular assumptions about the nature of women vs. men fail rigorous tests, including reality. We still hear the old saws: women are more trust sensitive, women appreciate and depend on their intuition more; focus naturally (sic) on empowerment rather than hierarchical power; understand and develop relationships better; practice improvisation better; lead differently and so forth. We found no evidence that all or even many women shared these characteristics, let alone whether, if they did, it was innate or cultural. 

By the time they get to the workplace, women have certainly had different life experiences from men, and those might endow them with "a different gaze."  But circumstances could change this, and as for leadership, different management styles are mainly associated with individuals, not gender.


2.1. Do women design differently from men? Serious studies of the differences between how men and women design—if there are gender differences--are in their infancy. Our present knowledge is mostly impressionistic: women as a class sometimes seem different, certainly come to the design process with different life experiences, which may contribute to different ways to solve design problems. Is this innate or learned? Psychological research suggests innate—men excel at design owing to their superior mental abilities to manipulate space, for example. 

But if men are naturally more gifted at the design process, and therefore rightfully dominate the field (85% - 15%, with women clustered in the fashion and jewelry ghettos), why is there so much bad design? One experienced designer said her experience was that the difficulty comes in getting credit: "There goes another man to the top, put there by the women behind him." We heard this often. We suspect gender bias, but we also suspect women's own unwillingness to self-promote. Women usually fail to cultivate what one designer called "the marketing persona," a distinctive, even eccentric persona that clients and colleagues recognize immediately.

Nearly everyone commented on the difference between male and female styles at work—men procrastinate and then rush to finish; women are more methodical, more inclusive. Women are more collegial; women are eager to get the job done and willing to innovate so it can be done successfully. Perhaps; perhaps not.

We addressed this topic as if the genders are clearly distinct, with no overlaps, and immutable. This is of course misleading, and in design, where gay men are a significant presence, it is egregiously misleading. Several respondents mentioned how the artistic community accepts personal difference, how it offers a zone of personal privacy without fuss about matters such as sexual preference. Other interviewees mentioned that because of gay men's outsider status in the wider culture, they are sometimes more sensitive than their heterosexual brothers to the dilemmas women face professionally.

2.2. Designing for women. Women do indeed have different needs from men, and people involved in hospital, auto and other designs specify them. It isn't about pastels and lace; it's about scale, and about the stronger need women have for some personal privacy.

Women strongly need a connection to nature (windows, access to the outdoors) and are more sensitive to noise than men—in fact, noise is at the top of their list as a cause of environmental stress. They also seem to have a greater need for moments of personal privacy: the open office is sometimes a pleasure, but women also need a place to withdraw from all that and center themselves in a way men don't. 

Women need different things in automobile design than men do. These needs relate to their generally smaller size, and the fact that they're the ones who wrestle the baby seats in and out of the car. But above all, they look for quality, reliability and durability.

2.3 Should the future be designed? Nice idea, but the message from the sciences of complexity says sorry, impossible. However, chunks of it can be, and in the future, the design process will be applied to many more problems in search of solutions than it has been.


3.1. The changing nature of work and the workplace. "The creatives," "distributed work"—however it's sliced, talent has replaced land, capital, and raw materials as the primary source of economic value. Telecommuting, having endured some rough bumps as we learned to redesign for it, will become more important as connectivity is the major axis around which the workplace of the future (and much of the present) revolves. Data flow to individuals and teams will become so rich that "augmented cognition" will be necessary to cope with it.

But easy face-to-face communication is just as important. For some tasks it remains more important.

Work in the US promises to bifurcate into Upstairs/Downstairs—many jobs at the top, many jobs at the bottom, not much in between. A more nuanced set of divisions is appearing in Europe, with a professional stratum at the top, varying degrees of skills and security below those, and at the bottom, jobs (filled mainly by new immigrants) that are unskilled, and offer no benefits of the kind that were taken for granted in the mid-century boom years.

Most people we spoke to believe that the team model will predominate in a majority of fields, largely because the complexity of problems to be solved require the expertise of several individuals, and it's likely these problems will be approached as design problems. One designer says the consumer (or client) will be "co-author."

Work flexibility will increase. Whether this is because Gen X and Yare more intolerant of the old rigidities, or whether this is because the workplace is already in dire need of change cannot be said with certainty.

3.2. Where the jobs are, or will be. Upper levels of all firms, old and new, continue to be dominated by older white males despite the number of educated experienced women in the workplace. Business models will probably have to change, with less emphasis on "face time" and more emphasis on getting the job done. Multiplexing—working multiple layers at once and maintaining balance in the movement between them--as opposed to mere multitasking, will become the predominant way of working, and women, having been forced to learn this to cope with their multiple work and home responsibilities, will do well, as will Gen Y, which has grown up multiplexing. 


4.1. The biggest differences among workers are not between genders, but between generations. Though we were asked to study gender differences in design and in the workplace generally, another trend emerged so strongly that we place it ahead of gender. The biggest differences among workers are not between genders, but between generations.

The Gen X and Y "creative workers" bring different skills and expectations to work: self-motivated and self-directed, they insist on varied and individualized schedules; they put profession and career ahead of a specific employer. But above all, they want life and work, and the flexibility to make it happen. Temperamentally, they're the Boomers writ large, but their much smaller numbers mean that in a shrunken labor pool, they can call the tune. This surprising finding has significant social and design implications. One respondent observed that Gen Y has been deeply affected by 9/11. That generation is looking to make a difference, contribute something, make the world a better place.

Generational diversity is a new condition that most organizations have never faced before. Americans will be importing labor (thus a multicultural workforce); will use more consultants and part-timers, and will need to keep older workers in the active labor pool. Each of these will offer design challenges that require their own solutions.

4.2. Women in the workplace now and in the future. Women bear children and might take up to a year off from work after childbirth--an indisputable gender difference. But contrary to popular press accounts, both economic and psychological factors send more than 60% of such women back to work. Technology might soon increase that proportion of returnees. When they do return, women expect to work the rest of their lives.  However, 95% of "off-rampers" (women who voluntarily leave the workforce temporarily) would not consider going back to their previous employers.

 Collectively, women have brought the family back into the workplace, a separation that only took place during industrialization. Now young professionals of both genders are demanding good, affordable childcare, and corporations may find themselves entering into this to attract and retain valuable employees. 

4.3. Women as managers. Stereotypes persist. A man is a "strong leader," while a woman behaving the same way is "overly aggressive." But different management styles are associated more with individuals than with genders. Women do not yet make it to the top in ways the pipeline theory would predict, but as a growing proportion of middle managers, women make more and more key purchasing decisions for their firms. However, the contradiction between stereotype and reality adds stress to the lives of women managers and can compromise their creativity and their productivity.

Women probably do understand and develop relationships more easily than men, but women are trained from infancy to do so. It is a learnable skill. What women often fail to do is transform that skill into self-promotion, and when they find themselves being passed over for a better job, they depart.

Research does not reveal particular differences between the way men and women manage. Whether a manager has primary responsibility for dependents on a daily basis does indeed matter. That manager will need—and offer—more flexibility to his or her own subordinates.

But beneath the top, profound changes might be underway. We interviewed young women who understood they employed "a different gaze," who believed that this is one of the valuable things they bring to their firm, distinct from the usual male model of excellence.

4.4. Women as leaders. Leadership literature is strewn with generalities, clichés, catchphrases, and heuristics. Too bad, because leadership matters. While some serious studies also cite the clichés, they eventually hedge: these styles aren't necessarily tied to male or female leaders. For an organization, blends are best. The Harvard Business School has studied Oprah Winfrey and her Harpo Productions as an example of the new woman leader. Winfrey is a phenomenally successful entrepreneur, a public personality, and a leader who can inspire not only her own management staff, but millions of women who view her daily. She doesn't disdain money, but she expects something more, the result of an outlook that says service to others also matters. 

4.5. Women as customers. As buyers, women have the numbers—some surveys say they make 80% of consumer choices--and they're picky. They seem to shop differently and look for different features than men seek.  For example, the On Star program failed as a male gadget, but sales skyrocketed when it was repositioned for women as a device for safety and security. Women will look for objects that fit their smaller, lighter bodies, which accommodate their jewelry. Designing for special cohorts (age, gender) may mean that companies must reconsider their marketing and distribution systems.


5.1. Will businesses take on different, more social responsibilities in the future? Yes, they will, and women, the original grass-roots activists, will be in the lead. Lack of rational healthcare, the absence of childcare, the failure of public education, national indebtedness, and green issues are extracting enormous costs from US business today. Out of self-interest alone, businesses will begin to bring pressure to bear for improvements in these areas just as they have long done special pleading for their own taxes and regulations.

Business leaders point out the new consumer interest in transparency and accountability. One buyer for a major home-design goods retailer put it succinctly: "Social responsibility is linked to the bottom line—customers care and ask about it. Who wants to buy a carpet with the blood of little children's fingers on it?"

5.2 The advantages of diversity. Diversity isn't just pious social rhetoric, but leads to more robust solutions to problems, and better adaptation to changing circumstances. No matter the gender of workers, diversity is essential to reflect, respond to, even anticipate, market and customer groups and preferences.

Whether innate or learned, women's different gaze diverges from the standard white male point of view, and enriches us all. 

5.3. Transitions are never easy. We are undergoing a major social transition whose implications aren't all clear. Thanks to generational differences and fast-moving technological change, the landscape will look very different in a decade. Networks predominate, with the growth of home offices and the rise of distributed collaboration.

Social scientists reveal both in their laboratories and fieldwork that though competition has been a major force in human social development, so has cooperation—perhaps more so than competition. 

5.4. The third U-turn? A handful of social scientists are speculating about the idea of cultural U-turns. We are descended from fiercely hierarchical primates, yet tens of thousands of years ago, humans made a U-turn from the biological legacy of our forebears and adopted egalitarianism inside our groups. This was not because we were so virtuous, but because egalitarianism and "muted hierarchy" worked to the long-term advantage of small bands of foragers. 

However, when agriculture was introduced some eight thousand years ago, we made another U-turn, and resumed organizing ourselves in hierarchies, often with sharp variances inside and among groups. This was because hierarchies once more became the most useful way of insuring the long-term life of social institutions. These inequalities have prevailed in human organizations ever since.

Are we experiencing the beginning of a third U-turn? Perhaps so, as we become foragers of information. If this general model is correct, the transition we all feel right now but cannot quite define could very well be the wrenching third U-turn back to egalitarianism and "muted hierarchy"—not because it is right or just, but because that is what will serve the majority of us best in the long run. If so, women's role will grow even more significant.

For this to happen, the Downstairs groups will need to be lifted Upstairs, a tremendous long-range undertaking—but who would have predicted that the proportion of agricultural workers would fall from nearly all workers to negligible inside a century? Women have needed to cooperate with each other, and historically, with much more dominant men. Apparently they've not lost the knack. In this they're unusually well-suited to the new climate.

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Modified: July 03, 2012