Women in Design Webcast Recap


In a candid webinar hosted by the Design & Innovation Group, our own IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard spoke with her friend Robin Beers, Head of Customer Research and Experience Design at Wells Fargo, about the importance of representation of women in the design industry. They share insights and tips for how women can support each other and navigate challenges in the workplace.


Why Women Are Invaluable in Design

“Great design and great innovation improve when you embrace multiple points of view,” says Suzanne. “That’s the way to make positive change in the world...all businesses, all institutions today, need to be inclusive of context, gender, and race whenever they’re creating products, services, systems, protocols—anything in the modern world.”

When female perspectives are not considered, we are not designing for half the population. Take the example from Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, that women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured from a car crash, in part because car companies don’t use female versions of crash test dummies.

Women also bring valuable leadership styles to work. Many Harvard Business Review and Pew Research Center studies have highlighted the fact that women are “compassionate, empathetic, willing to work through tough compromises...qualities the world needs more of to address today’s most complex challenges,” says Suzanne.

Robin points out that women tend to be great at the “intangibles,” embodying hard-to-measure traits like trust, loyalty, and understanding of cultural norms and emotions. Sometimes, these traits can feel less valued in a business context, but Robin poses a provocation: “How do we make these important intangibles tangible? I believe this is core to making women in design more visible, more respected, and successful.”


“Stay in the game. Don’t give up. We need strong women like you, we need people who have resilience, who have perseverance.”
Suzanne Gibbs Howard


Advice for Women in the Workplace

Robin and Suzanne talked with other women in the design industry to better understand the challenges they’re facing today. They shared 3 themes that women asked about and gave advice on how to approach these issues at work.

1. Make your voice heard

If you’ve ever been talked over at a meeting, you’re not alone. As one woman wrote in the survey, “There’s ingrained thinking that when a man speaks, we must listen. But it’s still okay for women to be interrupted and spoken over.” Even worse, there are times when women make a point in a meeting, only to have a male colleague repeat it and take the credit.

Robin suggests preparing a short list of mantras to say when you’re interrupted. These go-to lines could be, “Just allow me to finish what I was saying” or “I’m almost done.” Alternatively, you can hold up a hand, or choose to just keep talking. If you’re worried about seeming rude or crossing the line, you can use humor to soften the moment.

As for male colleagues echoing your ideas, Robin suggests using phrases like, “Thanks for bringing that up again, glad to hear you agree” or “Appreciate you summarizing my comments.”

You might find this approach intimidating at first, but Suzanne suggests to “experiment with different styles of yourself, and get feedback from others.” Through practicing and learning from your colleagues, you can find your ideal way of communicating. You’ll also realize that some of your fears are just in your mind. In Suzanne’s career, there were times when she pushed back and then apologized because she thought it was too confrontational—but it turns out, her colleagues didn’t notice it as a problem at all.

2. Get your work recognized

How can women get recognized for their contributions? Suzanne’s strategy is to enlist “people who can speak for you on your behalf and represent you.” When she was trying to get a big promotion, she found it helpful to identify a few colleagues who were on “Team Suz.” They had her back, clearly advocating for her accomplishments, which helped her achieve her career goals.

Additionally, Suzanne emphasizes the value of speaking up whenever you witness someone being unfairly judged for their working style, rather than their contributions. For example, if you hear a woman labeled as “overly aggressive,” you can gracefully ask, “If this person were a man, would we be saying these same things? Are we making room for a greater variety of leadership styles?” From there, you can let the conversation unfold.

3. Support other women

Sometimes, women judge one another the most harshly. There can be a sense of unhealthy competition, especially if there’s only room for a few women in leadership positions. However, Robin emphasizes the importance of helping other women. “Stick together,” she says. “We have got to stick together, hold space for others to rise up.”

Suzanne shares a personal story about her relationship with IDEO U’s Coe Leta Stafford. They call each other “work wives,” supporting each other strategically in business but also emotionally in terms of their roles as moms and caretakers for their parents. They help each other develop their long-term career plans, sharing opportunities for mutual growth.

If you don’t have a work wife just yet, don’t fret. You can start by joining a community, whether it’s “Ladies Who Lunch” events at your office, or women-focused groups on LinkedIn. Wherever you are in your career, there’s always an opportunity for you to connect with, learn from, or lift up other women.


Playing The Long Game

When it comes to shifting work culture to empower more women, remember to think long-term. Organizational change doesn’t come quickly, but it’s well worth it. Suzanne’s final piece of advice? “Stay in the game. Don’t give up. We need strong women like you, we need people who have resilience, who have perseverance,” she says. “It may seem like some of the time we’re not making progress, but over time all these little shifts are very meaningful. Together, we’re having an impact.”

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