Q: Mule has a pretty balanced gender split. Is this a conscious decision?
A: Absolutely. From the get-go Mule was 50% female. Which is easy to do when there are two of you and one is female. But as we’ve grown we’ve tried very consciously to maintain a good balance. And never, not once, have we not hired the best person for the job. And we’ve never decided ahead of time that we needed to hire a woman or a man for a particular role. What we’ve done is make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be hired. And lo and behold, we’ve found that when you give a population that’s roughly 50% female an equal chance you end up with a roughly 50% female staff. It fluctuates from time to time, we’re currently at 36%, and we’ve been as high as 80%. (Ironically, we’re also currently at our whitest, a fact I’m sure you’ll be glad to point out to me in the comments.) But the point isn’t to aim for a certain percentage. The point is to foster an environment where different viewpoints are not just welcomed, but encouraged. And when women apply here they see themselves reflected in who’s interviewing them, making this feel like a more welcoming place.
Why is this important? Because we’re trying to design great products. And we’ve found that the more diverse points-of-view we let into the design process the better our work is, the more likely it is to be understood by a broader segment of the population, and the more successful our clients are because of it. We already have one person who thinks like me in the office (it’s enough). We want to create an environment with as many different experiences, viewpoints and ways of looking at the world and solving problems as possible. We’ve found that getting the opinions and insights of people with a variety of experiences to be a critical to doing good work. And because society defines gender roles along very similar paths (I’m painting with a very broad brush here. Try not to get your panties in a knot. Gentlemen.) the best way to get a woman’s viewpoint is from a woman herself! And yes, I realize they come in various shapes, sizes, experiences and flavors, but I can guarantee that none of those mirror mine. And while, with a little bit of research, empathy and acting I may be able to almost-kinda-sorta see things from the point of view of a guy who likes cars, golf and nachos, no amount of empathy or research will ever, ever allow me to design things from a woman’s point-of-view. Just like I will never be able to experience the world from a black person’s point of view (no matter which Kardashian I date.)
So what’s the problem? Easy. We don’t have enough women! Although women account for more than 50% of the general population, they account for quite a bit less than that in the design workforce, and as you head up the chain, whether in positions of leadership or influence, that percentage shrinks dramatically. To the point where it’s not uncommon to attend a design conference with absolutely no women on stage. And when you don’t see yourself reflected in those positions of authority, you begin believing they aren’t accessible to you.
Now I’ve never organized a conference in my life, and truth be told, I hope never to have to. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those that take on that hard work. By and large, conference organizers are doing the work of spreading knowledge about our craft to audiences who crave it. And knowing that their desire is to improve our community (The fact that they can do this while turning a profit is also commendable.) I’d argue that the more diverse points of view they can present to their attendees the better. Not only because it more closely reflects the needs of the audiences we design for (If your main client is Titleist I excuse you from that statement.), but because it will help attract the good minds we need solving those problems.
But what about merit? Great question, if it weren’t that the merit argument is used in the most ironic way possible. I’d ask why a small percentage of the population (for the sake of argument let’s use white males as our example) has merited to take such a high percentage of available opportunities? Could it be that they are inherently more qualified than other groups? Of course not. No one would argue that point, lest they be thought a fool. That would be akin to arguing that Jackie Robinson was the first black ballplayer good enough for the major leagues. One could argue that those white males are better known, and they’d be right. But this has less to do with merit than with a systematic underrepresentation of women and minorities.
As designers, we are tasked with solving the problems of the world. And the more we, and those we look up to, reflect the face of the world around us the better our solutions will be. If we continue to behave like it’s a white man’s world we’re not only doing ourselves a disservice, we’re doing our clients a disservice, and ultimately we are doing our craft a disservice.
But isn’t this a quota? So what? I take no small amount of delight in people who start screaming for fairness only once what they’ve denied others is being taken from them. I don’t have an issue with a bit of overcorrecting if need be. We’ve been erring on the other side for a bit, it seems fair to err on this one for a bit.
Sometimes merit needs a push. You can’t level a playing field without bringing in a few bulldozers.
I’ll leave you with some science: Achieving gender equality in technology and innovation:50:50 by 2020?
About Dear Design Student
A weekly series where I answer students’ questions about being a designer. Send me your questions.