Women in Design 2017: Women Working Together

by Lindsay Munro

posted on 10-16-2017

There are few things more empowering than a room full of women coming together to champion each other’s successes and help each other bring ideas into the world. At Adobe’s San Francisco headquarters, Designer Fund recently led an evening of lively discussion and activities doing just that for its Women in Design 2017 event.

In the panel that followed lightning talks and a non-violent communication exercise, Heather Phillips, Design Director at Abstract, led a discussion with Laura Naylor, Jamie Myrold, Bo Lu, and Nancy Douyon. These fearless female design leaders brought their unique perspectives on how we can all work together, collaborate, and celebrate success in the workplace better.

Being a Woman in the Workplace: Confidence, Capability, and Self-Advocacy

For some women it happens in your first role, for others, it comes later in life – that a-ha moment when you simultaneously realize your gender has somehow shaped your interactions and experience, and also how you can course correct for the next generation.

A couple years back, Laura Naylor found herself on a panel at Grace Hopper Celebration with female engineers who described their experiences of being the only woman in a class or being the only woman in a room full of men. This made her think back to 15 years earlier when she was a product engineer for just three months after completing her undergraduate degree in engineering. “I left that role because I didn’t think it was the right fit for me,” said Naylor. “I realized in the moment when I was sitting with these female engineers that it’s possible that I was actually simply feeling the isolation of being the only woman on my team. It wasn’t that it wasn’t the right career for me, but I was in the wrong situation.”

Naylor went on to complete a postgraduate degree and now head’s up UX research at YouTube, so you could say things worked out. That said, this moment has shaped how she operates as a leader. “That was a real moment for me, realizing how important it is to support people and to be set up in the right way.”

These days Nancy Douyon works at Uber, heading up global growth for international research platforms, but her resume boasts an impressive collection of tech companies including Google, Cisco, IBM, and Intel. She realized early in her career that self-advocacy would be a theme, and it all started with her first internship as a human factors engineer working on design.

“I noticed my counterparts got work that seemed to be more difficult, and when I asked why the work was different, I got a response like ‘you know, handle this and you’ll be fine,’” said Douyon. “I had to chase more challenging work.”

Jamie Myrold, VP of design at Adobe, worked her way up the corporate ladder in her impressive 13-year career with the company. After her first major promotion to design director, the first woman to carry the title, Myrold found herself in meetings she hadn’t been privy to before.

“When you get a new title, it’s weird because you don’t do anything different or work differently, but people look at you differently,” said Myrold. “Title never mattered to me, I just liked to do good work, but walking into that first meeting was when I realized title mattered. Looking around at the room full of men, I realized I knew just as much or more than they did, and I could totally do this.”

When contemplating applying for a leadership role, Bo Lu grappled with self-doubt.

“When I was speaking to a female mentor of mine, and expressing all my hesitations, she was like, ‘what are you actually afraid of?’” said Lu.

This question forced her to get to the core of the issue, which was she was scared of letting go of something she knew she could do well to do something she was unsure she was capable of.

Lu landed the job and is currently the Creative Lead at Pinterest.

Challenge The Inner Critic

After realizing her own inner critic was holding her back, and overcoming that, Lu set out to help other women at work. Pinterest has an online forum with an area called Creative Women’s room, where a thread on the inner critic emerged. Lu used this as an opportunity to bring women together to talk about what the inner critic really is.

“A lot of women had some variation of ‘I don’t feel I’m good enough’ or ‘I don’t feel like I’m doing enough,’” said Lu. “It was really empowering to hear that women I see as confident and capable, have these voices too.”

The voice in your head might never go away, but there’s a way to manage it, and likely when it shows up, you’re probably growing and stretching yourself and trying something new. “That’s something worth celebrating,” said Lu.

Douyon uses what she calls the 3C’s to help her manage her inner critic:

  1. Catch it – Stop and pause to catch the thought.
  2. Check it – Is this the thought a fact? Reality versus distortion.
  3. Change it – If the thought is not a fact, you need to change. If it is a fact, come up with a plan to change it.

After completing this quick exercise, it’s likely you’ll realize the things you’re saying to yourself in your head aren’t rooted in fact.

Corporate Culture Starts At The Top

In order to foster a supportive culture for women on your team, you need to also have company policies that do the same.

Naylor pointed out the importance of talent retention through company policies that support women and their families. “At Google, when we increased maternity leave to 18 weeks, the number of women lost to attrition decreased by 50%.” It’s also important these policies are supported at the team level, which, “creates a sense of loyalty from women and across the board,” said Naylor.

Company-wide programs which foster leadership roles for women are also important for attrition.

“Donna Morris, who heads up our employee experience team has put in place the most amazing program for women to move into leadership roles here at Adobe,” said Myrold. This is topped off by an annual Adobe & Women Leadership Summit, where employees can connect, focus on personal development and get inspired to pursue their passions.

Celebration > Competition Among Women

Among female teammates, women can battle internally with competition and comparison. In many companies leadership roles are limited, and few go to women, which can create a bit of a scarcity mindset.

This is where the importance of ‘Shine Theory’ comes into play. Coined by female White House staffers who banned together to make sure their voices were heard, Shine Theory is the notion that when one woman shines, all the women around her shine.

“It finds itself in the idea of mutual female support, and it promotes women lifting each other and other women up instead of tearing them down,” said Phillips, the panel moderator.

The more women you surround yourself with who actively believe and practice Shine Theory, the more likely you are to build yourself, and, in turn, those around you up.

This can come in many forms. Naylor stressed the importance and value of a mentor. With this in mind, she often plays the role of mentor matchmaker with her team. “I want to make sure people on my team have access to other people they can talk with, so they can have conversations about things that are above and beyond the immediate day-to-day at work, and to keep them thinking about their career long term,” said Naylor.

It’s interventions like these that can change a person’s career trajectory for the better.

If it weren’t for Lu’s manager encouraging her to apply for a leadership role, she might never have. “It never crossed my mind that I was qualified,” said Lu. She now hopes to do the same for someone else who might not recognize an opportunity for themselves.

“Some women don’t know how brilliant they are, or if they do, they might be socialized to feel small,” said Lu. “Women can hold themselves back when that big opportunity comes along.”

Confusing Competence and Likeability

Staying true to what comes naturally as a female leader while still being perceived as a strong leader in male-dominated work environments can be a tricky balance for some.

“Understanding who you are, what you value, and what your non-negotiables are and bringing that with you in any situation in life, is key,” said Myrold. “If you bring that to the table, then there is nothing to be afraid of.”

At the end of the day, you are who you are. Listening to feedback is important, but betraying your values won’t get you far.

Make A Difference For The Women In Your Workplace

Shine bright like a diamond and celebrate the women around you. Banish (or at least manage) your inner critic, and help others do the same. Advocate for company policies that support women and families. Recognize and serve up opportunity to those around you. And most importantly, stay true to yourself and your values.

“We rise by lifting others.”

– Robert Ingersoll

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design, Diversity & Inclusion