Lifetime of discomfort

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

At a ‘celebrity’ graphic designer event, an audience member asked the all male participants the following question:

Why do you — all three of you — suppose there are so few female graphic designers — or at least so few female ‘superstar’ graphic designers? Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?

What was the response for one of the participants, Milton Glasner?

[Glaser said] that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that “women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.” He continued: “Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change.” About day care and nannies, he said, “None of them are good solutions.”

The crowd was silent except for a hiss or two and then Eggers piped up that he and his wife both work from home and share child care responsibilities — but added that maybe New York was different (although we don’t think Eggers really believes this). Then it was clear to everyone in the room that it was time to move on.

We’re brought up from birth to adapt to a standard of excellence that is derived from the male. We’re taught to exclaim at male art, male cooking, male design; to admire male scientists and engineers and their behavior; to respect male assertiveness in politics or war. We hear about the male heroes of history, with only an occasional aside to some female character–usually a duplicitous one.

It starts early: the school boy who raises his hand in class is called on to answer 50% more frequently than the girl sitting next to him. No one ever assumes when a boy does poorly in math, it’s because he’s a boy.

We face blatant double-standards in the work place: being competitive is seen as necessary for ‘manly’ men, but being competitive makes a woman a ‘ball buster’. Speaking out is commendable, if you’re male; shrill, loud, abrasive if you’re not. We have to yell just to be heard, but when we’re heard, we’re told to stop yelling.

When we’re equally capable, we have to hide who we are just to get a chance at an opportunity. Orchestras have finally started hiding musicians behind screens during try outs, so that women would have an equal chance in auditions. It works, too.

If we’re pretty, we’re called ‘hot’ rather than intelligent, astute, erudite. If we want to be feminine we’re not treated seriously. If we don’t want to bind our breasts, flatten our shoes, lengthen our skirts, we’re subtly assured that we’re ‘not committed enough’. Lipstick is the corporate kiss of death.

Managers don’t want us in important positions during child rearing ages because we’ll quit to have babies, though statistics show most women committed to a career, stay with the career. If we want the opportunities, if we show our earnestness they’re still given to Sam or Joe or Don, because they’ll ‘stick’ around. Yet Sam or Joe or Don is just as likely to leave as Sara or Jane.

We’re dependable, but the guys are brilliant. We’re cooperative, but the guys are innovative. We’re nurturing, but the guys are powerful. Anything outside of this pattern just can’t be seen.

In the fields where supposedly it’s OK to be woman and capable, our work is judged as lesser. How many women artists display shows at major galleries, as compared to men? How many famous chefs are women? Other than Julia Child? Women now make up almost 50% of the law school graduates: how many judges are women? How many women on the Supreme Court?

How many women in Congress? In a free and egalitarian society, doesn’t it strike you as odd when those who ‘represent’ us, don’t look like us, don’t act like us, and sure as hell, don’t think like us?

We’re told we’re not good at tech, but we make great librarians. However, even in a field dominated by women, male librarians end up with most of the management positions.

We don’t know how to write to appeal to a society dominated by male viewpoints. We don’t know how to design for a society that is conditioned to a male perspective. We don’t know how to debate when the rhetorical rules are derived by men for men. Even our technology: how do we know that women aren’t put off from technology because the tools are customized for how a man thinks, works, programs?

We’re told to cut along the lines, just like the boys, but then we’re given scissors for the wrong hand and chastised for our clumsiness.

To tell a room full of people who ask, “Why are there no women”, because we’re home having babies should shame the speaker to a lifetime of silence and remorse. Mr. Glasner may love New York, but he doesn’t love women. How can he, when he obviously respects us so little.

As for Michael Bierut, what was his response?

“Superstar” designers — and that’s what we’re talking about; read the question again — aren’t just good designers. They’re celebrity designers. And celebrity is a very specific commodity. It certainly helps to be good at what you do to be a celebrity designer (although celebrities in other fields don’t always seem to have this requirement). But that’s only a start. You also need to develop a vivid personality, an appetite for attention, and a knack for self-promotion. Accept every speaking engagement. Cough up a memorable mot juste for every interviewer. Make sure they spell your name right every time. This is time consuming work, particularly on top of your regular job, which presumably consists of doing good graphic design. Naturally, if you choose this route, it helps to be free of the distractions of ten to twenty years of caring for children, to say the least. In many ways, Milton Glaser’s observations were shocking only in their obviousness.

That’s interesting. I didn’t know that celebrity designers were celibate monks with no family life and friends? Huh. Well, that’s good to know for all the young women and men entering the field: you can’t have a family if you want to make it to the top.

Bierut also wrote:

Yet, you have to start somewhere. Glaser answered the question on the card, but the real question was the unspoken one: “Why is it that you guys up there are always…guys?” There is no good answer for this, and it doesn’t seem we should have to wait 150 years to come up with one. It’s depressing for a profession that’s more than half female to keep putting up 100% male rosters, at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else. And I say this with no small degree of self consciousness, as a member of a firm where only 10% of the partners are women. This is what made me squirm last Monday night, and it’s what makes me squirm today.

So sorry you had a moment of discomfort. We women have a lifetime of it.

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