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Thursday, May. 3, 2007 at 10:43 am

Fewer Female Web Designers: Problem or No Big Deal?

By Holly Buchanan
May 3rd, 2007

Does gender matter when it comes to web design? Does it matter whether a man or a woman designs your site? I am on the record as saying “hire the best web designer you can.” But if you are targeting women, I also strongly suggest you include women in the process.

Jeffrey Zeldman has a really interesting post on his blog called “Women in web design: just the stats” that talks about the under-representation of women in the IT field, with a focus on women in web design.

The post is great, but, as usual, the comments are crazy good. Here are just a few of them:

There’s another facet to this: I’m sure its not a coincidence that 90% of my clients are women. Perhaps taking women seriously as designers goes hand in hand with taking women seriously as web consumers. -Lisa

Bringing up the numbers like this kind of has the insinuation that it’s someone holding “them” down. Your post also said “Women who do participate in the field may not be promoted as often or as high as their male colleagues.” I once again get the feeling that the insinuation is because some is devaluing their work because of gender and I would disagree. If women were somehow so much cheaper to hire then wouldn’t the workforce represent that? Wouldn’t we see 80% women and 20% men? Or could maternity leave and other women semi-specific issues affect the value of employees also? -Nathan

I think the substantially higher *visibility* of men in these fields over women has much to do with the instinctive behaviors of the genders. Men are genetically programmed to beat their chests, sing their own praises, exaggerate their conquests. There are more men speaking at conferences because there are more men than women who want (or need) to talk about their work in public. Demonstrating prowess and gaining public acknowledgment of said prowess is a large part of the male ego.

I think what would go a long way toward even-ing out the numbers, at least at conferences, would be to cultivate women’s confidence and “bravado” about their work, and instill an attitude among working women that mirrors that of men, i.e., your work is amazing and the world needs to know about it; go forth and brag. Unfortunately, good work rarely speaks for itself. We need to coach women to promote themselves. -Brenda

Brenda, I agree. More men brag than women; it seems to be a culturally learned behavior. Several absolutely brilliant women I know cannot be persuaded to write or lecture or otherwise promote themselves. Anecdotally, among female and male colleagues, there’s a concensus that women, however smart and talented, are less likely than men to put themselves forward. We all miss out by not hearing their voices. -Jeffrey

Brenda, while I’m all for women being generally more assertive (isn’t this a generational thing? Few of my peers seem to have this issue: I am 31), I find your point about “instinctive behavior of the genders” as sexist and outdated as the idea that women shouldn’t be in tech in the first place. Going by your outline, I apparently am mentally more of a man. Sheesh. Leadership in itself is not a male or female quality (though certain styles of leadership certainly accommodate gender stereotypes). Neither is success. My point is that these statistical numbers are being driven by other forces (social, financial), not some gender-based instinct. -Kate

As a minority female, I’ve owned a successful web company for 7 years and have made a few observations:

  1. Most male clients do not take me seriously at first. I have to “prove” myself to them. They do not display this attitude with my male coworkers.
  2. Either a male client is “pleasantly surprised” by my abilities or they find them threatening. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
  3. It’s easier for me to just assign a male coworker to work with a male client that displays these tendencies.
  4. I’ve spoken at conferences and noticed that men pay closer attention to other male speakers than women speakers. They also seem to challenge the women more on the topics. I really feel that many men are threatened by a woman knowing more than them on a topic in their field.

To be honest, I’ve actually left projects/jobs because of sexist attitudes and comments and I’ve known other women that have as well. I think many of us just get tired of having to prove ourselves. -Michelle

Maybe this is a stupid question, but… why does a designer gender matter so much? -TravisI just can’t take someone seriously who chooses to employ girly visual stereotypes (ex. pink, flowers) and/or pepper their otherwise valuable industry content with gushy bits about their kids that should be on personal sites instead. These sites make me embarrassed to be a woman in the field. I’m not saying that girliness is bad, and that there isn’t any place for pink (hey, pink abounds in the Web 2.0 palette), but when the person generating content goes out of their way to call attention to the fact that — even on a professional level — they are female first, web designer second, I get annoyed. Just as I do when men exhibit similar behaviors on the opposite extreme end of the spectrum of gender (perhaps there are just as many men putting gender first, but there are plenty who aren’t in a male-dominated field, so it’s not as noticeable). The reality is that within a competitive industry, you have to maintain some level of gender neutrality. On the frontend, you should be able to generate designs that appeal to a range of clients, male and female. On the backend, code doesn’t respond differently to a male or female mind. -Kate

Just as people from different cultural backgrounds have different perspectives and ideas because of that culture and their experiences, similarly in my experience I’ve observed that men and women bring different points of view to the table of design – and from that angle I think it would be beneficial to the industry to have better representation of women in the industry.

There are vast ranges of different in thinking in each gender so it’s not possible to divide down the middle, but certainly I have observed differences in the two streams of thought and the way problems are approached, ideas generated and worked through.

Just the same as we endorse User Centred design principles to prevent a single-sided approach to design, so we should endorse a good mix of women and men in the profession.

I don’t think this is the ONLY reason we should address this concern, but certainly this is one point that I want to contribute to the discussion.

BTW I am the only male in my web team. -Nathaniel

I just love this stuff! Eat up some more at Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog.

Also, for an interesting take on women in the search industry, check out Shari Thurow‘s Click Z article.

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Comments (8)

  1. I see 2 main reasons for fewer femaile web designer.
    1- you can be in this business and not put your emotions aside. It’s not about what you think is right, it’s always about what makes the client happy and satisfied.
    2- It’s already hard as it is for being a man and collect the money at the end of the project. Sometimes you think that you working for a collection agency rather than just getting paid for an honest work which you did for the client.

  2. Re Kate’s comment that “…and/or pepper their otherwise valuable industry content with gushy bits about their kids that should be on personal sites instead.” I couldn’t agree more.

    I have left web-based networking groups for that very reason. As a female business owner I too am embarrassed at this practise.

    Instead of being gender-neutral, it becomes a mothers’ group and then is used to bemoan the fact men don’t join the
    networking groups! Is it any wonder men don’t join? I feel uncomfortable in that environment and I am a woman.

    In a business networking environment, I find it a turn-off to learn first about how many kids/husbands/ex-husbands someone has before I learn about their business. While a personality and ‘whole person’ is important, it should be part of the overall package, not the first thing you encounter.

    So, the web-designer ‘package’ matters more than the sex of the person behind the business. While women generally (and I mean generally) are more nurturing than chest-beating, in the business environment I think more effort needs to be made to balance the natural tendencies and actually become more gender-neutral. Men could probably do the same, and be less chest-beating too, then we could all meet in the middle somewhere!

  3. I’ve had great experinces dealing with female designers than male. Female designers tend to listen better to the clients needs and deliver much better quality work.

  4. I was lucky enough to come across 2 very talented female web designers. But I have to say that I’ve heard many not so pleasant stories as well.

  5. Sorry, but I think that’s absurd. Do I really have to say something ridiculous like, “Some of my best friends are talented female web designers”?

    To suggest that women may not be as talented as men at web design because you’ve heard some “not so pleasant stories” is just plain prejudiced. I know some female web designers who can not only draw and conceptualize beautiful websites, but can code it up with Flash and Ajax as well as anybody; stuff that’s not easy for most web developers, let alone people who are better known for their design work.

    And why should that be surprising? Suggesting that female web designers may not be as talented as men is like saying that women probably don’t paint as well, or that they’re not as good at photography, or anything else visual and right-brained.

  6. When I was at university, 20 years ago, we had over 50 male and only 6 females.

    The course was a BA in Data Processing!

    Just doesn’t sound at all sexy does it?

    I think things are changing in more recent years as web development is more mainstream.

    The more the better I say :-)

  7. Have to disagree its important whether its a man or a woman designing your site. I think that what is important is that you like the style of designs in the webdesigners portfolio and they are able to understand your needs and interpret those into something that’s both user friendly and functional.

  8. Gender has never been an issue for us when it comes to web design.

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at http://marketingtowomenonline.typepad.com She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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