All Students, No Pros: Where Did All the Female Web Designers Go?

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Woman using computer

Where are all the female web designers? Or, according to a new article out of Smashing Magazine, the question should be rephrased: Where do all the female web designers go after college? While the numbers between genders are remarkably even in the classroom, 82.6 of web designers in the work force are male. What happens from that first day of college to stat collecting day post-college? Things that make you go "hmm."

Smashing Magazine has some theories.

  • The stats themselves. Apparently lack of women begets lack of women. "Lack of visible female heroes results in lack of female interest." Not a bad point.
  • Perceptions about what men and women are good at. "Research shows that both males and females believe that males are better than females at computing" (Clarke, 1992; Spertus, 1991). Hmm. But that was 1991-92. Can we get a retake on that vote? I think my husband and all of the men in my family would vote differently.
  • "Conditioning" of males toward video games. As a female gamer, I can see it. "It’s a format that is relevant to men and women, boys and girls, and this inclusion of the female population is invariably causing more females to ask themselves how it all works, and how they can be a contributing factor."
  • Status quo. Pardon me while I disagree here. Smashing Magazine suggests, "Similarly, few are tooting the horn for more female firefighters, or male nurses." Wrong comparison to make with me. Perhaps John Mindiola missed the 2008 piece at The Huffington Post about female firefighters burning down barriers or my 2009 post about antique firefighting books pushing my feminist button. I wonder if he'd like to ask the women of the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services if they would like to stop tooting their horn. The status quo is meant to be challenged. Women and men alike do so everyday.

Theories aside, I asked one of my longtime friends -- a female web designer -- for her opinions on the article. When I initially read this piece, she popped into my head, as did the number of web designers I know who all happen to be -- you guessed it -- female. Here's what she had to say:

I've worked as a Web Designer for the same company for almost 10 years. My department is small, and besides myself, there has only been one other female web designer I've worked with, the others have been men. My overall experience working with these men has been positive, but when it came time for me to dole out the tasks and give direction, I wasn't well received. I don't think it was based upon my personal design and coding abilities, but from receiving direction from a woman, period.

I think to be a good Web Designer, male or female, your design and coding skills have to be well meshed. My mentor was a man and I have him to thank for knowing what I know today. I may have to work a bit harder, but that is only to prove myself to myself.

-Rebecca Toth, Sr. Web Designer

I nodded as I read her last line: proving myself to myself. While I'm not a web designer (I know just enough HTML/CSS to get by), I work as a photojournalist. Some may argue that the field of photography is largely female. In my experience, I'm often the only female showing up with a camera at events, tragedies and especially sporting events. I've gotten used to being the only woman, though I sometimes internally roll my eyes at the Man Talk that constantly surrounds me. I do work really hard, mainly to prove that I can continue to better myself.

One thing about the Smashing Magazine article rang true in my head, and it was the quote at the very end of the piece from Lisa Firke.

Lisa Firke, a woman embodying that rare combination of female and Web designer, commented on Zeldman.com: “I’m sure it’s 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.”

When she revisited the topic in a blog post about the article, she updated her sentiments with a final point.

How do I feel, right now, this minute, about women in web design? I’m thinking that I know, more than ever before, some extremely talented designers–many, like me, working in small or solo shops, and garnering sparse attention.

Two important points: women are web consumers and why are they getting sparse attention. More hmm-worthy points and questions.

This isn't a "new" problem. Some design bloggers were talking about this well before the article, and others have been chiming in with thoughtful commentary and challenging questions since the publication.

  • Alissa Walker wrote at the Good Design blog about this very topic this past August in an aptly titled post, "Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?" Her focus was on industrial design, but she made comments regarding other areas of the design realm.

    I could write a whole series of articles on the ways that women are faring in—and in some instances, dominating over—various areas of the design industry (and check out this story in The Atlantic that says women now make up a majority of the workforce). But seeing as architecture and graphic design fields seem, anecdotally, to be closing the gender gap, and especially as this is discipline of design where so much great humanitarian work is done, the gender disparity in industrial design is dismaying.

  • cloudplum wrote a blog post about FEMALE in DESIGN that put the Smashing magazine article to work regarding a recent episode of The Apprentice. She detailed how men and women were using their gender as an excuse to or not to create a certain ad campaign, and then drove it home with this important point.

    As a female creative, I would hate to be stuck in a role where I can only work on beauty, fashion, and motherly clients. Just because I am female does not mean I cannot design for or concept on a men's product. It's only an excuse when using your gender to defend your work.

  • Grainne O'Sullivan wrote about the article and other related issues at Evolve Blog in a post entitled, "Bird Watching." She talks about Birdwatching, an organization that exists to help promote female designers. And, like the others, brings it home with a fabulous point.

    Women are all too eager to let others organise the conferences and collectives, to curate the exhibitions and inspiration & reference websites. While being visible does mean speaking at conferences and talking to students, it also means taking the controls in the design industry and finding ways to show what it’s like to be a working woman in the design industry. Its important that women create a rich and varied narrative of articles, blogs and tweets, illustrated with videos and photos. Ladies, we need to change the culture ourselves, because giving up and hiding in the shadows will achieve nothing.

  • And in case you're looking for a list of wonderful female web designers, check out this list of 50 "incredibly talented" female web designers. Deepu Balan put the list together and explained why.

    Sex or gender has nothing to do with creativity or talent. Being exceptionally talented is not connected to being male or female. I have been really curious about the number of ladies in the web design industry, since the day a friend of mine termed the web design industry as a male dominated area. With this contention in mind, I have carried out a little research on the number of women in web design. The upshot of this research was the discovery of a lot of incredibly talented female designers with a lot of fresh and unique stuff in their portfolios.

Do you know and/or are you a female web designer? What are your thoughts on why the disparity exists? Where do all the female design students go?


Contributing Editor Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land. She is a freelance writer and newspaper photographer.

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