By: Natalia Auza
The lack of representation is a common factor for women in practically any medium, but what specifically happens in these careers in which more than 50% of university graduates are women, but only around 20% reach management creative positions? Talented women are graduating from schools and ready to be hired, the numbers don't add up. What happens on the way?
I can start with education, which is focused on developing technical and theoretical skills, everything is very gender neutral. But entering the world of work requires navigating all the gray areas, such as negotiating salaries, balancing family life, and projecting security in a world that for many of us is not encouraging. Most of us are not cut out for that world, no matter how talented you are in technical skills.
In the world of work, women not only need "a job". This suggests that the problem stems from women not working hard enough to succeed, especially important in a culture that already demands too much of us. To be a successful woman, I must not only have academic and professional achievements to prove that I am worth enough, I must also look impeccable doing it, cared for and attractive, but not so much that I intimidate or worse, provoke my colleagues and clients. I shouldn't neglect my family or my partner if I have one (preferably you have to because otherwise you're cold and selfish), but I can't let it interfere with my work or office social life either. I must have EVERYTHING under control, even my emotions, I must show that I am sure of myself, but at the same time be submissive to my bosses... and the list can go on. These factors not only put more pressure on women, but they also bypass who is responsible (the patriarchal system and the people who maintain it).
This does not mean that my general challenges are different from those of the men in the field, but we women have a macho stigma attached to them. I am sure that my male colleagues do not hear unwanted comments when they arrive at a factory, workshop or construction site. I am sure that in the hardware store, the printing press and the construction site, their skill or knowledge is not questioned simply because they are men. They don't have to think about whether their work clothes are appropriate, will give the “wrong” image, or will make them not be taken seriously. Most of the men I know have never been told that their work attire is too “masculine” and that it will be perceived as less professional or devalued. And well, the simple fact of having to menstruate in spaces that are not even designed to make your life easier at that time (as the saying goes “Anything you can do I can do bleeding?”).
What happens in our unconscious when most of the people around us in the workplace are men? Workers, engineers, builders, bosses. On so many occasions, we work with only female colleagues but all our bosses are men, we cannot aspire to be what we cannot see.
This brings us to the prize selection guild, again usually male controlled. Many times the question is, why aren't there many successful female designers?, when the question should be, why don't we know about them? The Pritzker Prize, which began in 1979, took 25 years to award a woman, Zaha Hadid in 2004. She was the only one who had received the prize without a partner until 2020. The Bauhaus was openly against the training of women. This may seem old-fashioned, but in reality it is not so far away, they are not isolated cases and if we analyze it, what has been the radical change? Although there is "access" to education and we are "free" to work in any medium, sexist discourses are still present and continue to limit us.
The problem is accentuated as women advance in their professional career. Why do the numbers of women graduates and professionals begin to decline each time they move closer to positions of authority? In many cases it has to do with the issue of family life, the fact that as women we have to choose between being a professional or a mother, or living judged for trying to do both things at the same time and not achieving it perfectly. When much of the activities that contribute to professional success take place outside of working hours, women who are normally the primary caregivers in their environments begin to be disadvantaged. Mezcals after work with colleagues, lunches and dinners with clients, the invitation to the boss's birthday, etc. Even in “more progressive” offices and work environments, it is common for women to have to deal with external factors. There is still a normalized machismo of clients, colleagues and suppliers who have a certain reluctance to deal with women as equals. But the exclusion and lack of security come from much earlier; the fathers who do not take your job seriously, the husband who expects you to leave your career to raise and care for a family, and in Mexico, factors such as insecurity in spaces such as public transport, which limits the mobility of so many women. This is not to mention the thousands of women who cannot even access a professional education.
We must understand that workplace sexism is not only men harassing women, it is also the most subtle violence and oppression. When we give other creatives a voice, whether it's speaking at a conference, taking center stage at a client presentation, or much more, we're setting a precedent and declaring that their perspective has value. If the majority of the people on stage are men, we are implicitly suggesting that the most valid perspective is the male one.
Making figures visible without any solution does not make the problem disappear; When the representation of marginalized groups becomes a statistic, it often becomes difficult to seek specific and internal solutions. If we share images and phrases of female empowerment, we are "feminists", but we continue to promote, reproduce and be complacent to misogynistic attitudes in our environments, in reality we are only covering up the fact that we are part of the problem. If in offices we proudly talk about having teams made up of all or almost all women, because they are more "committed", but in reality we mean that they are more submissive or more willing to put up with unflattering working conditions and we do not generate an action plan so that the work environment really changes for them, we are only "economizing" visibility.
Most of us hire from our little bubbles. When we look at competition juries, conference speakers, and jobs in general being led by white men, you can't help but question their true effect. The fact that exclusive spaces for women have to be created in 2021, or that it is a factor of celebration to see women in leadership spaces says a lot about where we are. It shouldn't be like this, but here we are. The next time we see a women's empowerment moment celebrated, let's question what the problem really is. Perhaps you realize that it is not the lack of security, desire or ability, but you promoting this system that limits us. I believe that the change will not come as a result of laws, it will come from understanding and questioning how our individual behavior or that of our direct circle contributes to these stereotypes.
I read that people in power are usually scrutinized carefully by the oppressed and not the other way around. We still have the element of surprise, if we are not expected to be strong, capable, confident and ambitious, we can use it to our advantage.
In an industry that prides itself on being progressive, we owe it to ourselves to take an honest and critical internal assessment to see who is really working for change. What am I doing from my own trench?
I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment that made it easy for me to be what I have become, I grew up surrounded by women (and men) who showed me that my voice matters, I grew up in an environment that gave me the tools and opportunities to develop myself and choose my path.
This acceptance allows me to be aware that not all women have these possibilities, and that I have to look after them. But I have also understood that feminism in the workplace (and really everywhere) can be seen in many ways, because we all experience different forms of violence. There are those who decide to be mothers and those who don't, those who decide to work with their partners, those who decide to be openly political and activists and those who decide to be silent. Professional success doesn't always look the same, but the point is to create an environment where everyone can freely live out their aspirations.
It is important as Mexican women to be aware of the different contexts that exist, in order to understand that, just because we grew up free, not all women do. I know that in Mexico the color of my skin and seeing myself as I see myself has given me an undeniable advantage. Not acknowledging that is another form of discrimination.
I think that the progress of women in the field depends a lot on the women themselves, for better or for worse. Men have continually shown us that they are not ready to let go of the patriarchal system that benefits them. It is encouraging to see that these difficulties and limitations are creating a generation of empathetic, sororous and supportive women with a sense of social responsibility. The most significant changes have been thanks to women who have managed to scale and extend a hand to the younger generations and the less privileged.
Design deconstructs to find a new way of seeing or doing things. For a long time the world of design has boasted of being a progressive medium and a tool at the service of change. We must accept the responsibility that this entails.