Advocating for Yourself as a Woman in the Creative World
It doesn’t take more than a quick look around your local art museum to see the ways in which women have been creative culture producers since the beginning of time – as muses, crafters, singers, musicians, and designers in their own right. Women are the primary creative producers and the primary consumers. A recent 2020 music study even found that women are actually more creative and create more original work than men.
Being in the design field is unique since women designers, like myself, make up 61% of the workforce. In my personal experience, I have worked with and been taught by more women that I have men. In modern day, when the pandemic has reset the expectations of work culture, women are now, more than ever, changing their career goals and going after jobs they want. So why, then, are creative industries not immune from the gender pay gap and a lack of women in upper level positions?
The same societal factors that seem to lead to women being more generally skilled creatives than our male counterparts are the same factors that keep women from creative management positions and higher salaries. What do I mean by this? For an industry that’s supposed to be ahead of the curve and future-oriented, design and creative fields are still remarkably reflective of the same societal issues that affect any workforce. This is because all industries in one way or another deal with the same thing – money.
For many creatives, regardless of gender, dealing with money in itself is a daunting task we often try to avoid by any means necessary. And dealing with money means needing business skills, something women have historically been denied access to. This – in addition to a society that is extra critical of women’s work, gives them poorer performance evaluations, instills a lack of confidence in women, and expects them to perform “niceness” at work – leads to the inevitable situation where women learn to be more multi-talented than their male counterparts, yet lack the tools for career advancement.
Truthfully, as a non-white woman, the “woman” part was the least of the barriers to my chosen career path. I’m sure other Black creatives feel the same, representing only 3% of the design field (as of 2019) and with 0.25% of creative directors being Black women. This is the marginalization that I feel the heaviest and on a more regular basis. A 2021 survey from Gallup Center on Black Voices found that a whopping 24% of Black and Latinx people have felt discrimination in the workplace. The increasingly popular option of working remotely has clearly helped many women of color feel more comfortable and safe from the daily microaggressions of being in the workplace. You don’t have anyone leaning in to touch your hair, or expecting a cheerful attitude, or putting their hand on the small of your back (thank god for that!). But even when no one has to necessarily know what you look like, there is always this feeling that, as a woman, there is a limit to how far you can get in any creative profession. Learning how to get past this limit and advocate for yourself can be a very difficult process.
Nonetheless, research from Women in the Workplace 2021 shows women and minority women taking on leadership roles and performing better in those roles than their male counterparts. When I asked my current creative director, Meena Yi (who previously worked at the DNC and ran Cory Booker’s visual campaign) for advice on making it as a woman creative director she said, “It is a little bit more work [as a woman], unfortunately. Like, I used to – I do it less now – but I used to document everything that I would do. Because this way, I can refer back to times that I’ve done something that was out of my job description or went above and beyond, [so I have this doc] if there were questions that came up about why I wasn’t worth a certain thing.”
Meena also advocates for transparency in salaries and wages: “I’m very open with my salary. If people ask me my salary, I’ll just tell them. I don’t care.” Nearly everyone starts out with anxieties about navigating the workplace, including negotiating your salary. Figure out where those anxieties lie and make sure you are working through them. If you feel that you are worth less than you actually are, remember that this is by design. And you’re not alone. Women accept a 6% lower salary than their male counterparts when negotiating. If you don’t meet 100% of the requirements for a job, apply anyways. Men commonly do! For me, when I feel insecure about negotiating, pricing, or “nice” expectations in email culture, I think, “Would a straight white man be stressing right now?” The answer, reader, is likely “Hell, no!”
It is also good to remember that if a company is undervaluing you or your female and POC peers, it really should be embarrassing for them. Outside of learning to lift ourselves up, schools, organizations, and institutions should also take the steps to give women the soft skills and confidence they need to advocate for themselves in addition to providing opportunities for advancement from within.
Hope is out there. Women in creative fields have certainly come a long way in a short amount of time. In the 70’s, Paula Scher went from being the first principal designer at Pentagram (the largest design firm in the world) to the company now having five female principals in its U.S. and U.K. offices. Ava Duverney, Oprah Winfrey, Issa Rae, and Shonda Rhimes are all Black woman titans of the film industry. Organizations like the 3 Percent Movement and Kerning the Gap have advocated to raise the number of women creative directors from 3% in 2008 to 17% today. Even with these remarkable developments, there is still a long way to go.
As we continue to make this progress and learn to advocate for better work benefits, it is important to remember your position in the struggle. Remember that white women are the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. Knowing this should embolden white women to listen to and advocate for women of color and non-binary folks, pass on opportunities that are better suited for women of color, and share tangible tools for them to get ahead. Be sure to get involved in your community and your union. Nobody likes a gatekeeping girlboss. Personally, I am of the school of Issa Rae: “Effective networking starts with the people around you, not above you.” Community is always a great place to start making change.