International Women’s Day (IWD) is an occasion to reflect on the progress we’ve made toward gender equality and how much we still have to accomplish. In the business world, we can celebrate the fact that there are more women in leadership positions than ever before. Yet women still contend with a range of obstacles and challenges that can account for why, in 2023, only 24% of C-suite executives in the world are women. At the beginning of the year, Forbes reported a meager 2% increase in female CEOs of leading companies, meaning that 10% of the Fortune 500 are now helmed by women. It’s a sobering reminder that the advances we celebrate are modest ones—that we’re still a long way from anything remotely like equal representation.
At ExperiencePoint, we’d like to mark IWD by considering how design thinking practices around the globe contribute to the ongoing struggle for a fairer world. Our intention isn’t to be self-aggrandizing or to tout the impact of our training; we want to take an honest look at the small ways that design thinking has helped–and can continue to help–make meaningful advancements toward gender equality.
Empowering women entrepreneurs
Andrew Webster, ExperiencePoint’s VP of Innovation, recently traveled to Ghana, Africa, to facilitate design thinking workshops for African Women in Technology, a non-profit organization that connects, educates and empowers women who are entering the tech sector. There is high unemployment in Ghana, which is worse for women and youth, and an increasing sense that women have to carve out their own opportunities if they hope to build sustainable careers. But this goal of entrepreneurship is complicated by systemic challenges in accessing capital and resources, and a lack of infrastructure in the tech industry.
Since design thinking is simple, accessible and replicable–often requiring no more than a few writing utensils and some paper–it’s well suited for problem solving with limited resources. Andrew worked with participants who were trying to tackle a range of community and entrepreneurial challenges. A standout story was a young computer scientist from a small fishing village outside of Accra, where most children work in the local fishing industry instead of attending school. The computer scientist and her sister had set up a makeshift school where they taught children ranging in age from five to ten on the weekends, using whatever materials they could get their hands on, including discarded car tires for seating. She wanted to find a way to give these kids as comprehensive an education as possible and to impart a love of learning that could impact their life choices down the road.
Through the design thinking process, she developed the idea for an education hub where children could go whenever they weren’t working. The hub would be full of books and, in theory, would engender a love of self-directed and collaborative learning rather than adherence to a curriculum. Participants in the workshop were so inspired by the project that they formed a support group to iterate ways to collect books and advance the hub immediately.
Design for everyone
Historically, designers have imagined their default user as male. This bias has created significant risks for women. In car design, crash test dummies are modeled on male bodies, which can account for why women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in an accident. Police force personal protective equipment (PPE) is similarly designed to fit the average man, which has resulted in women removing their vests to increase mobility, and consequently incurring fatal injuries. There are dozens of less serious oversights, too. Workplaces are kept at temperatures configured to male preferences; cell phones are designed to be held by male-sized hands. In today’s world, the customer is still a man.
Thankfully, more and more companies are starting to recognize the enormous loss of market share—not to mention the ethical failings—that come from seeing the world through a male-tinted lens. In fact, many companies are actively designing for uniquely female and non-binary values and needs. Design thinking is poised to address and rectify the problems of gender bias by encouraging the designer to consider all possible users and to empathize with their specific needs. The emergence of the FemTech industry, which creates products and services uniquely targeted at women’s health and well-being, is a sign that the tide is starting to turn.
Candor in the workplace
Women make 82 cents on every dollar earned by a man. That pay gap has only narrowed by two cents in the last twenty years. In the U.S., that means working women lose about 1.6 trillion dollars every year, exacerbating gender-based wealth disparity.
With the evidence of pay gaps and inequalities being so ubiquitous, how can a company address International Women’s Day in a spirit of openness and honesty? An organization based in the U.S. approached this conundrum by facilitating a design thinking workshop pegged to IWD. The workshop considered how the company might move the dial on women’s equality in their workplace. Participants discovered a pattern around pay issues; most women were concerned about salary inequality and transparency. As a group, they were able to discuss gender and wages openly, without fear of judgment or professional reprisals. A year later, positive outcomes were evident: male employees felt more connected to their female colleagues; parental leave had been extended; there was anecdotal evidence that some women were getting a more transparent understanding of their pay.
What can we take away from this example? Talking is often a precursor to doing. Open dialogue about wage inequality might be the first step toward redressing it. Design thinking can be a challenging process that requires candor and self-reflection. Making open dialogue a workplace norm can help move the dial on gender equity. So on this International Women’s Day, we encourage you to model the candor exemplified by the design thinking progress — speak up and share your point of view.
Interested in reading more about design thinking and gender? Check out our blog post on Design and the Politics of Gender