INside Track: Sisters-In-Arms

Sharon (her real name has been changed) is one of the best designers and design team managers I’ve had the privilege to work with. Last year she was called into an impromptu meeting with her one-up manager, the director of her department. She was concerned that it was bad news because she and her team had recently made a branding pitch that didn’t go as well as she would have hoped – but she was completely unprepared for what then occurred. The director proceeded to accuse her of improper sexual advances. Sharon struggled to figure out what she might have done that could have been construed as inappropriate behavior. To her shock, she was told that the offense was that she had touched the director’s arm several times during the presentation and that had made him extremely uncomfortable.

Just to put this incident into context, the director had a history of bullying his reports and, clearly, in this case, his weapon of choice was sexual intimidation. To make matters worse, Sharon’s boss was present at the meeting and the HR advisor was informed in advance – and they were both women who did not question the director’s actions.

This same company, at an even higher level, had accused a creative team staffer of having an affair with her manager based on undependable, and later found to be inaccurate, information. The Security team, again at this company, had made inferences about another female designer’s sexual orientation when investigating an accusation that the designer was, soon after, cleared of.

Worsening this type of misogynistic corporate culture, which is by no means limited to the company mentioned above, is the fact that designers, as a whole, tend to be regarded as a service group by their clients, a fact that places female designers in a particularly vulnerable position. Upper management in most corporations are decidedly type-A male dominated and, as illustrated by Sharon’s experience, may leave women designers without defenders when encountering client abuse.

Fortunately, though, (at least in my experience) male designers tend to be more evolved in their views of women. I’m not saying guy designers are saints, but I’ve noticed that they generally eschew the typical male mindset that objectifies women. This probably insulates women working in design studios from sexual harassment and intimidation more than their peers working in corporations, making this more of an in-house issue. It also places in-house male creatives in a position to support their “sisters-in-arms” when they encounter unfair and abusive behaviors. The “brothers-in-arms” should call out the sexist behaviors of their male co-workers on a one-on-one basis, and, if that doesn’t curtail the offenders’ behaviors, they should escalate the problem to HR – promptly and assertively.

The irony that this post appears on the heels of this week’s decidedly sexist “The Negative Space” is not lost on me. I’m pretty sure, though, that when Mac’s and Chris’ twenty-something testosterone count returns to their normal levels, that they will do the right thing by their female co-workers – as hopefully all of us designer-guys will.

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