When did being a girl stop being fun?

I remember. I am 6 or 7. I am fierce, I am invincible. I climb up trees and I run fast. I am a playground tree surgeon, a witch, a horse…

At home I am one of three girls, my sisters and I play dolls in our tree house. At school, I am the only girl in my year but that doesn’t matter, or rather it does because I get to chose which games we play. Being a girl is fun!

 The playground is something like this:  The Sign on Rosie’s Door  by Maurice Sendak

The playground is something like this: The Sign on Rosie’s Door by Maurice Sendak

I am 8 and three quarters, it is spring. It’s hot out and us girls are all wearing skirts. Mine is a mint green gingham frilly skirt. The boys are being annoying, they chase us around the playground to see what’s underneath our skirts. So I’ve got an idea: I tell all the girls to line up against the canteen wall, and we all pull our skirts up. The boys are embarrassed, they’ve got no one to chase, it’s not a good game anymore… That’ll teach them!

With this questionable (although efficient) protest, I feel for the first time part of the girls as a group defined by gender, as opposed to my usual group —“les filles” as my dad calls us — united by family ties: my sisters and I. I learn there is at the same time comfort and strength in a group.

Years later I feel the same sense of mischief and joyous defiance at the Women’s March. We’re all here for a serious matter but we’re also having fun! It feels good to be here, like something inside us was allowed to rest, and grow fiercer at the same time.

Is it a woman thing? That feeling of becoming stronger as a group? That desire to work together? I looked around for answers and it turns out, men are just as likely to cooperate as us women are. Maybe that’s why they love going to football matches so much, chanting, sharing the highs and lows of their favourite team with hundreds of other supporters... It feels good to be part of a group.

 

The march felt like a new kind of experience in my adult life though. After years of working in a predominantly male environment I was part of the girls once again. And that felt good!

Allow me to jump back again. I am 25, I’ve moved to London and found work in a big design studio. The team is a group of (mostly) white middle class english men: they love football, cycling, beer, taking pictures of minimalist architecture, grey sweatshirts and blue chinos, and their heroes are Jonny Ives and Josef Müller-Brockmann. There is a clear consensus on what defines good taste and good design.

Although I love my job and the people I work with, I find it difficult to fit in. I am too french, too arty, too wacky (their words not mine), too opinionated and my own heroes don’t align with theirs (not always).

So I try hard to fit in, and that teaches me a lot: I expand my english vocabulary. I learn banter, sarcasm and the english way of saying things, diplomatic and ever so slightly passive-aggressive. I drink beer. I read all the books they have read. I get to know the work of famous English designers and start admiring their heroes. I try to make mine what is second nature to them and that makes me a better designer.

But despite my hard-work and my best efforts to integrate, I still feel isolated. Over time, I start to wonder if what I had put down to inexperience and a culture shock, is in fact more linked to me being a girl.

 Louise Bourgeois,  Girl with Hair

Louise Bourgeois, Girl with Hair

Time passes and I become a senior designer in the team. I still love my job and the people I do it with but little things start to erode me… Despite my best efforts to understand cricket or find an interest in football, some conversations still die down when I join them. I have become more sensitive to my team-mates’ banter, as I feel it is often a way of pushing me aside. I am tired of being talked-over at meetings. I often feel singled out or treated differently from my team by colleagues or superiors.

The agency is now part of an multinational advertising group, the rules become more explicit: to succeed here, you have to be loud, bold and competitive. But when you’re loud, bold and competitive as a woman, you don’t sound competent, you just sound angry… to the male world around you. My outspokenness and opinions have made me a caricature: I am an angry woman. I feel I disappoint people. I don’t recognise myself in the image they reflect back at me. I leave after 5 years, disheartened and dried up like a prune. Being a girl is tough!

The thing is, none of my colleagues had intended to push me aside and I know they’d be surprised to hear how tough that environment felt.

 

The creative industry is a male dominated world. The rules are male, the way people talk to each other and what they talk about is male, the culture within and around it is male, the role models are male… what is portrayed as valuable or good design feels mostly male too.

 A well meaning group seen from the outside: terrifying! illustration:  Sempé

A well meaning group seen from the outside: terrifying! illustration: Sempé

I imagine that when you are a white male in the creative industry you feel as secure and powerful as I felt at the Women’s March. With the difference that for most white men, that feeling is not reserved to a point in time. Your privilege is invisible to you, as Michael Kimmel said in his 2015 Ted Talk. You are the norm and that blinds you to what is foreign to the group, making it impossible for others to join you.

That impossibility for others to join, is particularly problematic in the creative industries. Not only because it is unfair but also because we can’t possibly be doing a good job.

Designers design for people. We make the world easier to navigate for people. We make systems work for people. We make products and services for people. We communicate with people… In order to do so, we do our best to understand and experience the world of the people we design for.

Even if we were to imagine that every designer has hyper empathy capabilities, it is impossible to design for the whole society if we are not a diverse group representative of the people we’re designing for. How come there are only 40% women in design (with only 11% of CDs female) when we represent 51% of the total population of the UK. And where are the ethnic minorities? If we base our design on the experience of the creative industry’s norm, white males, we’re probably producing bad design.

With this article I don’t want to point fingers at my male colleagues, they are not my enemy. I just hope that sharing my experience of being a woman, trying and finding it hard to join their group, encourages them to take notice and welcome-in other people outside their norm. Design isn’t a boys club, it needs us all with our different views to help better our society and the places we live and work in.

As for me, as I think back to my fun, fierce and combative 8 year-old self, I pledge to never let her down. I’m not giving up being fun. I’m not giving up designing. I am now a creative director at MoreThanNow, a behavioural change agency that brings behavioural science, communications and design together to help our clients resolve issues around gender and diversity but also ethics, productivity, sustainability, innovation, and more. We bring together our different point of views, skills and experiences and we collaborate with people of all backgrounds to create better solutions to tackle those big issues. That’s also how we aim to grow, by embracing who differs, and what we don’t know yet.


this article was originally published on Medium

Enora Thépaut