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Wrapped in the blanket of the sky, the goddess Gaia emerged from the chaos of the universe, spreading her legs to give birth to many creatures. She became the land on which these beings dwelt and she was called Mother Earth. And so Gaia is in the heart of woman: women are pollinators, creators, jugglers, organizers, protectors of the planet and all its creatures, large and small. Our Earth is now in peril, spinning out of control. How can we support women to help right our course?

I AM WOMANI moved to New York City to study at Parsons School of Design in the late 1960s when the modern feminist, like the suffragette before her, was viewed as humorless, angry and “unable to get a man.” While feminists strived to see women treated equally to men, I wondered if this was what most women truly wanted. Wouldn’t this be a bleak life, dedicated to “the struggle?” Growing up, I had often observed the insecure way women related to their own gender, knife in one hand, casserole in the other. You didn’t want to look “too smart” or have too many opinions or too much confidence. These qualities were not at all attractive. You are flat chested? Buy some falsies! Stay on your diet. No desserts for you! Your hair is kinky? Iron it! If you make plans with a woman, expect a cancellation if an opportunity comes up for a date with an eligible guy. The priority was to attach to a man, for the sake of your unborn children.

Men had all the power. Men marginalized women. While I was at Parsons, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was forming across the United States. Women’s lib was born—and I got pulled in a bit. I joined a few protests, designed some terrific picket signs. We “catcalled” hard hats at a work site on Madison Avenue to “show them how it feels.” When they spewed lecherous spitballs back at us, we twirled and marched up to East 59th Street and stormed the Playboy Club “to liberate the bunnies.” But we “got no satisfaction” there either. When club management locked the doors behind those of us in the front line (to keep the other women out) we found ourselves, picket signs in hand, surrounded by a bevy of big-bosomed bunnies in skimpy powder-blue costumes and dark-suited “ad men” sipping martinis. All of them looked thoroughly perplexed, as if to say, “What the Hell are you doing here?” I thought, “What the Hell am I doing here?” Change was not going to happen this way. I had not thought this thing through.

As a young designer, I put up with my share of sexual harassment and inequality as I made a place for myself in the profession. I found these social issues hard to unpack and even harder to objectify. There was the personal and then there was business: I didn’t have time to work, have a social life and rethink the position of women in the twentieth century, did I? My big feminist statement was masking my sexual identity by changing my professional name from Deborah Katherine to DK. My activism and energy was directed toward design, through which I was convinced progressive social change could be nurtured.

But 20 years later, when designer Ellen Shapiro called to ask me to be on an AIGA panel discussion about how to get ahead in design, I realized I had done my gender a disservice. Ellen sighed, “Do you know a woman I could invite to be on the panel?” It was a sad, sad moment for me as I asked her, “Besides me?” In the pre-digital age, any professional accomplishments of mine were, like my name, gender-neutral. The night of the AIGA event, a highly revered male designer of a certain age sat to my left. He and I looked out at a rather large audience chock full of women. He whispered in an ominous tone, “Design certainly has changed.” I replied, “Fees are flat.” He added, “And half of the designers are women.” I took this to mean “women will be the downfall of the profession”—we were better off at home baking bread, bearing babies. A gust of cold wind swept across the stage. 

WINNING UNPOPULAR WARSMany brave women of all stripes have made sacrifices to right injustices in our country, using their intelligence and insight to convene a coalition of like-minded activists. Women have often spoken truth to power in this way. City planner Jane Jacobs, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton (AKA Norma Rae), social activist and devout Catholic Dorothy Day, birth control activist Margaret Sanger, political activist Jane Fonda, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, feminist leaders Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and women’s advocate Eve Ensler are just some of the courageous well-known American women who have relentlessly swum against the tide. Even while each suffered harsh criticism, they all remained determined to manifest positive social change in the United States, in the world. All these women, in one way or another, vowed to speak truth to power, “to stick my neck out.” And so they did.

• Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson stood against the corporate destruction of the environment. She wrote the book Silent Spring more than half a century ago, garnering the attention of President Kennedy. Both were passionate about marine biology and so a bond was formed. Her work ultimately lead the United States government to ban pesticides like DDT, which were toxic to the Earth. Although Rachel was ostracized and demeaned (her critics said her thinking was backward), her wisdom prevailed and launched the environmental movement of today.

• Educator Diane Ravitch is best known for a Bush Administration program she’d prefer not to be associated with: No Child Left Behind. Originally one of the program’s chief endorsers, she has since become its chief critic, stating that standardized testing undermines teaching—that it will destroy American public education. She claims charter schools undercut public schools, making many kids into second-class citizens. Diane adds, “High-stakes testing, ‘utopian’ goals, ‘draconian’ penalties, school closings, privatization and charter schools don’t work.” She concludes, “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers.” Her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education is considered a seminal text on public education in the United States. Now retired but hardly idle, Diane continues to speak out frequently and forcefully in support of the public schools in America, cheered on by public school advocates. She has, however, been criticized as prejudiced toward the public school system.1

• Business executive Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says we need more women leaders in business. In her recent book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl reports that only 14 percent of top corporate jobs are currently held by women—a statistic that’s remained flat for 10 years, even as far more women achieve higher educational degrees than men. Even in the nonprofit world, which employs many more women than men, only 20 percent of leaders are female.2 Is this because women seek balance more than men? Sheryl instituted family-friendly practices at Facebook, just as she had when in leadership at Google. She puts family first: she goes home at 5:30pm to have dinner with her family. Sheryl believes that women need to be “at the table” in business but, because they under-estimate their abilities and because they want to be liked, they hold themselves back. They don’t negotiate. Their body language betrays them. Women are uncomfortable with achievement, so they rationalize that, if they “got ahead,” it would be because they simply “got lucky.” Sheryl has created a community of like-minded business professionals of both genders. She urges women to be themselves, but be savvy. And she offers tools: free tutorials on negotiation and team dynamics are offered on LeanIn.org. Sheryl has received criticism for suggesting that the average woman can ease her struggle for equality and leadership in the workplace the way she did, since most women don’t have access to the resources, support or privileges that she and her cohorts enjoy.

WITCH BITCH?A strong woman is apt to be perceived as either a prostitute or a saint: either all bad or all good. The mysterious Mary Magdalene, the disciple of Jesus, is often seen as both. But she was also seen as strong and loyal, staying with Jesus through the trials at the end of his life when almost all had fled in horror, and being the first to witness his resurrection. Mary Magdalene embraced what was good and fair above all else, essential qualities we need now from enlightened women leaders. Strong women are often demonized, but to distort, demonize or falsely compare individuals only fuels diffidence. And diffidence is the chain that holds women down.
IT’S ABOUT MAKING A CHOICEEven though sex is no longer an issue in voting (with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920), women are still not treated as equal to men across our land. The Equal Rights Amendment (meant to eliminate inequalities based on sex in both state and federal laws) is a battle that has been lost innumerable times. Since it was first introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA has been defeated over and over, primarily by highly conservative voters. The most recent rejection—in the early 1980s—was led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, herself an attorney, who argued that the ERA would reduce benefits for dependent wives if passed into law. Phyllis, mother of six and a widow, believes women should be subordinate: ladies should stand behind their husbands, in the bosom of their families, baking bread.

WHO’S EMILY?Today there are a record number of women serving, not just in the kitchen, but also in Cabinets, Congress and state legislatures, and more are running all the time. Issues of particular concern to women are getting more recognition as a result, including military sexual assault, the gender wage gap and reproductive justice.

Emily’s List (Early Money Is Like Yeast…it makes the dough rise) invests in the campaigns of forward-thinking Democratic women candidates to “build a lasting progressive majority dedicated to social justice, civil rights, diversity, economic reform, and compassion—and construct a society that values the contributions of all of its citizens.” Since its start in 1985, Emily’s List, which is a political action committee with 2 million members, has helped elect 101 Democratic women to the House of Representatives, 19 senators, 10 governors and over 500 women to state and local offices. These changes in the leadership of government help ensure a better future for our planet and all its inhabitants, but we still have a long way to go to achieve balance: men still occupy 80 to 95-plus percentage of the decision-making positions in religion, politics, business, military, culture, media and entertainment.3 This includes the communication arts, in which women are very often stuck in positions of low influence and authority. How can design and advertising be effective when the “voices” are not balanced? Let’s go for balance—50/50, shall we?

WHO’S HEIDI?When observing a man giving an authoritative speech, put a wig on him. Do you perceive him differently as a “her;” do you sense a shift in trust? Studies have shown a positive correlation between likability and achievement in men, but a negative correlation for women. New York University’s Stern School of Business conducted a test in 2003 called the Heidi/Howard Study. A case study profiled a real woman named Heidi Roizen who was accomplished in business. Students were asked questions about her after reading the study, about her likability, whether they trusted her, how they assessed her personality. Another group of students were given the exact same paper except Heidi’s name was changed to Howard. The results showed that Howard was someone you could trust and work for, but Heidi was not. Howard was a nice guy. Heidi was not a nice woman.

When the study was repeated in 2013 at NYU, Catherine (Heidi) was seen as more likable than Martin (Howard) and actually more students wanted to work with Catherine than Martin. This showed real progress—but students still described Catherine as less trustworthy than Martin, that she was “out for herself.”4 There were suspicions: Was she using her “hot” looks to get ahead? What were her motives? Martin had to have a career. She did not.

Yet many more American women are breadwinners now.5 More “liberated” today than 90 years ago when suffragette Alice Paul wrote the original ERA, many women are living single and loving it and/or have come out as lesbians and/or have the emotional support of their spouses, extended families, friends and communities. Others are spouseless, having had the courage to divorce or never marry, no longer fearing the stigma of being considered an “old maid.” This shows a huge shift in attitude since the nineteenth century, when the main preoccupation of a woman was the necessity of finding someone to take care of her. There is hope for Heidi and Catherine. The ERA was reintroduced in the Senate in March 2013 (there have been over 30 attempts to pass the ERA so far) this time by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. What’s different this time is the record number of progressive-thinking women serving in both houses of Congress and a more savvy female electorate. Is the tide turning—finally, in favor of equality for women?

WHO ARE THE TED WOMEN?Some women who regularly attend the TED Conference, in particular Pat Mitchell of the Paley Center and June Cohen, TED’s executive producer of media, decided a few years ago it was high time to host a TEDWomen. June says, “We launched TEDWomen in 2010, with the intention of holding a one-time event. We were fascinated by the evolving story of women worldwide—from the developing world, where women’s education is a defining factor in economic growth, to the West, where you can clearly see the impact from generations of educated women.”

But some women feared a female-focused TED conference. Following are snippets from the responses of women invited to attend TEDWomen 2010: “Important. Dated. Bold. A good start. Bad for my career. Inspiring. Necessary. Unnecessary. Soooo 1970s. Asking the wrong question. Irrelevant. Relevant. Risky. Too little too late. A great way to start a fight. Soooo 1960s. Just like a woman. Essential. Inspiring. Key to economic growth. Dangerous. Interesting. Ughhhh. Just like a man. Better than nothing. Embarrassing. Soooo 1920s. The last thing I want to do on a perfectly good Tuesday. Modern. Sexist. Controversial. Illuminating.”

I was just as conflicted as they were. But, as I sat in an audience of 800 people, primarily women, at that first TEDWomen in 2010, I was struck by the generosity of the conference’s spirit, its inclusiveness. The two days were filled with impressive speakers (more than 60, almost all of whom were women) courageous in their whole-heartedness, including well-known authorities like business leader Sheryl Sandberg, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, journalists Arianna Huffington and Naomi Klein and fashion designer Donna Karan. In addition, a Zen priest, a roboticist, a healer, a cyborg anthropologist, a corrections pioneer and an explorer took the stage. Forty-one TEDXs (self-organizing TEDs, of which there are thousands) simulcasted from all over the world, expanding the reach of the conference dramatically.

June says, “Our global community saw TEDWomen as more than a one-time event. The Paley Center and Pat Mitchell organized TEDXWomen independently in 2011 and 2012, and it emerged as an important annual event for many of our TEDX communities. In 2010, we had more than 50 satellite TEDXWomen events; in 2012, there were more than 150! Bear in mind that women do not enjoy equal rights in many of the communities where these TEDX events are held. So TEDXWomen means something quite different in San Francisco than it does in Saudi Arabia.”

Huge efforts have recently been made to increase the number of women speakers on all the TED stages and in the audiences, which, since the program’s inception in 1984, had only inched forward. Currently women make up 35–40 percent of the speakers and the audience. This is remarkable. June says, “Very few conferences achieve these numbers.”

TEDWomen 2010 was a historic event because it presented women en masse as true Gaia figures, unabashed to bare their souls: TED women are all women. TED’s tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading”—and as these women spread their ideas, the seeds of change are taking root.

HAVE WE COME A LONG WAY, BABY?As I remember back to the design conferences I attended as a young designer, I am struck that this assembly of women would not have been possible. If there was a woman speaker (and this was rare), she would read from a prepared, humorless text. She would not engage from the stage. Decades later, even though over 70 percent of students in communication design programs are women and 61 percent of working designers are women, we have precious few women leaders in our profession, modeling how design can make a difference, sticking their necks out to effect change.

Gaia was all alone when she birthed the creatures of the Earth. She didn’t ask permission to do this. It was her choice, her sole choice. We see what is happening to our planet, and all the creatures of the world. If a woman has a choice in how to live her life (and many still don’t), isn’t it up to her to make it? ca

1.  dianeravitch.com
2.  Sheryl Sandberg, in the December 2010 TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders.”
3.  From the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation.
4.  ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2013/03/12/how-are-powerful-women-perceived/
5.  Pew Research Center reports that now the main earner in 40 percent of households with children is a woman.

DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

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