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The goddess Kali emerges from the darkness a fearless warrior as well as the ultimate multi-tasker. She grasps the severed head of a demon in one of her many hands as she triumphantly clenches her bloodied sabre in another. Her left foot rests atop the belly of her slain lover, the Lord Shiva. Her black figure is surrounded by the golden glow of enlightenment: for she represents the highest reality, existing before life itself. Kali is the most powerful Hindu goddess, she is Mother Earth.

Fast-forward thousands of years to 1972. The unofficial title of the liberated woman is ‘Ms.’ and illustrator Miriam Wosk paints Kali as a modern housewife on the launch cover of Ms. magazine. In one of Kali’s many hands is a telephone receiver and in another is a frying pan. By her right foot is a fluffy kitten. Lord Shiva is not in the picture, but a fetus glows inside Kali’s belly, so we know he’s been around. The lead article, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” was penned by feminist writer Jane O’Reilly, who posed a prophetic question: “What if we finally learn that we are not defined by our children and husbands, but by ourselves?”1 Perhaps then, women could shape their own destinies.

WHERE ARE ALL THE MODERN KALIS?With all the daunting realities we face on this planet, we are pain-fully aware that we have many demons to slay. We need enlightened women to conjure their best qualities to face these challenges, women who are not enslaved by the shackles of a poor self-image.

Just because a woman identifies as a Ms., does this mean she is free? The media still prefer a cuddly kitten to a stalking lioness, cherry-picking the thinnest, fairest of maidens to trot out on the stage. This narrows the icon of “woman” down to that of a cinch-waisted plastic Barbie doll—statuary, eye candy. The stunningly beautiful, Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis played Thelma, the tragically passive housewife in the film Thelma and Louise, as well as the president of the United States in the television series Commander in Chief. Geena, a modern day Kali, is now exploiting her fame and good looks as a fearless advocate of change for girls. Her site, SeeJane.org, cites statistics that are at once disheartening, eye-opening and motivating: girls, who spend seven hours a day watching television, movies and computer screens,2 are seeing three times as many males as females in the family films they view. Females, when included, are often just part of the décor. This encourages girls to reach not for the stars but for their makeup kits. Might this have something to do with some other statistics? For instance, that there are four males for each female working in key roles in the making of family films? And since 93 percent of directors are men,3 chances are their films are based on their mind-sets. In order to create a greater awareness of “real” girls, don’t women need to get up front and center? Until then, aren’t women complicit in perpetuating the “woman as eye candy” syndrome?

Miss Representation is a multifaceted, social-action strategy centered on a dot-org of the same name. Run primarily by women, its focus is on eradicating the objectification of women (i.e., women as inanimate objects). MissRepresentation.org also looks into the larger political picture of America, citing the United States as an embarrassing 90th in the world for the percentage of women in national legislatures.4 The group’s documentary film, Miss Representation, was directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who is also the executive producer of The Invisible War, the documentary that brought the epidemic of sexual abuse in the military into public view. This film ignited a movement in Congress led by yet another modern day Kali, Kirsten Gillibrand, junior senator from New York, to change the chain of command for resolving claims of abuse, largely of women by men, in the armed forces.

WOMEN DON’T HOLD UP HALF THE SKYWhile logically the overall world population should be 50/50, it isn’t. Some countries, like India and China, have significantly larger male populations.5 Why is this? Girls in certain cultures are abused, abandoned, aborted, killed at birth. Girls are sold or abducted into sexual slavery. And the prettier the girl is, the more apt she is to be exploited. As Pulitzer Prize winner and journalist Nicholas D. Kristof, who has put a focus on this travesty, says, “It appears that more girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.”6 This painful reality brings the urgent role of women as intrepid change agents, as modern Kalis, into ever-sharper focus.

The oppression of women must be tackled in many ways, in many places, if we are to ever achieve parity between the sexes around the globe. This new balance could make the world a far, far better place because of the values and qualities that women bring to the table.

BUSINESS AS A MOVEMENTEileen Fisher is both a quintessentially feminine and highly principled brand. This women’s clothing company provides an excellent, scalable model of a cooperative, creative, for-profit company that strives to nurture transparency, social awareness and inclusive thinking. Eileen Fisher, the woman, the designer, makes clothing for real women: women of all shapes, ages, colors and sizes. She wants her customers to feel comfortable in their own skin so she makes her fashions extremely wearable in petite as well as plus sizes. The EF customer is generally in her 40s and up, well educated, professional, stylish, strong, independent and not driven by fashion trends. She is just the kind of individual who cares about the world and the impact she has on it. In other words, the Eileen Fisher customer is a lot like Eileen Fisher the woman.

Amy Hall, who has been with Eileen Fisher for twenty years, is now its Director of Social Consciousness. While 800 of the 1,000 EF employees are women, they were not hired for their gender. “But then a lot of men are not drawn to work in a women’s clothing company either,” Amy adds. And the Eileen Fisher model is unusual in the clothing business. Amy says, “Our environment is relaxed, collaborative, less hierarchical. It takes years to shed old ways of being even for the women who work here. Our senior leaders call themselves facilitators, not decision-makers. Everyone is encouraged to speak up about what is on their minds, including those working in our retail stores. We hold many off-sites to encourage this kind of cross-pollination. Since our goal is to build consensus, everyone arrives at the right decision together. Of course, Eileen made the space for this process to emerge.” Amy continues, “We don’t speak about our way as being ‘feminine’ or ‘female.’ That’s just not the way we think. In fact, some of the key consultants who have helped shape the culture, as well as some senior leaders, have been men.”

In most businesses, corporate social responsibility functions are not central to the company: the CSR work is off to the side. But at EF social responsibility is core to its mission. Amy’s small team is integrated into the company and connects to everyone. She sees her team as a catalyst for change from “within, not without.” As a manufacturer (with 2012 sales of $360 million) Eileen Fisher has concerns about workers, materials, practices and facilities and has a keen awareness of the impact and influence that the company has in all these facets.

The Social Consciousness team’s role includes oversight of EF’s internal groups, including marketing and advertising. Amy says, “We try to encourage them to see through our ‘socially conscious lens.’ We might feed them some good ideas, but we won’t lead them or tell them what to do. Instead we might gently provide information and inspiration. We ask lots of questions to encourage them to think. For instance, say we’ve found a cooperative in India that makes hand-loomed weavings. We may show that to our fabric department. Or we may know that a department is using a dye that comes from the alpaca and we’ll ask ‘What do we know about that?’ And encourage them to think through that decision. This may or may not go anywhere. But if action isn’t taken, maybe we’ll come back later and try again in a different way. We are not the police. We’re catalysts.” Amy’s team also oversees vendors’ practices in both the United States and overseas, in particular, China. She says, “Our team also manages the social and environ-mental compliance aspects of the factories we contract with. We observe how workers are treated. Are they happy and open? We follow our intuition. If we hear an accusation, we work to verify or refute it. We may hold up produc-tion. When we come back with what we’ve found out we work out a way to go forward. We have never left a factory because of a negative situation. We’ve always been able to help them improve their practices. We build relation-ships of mutual respect.”

Recently Eileen Fisher started a program for recycling its gently used clothes. “They are so well-made and timeless they shouldn’t just hang in a closet not worn,” Amy says. “Our customer gets five dollars for each piece she brings in. We repair, clean and resell each garment at a reduced price and all the proceeds go to fund programs for women and girls. Since we know not all women can afford our clothes, this program makes them more affordable.” Even though Eileen Fisher is a small company, it aspires to make a big impact, including through its Leadership Institute for girls, which hosts girls from different communities and backgrounds. Changing the world, one girl at a time. The goddess Kali smiles.

MAKING OUR INDUSTRY 50/50Women are not well represented in the creative professions. This means even though women are “the consumers of the world,” women are not represented in leadership, are not helping to shape advertising’s messages. So says Ignacio Oreamuno, the executive director of the Art Directors Club of New York, who thinks the oldest advertising club in the world (founded in 1920) should help remedy this by representing men and women equally in its ranks. He has started a daring initiative called Let’s Make the Industry 50/50, inviting all creative organizations to make their clubs or organizations around the world equal. If they commit to 50/50 for a speaker line-up for an event, a jury for an awards show or their board, they may add the 50/50 badge to their promotion for that event or term. So far several organizations have signed on, notably the Clios, The 3% Conference, The Advertising Club of New York and the 4A’s.

Ignacio says, “All my juries from now on will be 50/50. My board is not yet.” But he’s working on it. He explains, “When we involve more women in power, good things will come. This is not about civil rights. It’s my simple observation: women bring great value into this male-dominated industry—knowledge, experience, insight. Let’s face it, the leading agencies are run by guys, yet go one step down and there are accomplished female creative directors. We need to put them in the spotlight. Then maybe we’ll have more women leading agencies. Right now the message we are projecting to women is, ‘You will never make it to the top.’ That has to change.”

While it wasn’t till 1942 that ADC admitted its first woman member, the ADC staff is now over 50 percent female, including leadership. Ignacio says, “It’s one of the reasons we’re doing so good right now.” Jen Larkin Kuzler, director of awards, knows it’s not easy to uncover the leading female creatives to get them involved. She says, “They are somewhat hidden. And it’s even harder to get them to say yes when you find them.” But Jen is motivated, saying, “By including inspired, talented women in the dialog, we’ll change the conversation, therefore the industry and therefore, our future.”

Ignacio admits, “To me its obvious we need to do this but some people think it’s a stupid idea. Some say making juries 50/50 will affect the quality of the shows. But we’re a very conservative industry. We’ve been doing the same things since the era of the Mad Men. We need to at least try this because we need to evolve.” Ignacio adds that, to push the envelope, “We’re creating a [public] directory of the top women in the industry. This will make it much easier to find an amazing woman in the industry who may not be famous yet, but who totally deserves to be on the circuit.”

The only way to get over the challenge of public speaking is to speak in public. Part of being a judge, speaker or board member is being comfortable thinking on your feet, being able to converse with a group of your peers in an articulate, self-assured and compelling way. This takes practice and commitment. And it involves competing for airtime. Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green, an international social entrepreneur fellowship program, says, “Two years ago we realized too few women were being chosen as fellows so we did research that showed us that the language we were using promoted a competitive spirit, which may appeal more to men. And since men like competition they get more practice.” Echoing Green, which is run by two women, helps fellows create for-profit and nonprofit businesses to solve the world’s thorniest problems. Lara says their research led to a solution. “We provided additional support for women at the semi-finalist stage where we … realized they would often falter, and now we are almost 50/50.”

Ric Grefé, executive director of AIGA, is a big advocate of change for women, especially in design. He says, “In terms of empathy, women may have an advantage over men, sensing the human impact of design. Yet the absence of leadership training and opportunities for almost all designers may disadvantage women even more than men.” Ric adds that in this profession, which is over 60 percent female, “Women designers are often far quieter than men. As they succeed as designers, if they are on their own, they often want to downsize their practice, choose their clients and the kinds of projects they take on. This reduces the size of the podium from which they could influence the profession. Male designers, on the other hand, just keep growing their business, their influence. So the voice in the profession is largely loud and male.” 

DESIGN IN SOCIAL INNOVATION Designer Cheryl Heller is one of the few female communication designers speaking out about tackling social issues, which she believes is key to the future of every organization. She has achieved much in her career including the creation of the SAPPI Ideas That Matter grant program and rebranding the green home products company Seventh Generation, but she says, “I’ve found that fearlessness comes with age. I stopped striving a few years ago. Suddenly the pressure of needing to prove something was replaced by the drive to create good.”

Cheryl currently heads CommonWise, a design practice whose clients include corporations, nonprofits and foundations. She says, “Creation inevitably involves chaos and the destruction of existing norms. A willingness to ‘stick your finger in the fan’ is required to start a transformation, as well as a degree of honesty that leads through disruption to regeneration.” Innovation is messy, and when it is the goal, it’s important to remember that, as actor Annette Bening once said, “balance is overrated.” Cheryl observes, “The security to take risks does not come easily. The support that has allowed me to continue to evolve my work—walking away from one career in order to begin another, continuing to change and grow, following principles instead of reacting to pressures—has come from a 30-year relationship with my husband and partner Gary Scheft. He has been unwavering in his emotional support, and willing countless times to tell me, wherever I was in the world, ‘just come home, we’ll figure it out.’”

Just when she thought she had mastered the art of not striving, Cheryl was asked to create the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation (DSI) at the School of Visual Arts, a program made up of a majority of women whose ages span three decades and who arrive at SVA with different backgrounds, from all over the globe. Cheryl and her DSI students find common ground: they share a passion for reshaping a world way out of whack, and the drive to use design as a tool for leading change. And now, as chair of DSI, Cheryl strives for her students.

Women are shaped by cultural norms that lead them to presume they can create harmony. This optimism can be a strength, but it also means that women often sublimate their own needs and opinions for what they see as the greater good. Cheryl adds, “Women are good at relationships and seeing the world from perspectives other than their own. These are critical skills, and now we have to figure out how to maintain them while introducing the kind of disruption that leads to a healthier reality.” So how can women rock the boat to effect change when they might well tip the boat over? Herein lies the emotional conflict for women: how to access your inner Kali.

“SAY GOOD NIGHT, GRACIE”Twenty-three years ago Patrick Coyne asked me to create a column for this magazine that he would entitle “Design Issues” so that “it could be about anything.” I took it as an opportunity to invite my colleagues to jump on board and rock the boat with me. This has been both an honor and privilege but now as I must move on to new boats to rock, I want to thank you for bearing with me, for reading my words. ca

    1. nymag.com/news/features/46167
    2. Ulla G. Foehr, Victoria J. Rideout and Donald F. Roberts, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds” (2010)
    3. Marc Choueiti and Stacy L. Smith, “Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films; The Executive Report” (2010)
    4. As of this writing, the House is made up of 18 percent women, and the Senate is 20 percent. ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
    5. World Bank
    6. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Random House, 2009), xvii
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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