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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : There Are No Female ‘Celebrity’ Designers Because They Have Babies Instead » There Are No Female ‘Celebrity’ Designers Because They Have Babies Instead

There Are No Female ‘Celebrity’ Designers Because They Have Babies Instead

Rusty - December 14, 2006

The other day a friend of mine who designs book covers attended a panel discussion about…um…book design. Two of the three panelists as well as the moderator are considered ‘superstar’ designers, celebrities of the community. Before you snicker at the idea of a celebrity graphic designer, consider the fact that almost every community has celebrities (think bloggernacle). Usually these are people who not only excel at their craft but are propped up (either by themselves or by others) as experts. That means book authorship, speaking engagements and among other things, panel discussions.

As part of the discussion there were audience-submitted questions, one of which asked, “Why do you…suppose there are so few…female ‘superstar’ graphic designers? Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?” After some stammering by the others, my mentor and thesis advisor Milton Glaser said the following:

“The reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home. Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change. [Regarding day care and nannies] none of them are good solutions.”

Awkward silence ensued after which the panel moved to another topic. The un-PC nature of what he said is a little jarring, especially considering the audience (professional New York designers generally lean left). Twenty years ago this answer wouldn’t have garnered a flinch, let alone even be asked. Now, after saying this, many people are writing Milton off as a product of his time and no longer relevant to the conversation (of the state of graphic design).

Ironically, he’s right.

Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of incredibly talented female designers out there (many of which are more talented than all three panelists) but talent isn’t what he was talking about. He was talking about ‘celebrity’. It’s a simple matter of resources and he’s right that the age which the ‘celebrities’ are staying at work all hours of the night, accepting invitations to speak, and writing books is the same age that women have babies.

I suspect there are some (feminists?) who don’t deny what Milton Glaser said, but are upset that that’s the reality, that it’s not fair women have to make a sacrifice that men don’t. Fair enough. Solutions? Well, I agree with Milton that nannies and day care isn’t ideal, a society in which children are raised by someone other than their parents CAN’T be ideal, but they are sometimes the only acceptable alternative. My mother-in-law is fond of saying that women CAN have it all, just not all at once. I like that.

26 Comments »

  1. Your mother-in-law is quoting Oprah. :)

    When my kids were little we lived in poverty to avoid daycare. Both my husband and I had periods where one of us worked and the other stayed home. It’s given us a huge appreciation for both sides of the coin. I want more than anything to be home right now with my teenagers, they’re almost grown up. We’re hoping by spring break it’ll be possible.

    Comment by Susan M — December 14, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

  2. It’s the exact same situation in academic science. Post-doctoral research, which gets you the high-profile academic job, and pre-tenure research happen at prime procreatin’ time. Sure, there is some subtle sexism and institutional bias toward men, but not nearly enough to explain the gender disparity. I’d say 90% of the disparity is caused by the fact that it’s hard to excel in academic science if you aren’t gung-ho about it and if you want/require flexibility and time off.

    My university just published findings by a committee for the status of women and so far (I’m not done reading it) it seems that most of the concrete recommendations for creating equal representation among senior faculty and administration are about changing the culture of the institution so that it’s more hospitable to women who want to have kids. I personally welcome any change that makes academia more hospitable to people with balanced priorities. Of course, they’re also going to unjustly punish white men to create parity, but that’s America for you.

    I actually don’t care that there are way more male academic scientists than female as long as academic institutions treat every person fairly.

    Comment by Tom — December 14, 2006 @ 3:25 pm

  3. 1. The reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children.

    2. [Regarding day care and nannies] none of them are good solutions.

    I appreciate your story and find Mr. Glazers words a breath of fresh air. The problem is that I also find them contradictory. Women do get pregnant and have children but when speaking of designers, in my experience they don’t go home and take care of their children. Milton’s words about Nannies are wise but again when speaking of female designers, I don’t believe that they believe as Milton does. The truth is that the nanny profession is very lucrative and I know personally more than a dozen female designers who have children, could stay home financially and choose not to. Instead they pay a nanny a living wage to raise their children. What does all this mean to me? It means that there is a lot more to celebrity than putting in the necessary hours during those “prime” years. In short, I believe that there still exists a Bauhaus mentality when it comes to women and design. In other words, we still look at women as fine artists and decorators instead of the more rational, industrial and real world design professions. This has to be a factor in the lack of female design celebrity. After all, is Karim Rashid famous because he put in the necessary hours or is it because he’s good at marketing himself? As a woman, marketing yourself is looked at far differently.

    Comment by cj douglass — December 14, 2006 @ 6:45 pm

  4. CJ makes a good point Rusty.

    Why can’t a women let the kids go-hang and pursue her dreams just like many men do?

    I think there’s more going on here. I think it just might be possible that women don’t approach the idea of career fulfillment the same way men do. They don’t want the same things and they don’t campaign for fame like men do, regardless of the the kid situation.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 14, 2006 @ 11:05 pm

  5. I think when women campaign for fame like men do, it’s not accepted. I think women are often less facile, and are judged more harshly on top of that, in regards to their team playing and self-promoting.

    Comment by Johnna — December 15, 2006 @ 1:53 am

  6. Y’know, I shouldn’t have read this before turning in, because I’m seething. It just reminds me of my Grandfather telling me how when he worked for AT&T in the 1950s and 1960s, they didn’t promote women or hire them to certain positions, because chance was the women would marry or have children and quit.

    Comment by Johnna — December 15, 2006 @ 2:04 am

  7. CJ,
    Well, I know a half-dozen female designers (in my ward alone) that have had kids and decided to stay home and design on the side (not conducive to becoming a celebrity). We can both use anecdotes to further our arguments, but I still agree with you that it’s not as black and white as Milton’s quote would have you believe (and I’m pretty sure that if you pressed him for clarification he’d talk about the nature of women vs. the nature of men and all that). But I completely disagree with your assessment of the way we look at women (as fine artists/interior decorators). If I’m a creative director looking to hire someone, their gender is the least of my concerns (adding to the bottom line, portfolio, references, and work ethic are much, much higher). Yes, women market themselves differently, I agree with that.

    Seth,
    You’re right and I have the feeling a lot fewer women are interested in celebrity at all anyway. They just want to do great work, have the respect of the client and get paid well for it.

    Johnna,
    You may be right that women are judged differently (I don’t know about more harshly). I’ve worked for both lunatic women and sane women, both lunatic men and sane men and I have to say that whoever I work for that is sane I don’t notice the gender, I never even think about it. But when I work for a lunatic woman I constantly think she’s too emotional to be in her position but the lunatic men I just think he’s too much of an idiot to be in his position. In other words, in my mind women are too emotional and men are too big of idiots.

    Regarding your other point, pretend that you are a manager at AT&T in 1962. One of your regional reps just retired and you have to find a replacement. All else being equal you have a guy who is likely to continue working there for years and you have a woman who has a very good chance of quitting within the next few years (remember, this is the 60′s when many more women were staying at home). Remember, you’re in charge of budgets and it’s expensive to train someone for the job. Who do you choose? (is this question totally un-PC?)

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 7:54 am

  8. Your non-age is showing, Rusty. If this question had been asked and answered as it was 20 years ago, there would have been an uproar. Perhaps even a louder uproar than today. Maybe 40 years ago? But even then Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer and Bella Abzug and maybe even Ben Bella (ok, not him) would have had an enormous cow.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 15, 2006 @ 8:04 am

  9. Why Mark? It’s a question of economics for the employer. If I have either my own money on the line (like entrepreneurs) or my job on the line (like management) then how is it not a matter of economics?

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 8:52 am

  10. The problem with Rusty’s line of thinking is that it places the entire cost of childrearing on women. That may be perfectly acceptable cost allocation in a purely capitalistic society (along with the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming).

    Comment by ECS — December 15, 2006 @ 9:23 am

  11. ECS,
    So is the hiring manager at fault?

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 9:33 am

  12. Not necessarily, but this is another example of how one individual’s economic gain as he acts in his own self interest winds up being a net loss for society. Much like the oft-told story of the Tragedy of the Commons - wherein each individual farmer has a strong economic incentive for his sheep graze the hell out of the common land. What’s good for the individual isn’t necessarily good for society.

    Comment by ECS — December 15, 2006 @ 10:23 am

  13. Rusty,
    Me saying that I know a dozen women designers(of various backgrounds) that leave the kids at home is far more telling about our society as a whole than you saying that you know a dozen mormon women designers who stay at home. Mormon women are just doing what they always have done which doesn’t give us much insight into what is going on around us. Also when I said we look at women designers in a certain way, ofcource I meant the design/business/consumer world as a whole. I would expect that you personally would look at portfolio/work ethic/etc. but I’m talking about, again, our culture as a whole. And you also made a point to make this a matter of celebrity, not merely who is hired and for what reasons. Most design schools and design programs in this country are predomenantly female and really have been for the last 20 years. Yet, who are the design celebrities? Mostly men. The fashion industry is a perfect example. Also, I wasn’t saying that women market themselves differently(which they do) but I was pointing out how we(the public) look at them differently. Martha Stewart is a witch while Donald Trump is looked at as a savvy shark.

    Comment by cj douglass — December 15, 2006 @ 10:23 am

  14. ECS,
    Okay, fair enough. The problem is that there’s no such thing as “all things being equal” because it’s just never the case, especially in employment. I guess I just have issues with the mentality that anyone has a “right” to work somewhere or for someone. This is perhaps a result of being brought up in a home in which my entrepreneur father was the one always taking on the risk, zero of which is shouldered by the employee. Of course this is straying a bit away from the initial topic.

    CJ,
    I mentioned the ward to point out the fact that I don’t even have to go out of that tiny community to find them. But if you want I could list a dozen that I went to school with (at SVA) or a dozen that are in my network (not LDS). But instead of playing tit-for-tat we should be able to agree that anecdotes don’t represent the facts so we should probably avoid them in this instance.

    Also when I said we look at women designers in a certain way, of course I meant the design/business/consumer world as a whole. I would expect that you personally would look at portfolio/work ethic/etc. but I’m talking about, again, our culture as a whole.

    Design ‘celebrity’ doesn’t matter outside of the design world. Ask your wife (unless she’s a graphic designer) if she’s heard of Michael Beirut, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, David Carson or Stephen Doyle, my guess is the answer is no. So the way a regular consumer looks at female designers doesn’t matter. I cannot agree with your above statement unless you mean that all other cultural norms/issues are informing the way we designers build up our ‘celebrities’.

    Most design schools and design programs in this country are predomenantly female and really have been for the last 20 years. Yet, who are the design celebrities? Mostly men.

    This is a true statement, but I’m interested to know what you think the reason for this is. Is it our (the public) fault because we perceive women differently or is it their doing (men and women market themselves differently)?

    And FWIW, I don’t think Martha is a witch, I think she’s much more intelligent than Donald Trump who I think is a jackass. Of course, Martha is a designer.

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 11:42 am

  15. I cannot agree with your above statement unless you mean that all other cultural norms/issues are informing the way we designers build up our ‘celebrities’.

    Yes that is what I mean.

    Is it our (the public) fault because we perceive women differently or is it their doing (men and women market themselves differently)?

    I really think that we as a public in general are threatened by independent/confidant women in the public eye. I have no evidence of this besides my own observations of the media(both liberal and conservative) and my own experieces. Just my opinion.

    I would explain the Martha/Trump thing in more detail but alas – anecdotes.

    Comment by cj douglass — December 15, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

  16. Not sure where “all things being equal” comes into the mix here. Of course, things aren’t equal. Hence your post! :)

    Comment by ECS — December 15, 2006 @ 1:08 pm

  17. Awkward silence ensued after which the panel moved to another topic. The un-PC nature of what he said is a little jarring, especially considering the audience (professional New York designers generally lean left). Twenty years ago this answer wouldn’t have garnered a flinch, let alone even be asked.

    Rusty,

    My comment #8 was responding to your suggestion that the answer given wouldn’t have caused a flinch 20 years ago. I think you were off at least 20 years.

    I don’t know what your comment #9 has to do with mine.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 15, 2006 @ 1:08 pm

  18. I really think that we as a public in general are threatened by independent/confidant women in the public eye.

    CJ,
    I’ve heard this sentiment many times before and maybe because I’m young and I live in New York but this sounds really, really strange. My mind can’t wrap itself around the idea of being threatened by an independent/confident woman (or women). Speaking generally it very well could be the case but to me it just sounds so dang “psychologist-trying-to-sound-intelligent” phony.

    Mark,
    Oh. I see what you were saying now.

    ECS,
    Have you been discriminated against (in the workplace) because of your gender? Would you say men have had an unfair advantage in your direct experience (based solely on their gender, nothing else)? I’m asking because I’m sincerely curious if you’re speaking from first-hand experience or otherwise.

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 1:52 pm

  19. psychologist? I’ve been called worse.

    Comment by cj douglass — December 15, 2006 @ 5:51 pm

  20. Rusty, interesting question. But since you have already scolded other commenters for generalizing from personal anecdotes, I’m not seeing how my experiences are particularly relevant in a discussion of inequities in the designing workplace. (plus, I’m a lawyer not a designer)

    cj douglas – I’ve met Rusty. He’s not intimidated by confident, independent women. :)

    Comment by ECS — December 15, 2006 @ 8:14 pm

  21. ECS,
    Oh, you mean you noticed how I acted around Kristine?

    :)

    Comment by Rusty — December 15, 2006 @ 8:49 pm

  22. I see gender discrimination in my workplaces all the time. It’s absolutely pervasive, in fact. It is gradually getting better over time. I’ve worked in technical and technological fields now for about 25 years, and feel a bit less like a circus freak now. =) Still, these sort of statements continue to floor me.

    I think anecdotes illustrate this well. I’ve been an engineer for 20 years, and two guys at the shop not long ago were goggling because I …. get this…. *used a tape measure* (gasp). I really had hoped we were past that. =) I wonder what they would think if they’d seen me rebuilding my Land Cruiser’s brakes a few years back, or turning spacers for my skate bearings on the lathe? None of these things are the slightest bit unfeminine. It’s just the weird conventions of our society make a lot fewer opportunities for girls to be exposed to many of these things. As children, girls generally love building toys like lego, k’nex, no-ends, etc. as much as boys do. Why more of them don’t grow up to build things for a living, I don’t know, but the change happens around puberty, when they’re receiving strong messages about conformity and what is and isn’t attractive in a girl.

    I don’t buy the childrearing argument as the reason for such gender-disparity in celebs of any field. It seems clear to me that it comes far more from our perceptions of what a superstar designer or chef or engineer *should* be like. When our perceptions change, we’ll find that the conventions will too.

    Comment by Tatiana — December 15, 2006 @ 10:59 pm

  23. cj douglas – I’ve met Rusty. He’s not intimidated by confident, independent women.

    ECS,
    I LOL when I read this but I’m still not sure if you meant it to be funny. I think it underlines the frustration i’ve felt in this discussion. Rusty suggests I don’t use anecdotes and then recommends what he would do in a situation which is somehow supposed to be representative of how the general public feels. I would expect Rusty to enbody all the good aspects of society. While anecdotes and such are not the same as a statistical analysis(and can sometimes lead us astray), I’m not sure Rusty has offered a sufficient alternative. After all, isn’t this statement by Milton Glazer giving the same kind of analysis I have?

    The reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children.

    Comment by cj douglass — December 16, 2006 @ 9:48 am

  24. I’d prefer a model where both parents worked as part-time professionals, telecommuted, etc in order to provide adequate care for the children while still contributing to society in a balanced fashion.

    But then again, as a solo-practice lawyer and entrepeneur, maybe it’s easier for me to see these kind of possibilities.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 16, 2006 @ 1:44 pm

  25. consider the fact that almost every community has celebrities (think bloggernacle)

    Just curious, who do you think the bloggernacle celebrities are?

    Comment by Kurt — December 16, 2006 @ 8:31 pm

  26. The NY Times ran an interesting article today about just this issue:

    Despite her hard-won reputation as an astute businesswoman, Ms. Bartz found herself repeatedly skipped over during a recent meeting of business and political leaders in Washington. The reason was that the men at the table assumed that she was an office assistant, not a fellow executive. “Happens all of the time,” Ms. Bartz says dryly, recalling the incident. “Sometimes I stand up. Sometimes I just ignore it.”

    Comment by ECS — December 17, 2006 @ 6:03 am

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