Navigating the default — patriarchal culture in design

by Emma Rogan

During the last year of my degree at Unitec, I was tasked with finding work experience. I had no connections to the design industry, or much of a portfolio. But by a stroke of luck, a customer from the restaurant I worked at part-time invited me to interview for work in their studio. I did so, though it never came to anything.

After the interview the creative director, who I had just met, asked me out on a date. I declined. A few weeks later while visiting a production company with a friend, I bumped into the same creative director. Again, he asked me out, this time in front of two of his male colleagues.

‘Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa’, Works on Paper, Britomart / photo: Emma Rogan

I was 21 years old and this was my first interaction with the design industry. It showed me a glimpse of male power in action. I noticed that the senior creative roles were held by men and these men were also the gatekeepers.

From the very outset as a designer I learned that my gender informed how the industry related to me. Sometimes the industry did not even need to see my work — my name was enough. I was told by a local recruitment consultant that more than one role “was specifically for a male art director”.

These early experiences made me doubt myself. I felt that I didn’t belong. Because I didn’t.

Female visibility — women and patriarchy.

Almost all senior roles in NZ design studios and advertising agencies have been held by Pākehā men. Some roles have only ever been held by men. Few women in NZ have been granted creative directorships in agencies. It’s true that more men have reached senior creative positions in design and advertising than women, and more men have been granted access to public platforms to celebrate their own work and tell their stories.

To address the challenges women face in the design industry is to examine patriarchal and capitalist systems at work, to understand how a patriarchal (male-dominant) culture demands both silence of men as much as it enforces the silencing of women.

“Patriarchy is a way of thinking deeply anchored in our behaviors and ways of seeing the world. It takes its justifications in myths and stereotypes, and widens its reach with structural and symbolic violence, which make inequalities appear as natural and even unavoidable.”

 Camille Bruneau, How Do Patriarchy and Capitalism Jointly Reinforce the Oppression of Women?

Not all men intentionally prevent gender equity in the workplace. Just as not all women are feminists. Some women are excellent students of structural misogyny and patriarchal culture. Some men are proud feminists.

Men (particularly Pākehā men) are the main beneficiaries of patriarchy — so they are both implicated in it and bound by its laws.

Many women find that male-dominated cultures at work eventually become unbearable and stifling. Most women are, at some point, limited by opportunity at the top, they hit the glass ceiling and the walls. The whole system of work is designed to disadvantage women and for many, no amount of Sandberg-style ‘leaning in’ can advance us. Colleen Ryan of TRA estimates that only 1 in every 10 creative directors in NZ* is a woman. According to the 2019 Creative Store Salary Guide, the step up from senior designer, or design director to creative director is a leap of about $100k annually. In real terms it is likely more. With as many as 9 of 10 creative directorships held by men, that represents a significant pay gap for experienced women. Bridget Taylor of Contagion also draws attention to our significant lack of ethnic and cultural diversity. Māori make up only 4% of the advertising industry.

“Currently around one in ten creative directors are female and although the ratio is higher across the whole creative team it certainly doesn’t align with the estimates that say 75 percent of purchase decisions are either made or significantly influenced by women. Most advertising, therefore, is created by men for women.”

— Colleen Ryan for Stoppress, March 2018

Women face complex challenges of staying in or returning to work if and when they have children. Women are less likely than men to have intimate partners willing to share equally in parenting duties so they can continue to thrive in their careers. Women are penalised financially by motherhood. Many women leave permanent work entirely, foregoing job security and the well-worn career progressions of their male peers. If they weren’t so exhausted by their myriad duties of care, if work opportunities were flexible, inclusive, and creatively rewarding — it is likely more would stay.

More men than women have been able to enjoy years of uninterrupted work, rising through the ranks to the highest echelons of power in our industry. With that power comes access to public life and honours that are rarely offered to women. The road to success for women in design and advertising (especially non-Pākehā women) is likely to have been more fraught from the start, more winding, and involved periods of high uncertainty. Where we have succeeded, sometimes we have been the only woman in a creative team. We have been granted opportunities by men and women who believe the right person for the job is not defined by gender, and we have endured because we’re hardworking and highly competent. We bring humour and grace to the workplace, we let many things go. And like our male counterparts we place achieving mastery of our practice as a priority. 

The further up the ladder we rise the more likely it is that some of our most trusted peers are men. Men who encourage us professionally. But among the men we encounter at work are also those who use their maleness to objectify and oppress women. Sometimes by leaving women out of the room. Often by being deaf to female voices.

“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

— bell hooks, The Will to Change

Despite my unlikely start, I persist. At 25 I had a mountain of student debt and gave birth to my first child  — I had no option but to persevere. Like my female peers I took the opportunities that came my way and threw myself into the work wholeheartedly. I have experienced setbacks and limitations of being female and multi-ethnic in this industry and yet I’ve also worked with wonderful people on creative projects that have taken my work all over the world. I’ve relied on the support of my employers and colleagues to stay in work, and have learned how to be a better designer and a better person by their example. So I am acutely aware that a critical discussion of our creative industries is, as Anzac Tasker suggests ‘rugged terrain’ to navigate. Am I allowed to talk about the problematic things I have seen and experienced? I feel the eyes of the patriarchy looking over my shoulder as I write. I’d like to be critical — but also loving and hopeful. I want to offer a solution too. I have come to understand that patriarchal culture demands silence not just of women, but also of men. 

Male as normal — the danger of the default.

In a patriarchal system, (white) maleness is the default. Everyone else is other.

Women are othered before we can remember. The everyday life of girls requires an almost constant vigilance over our physical safety in ways that boys are blissfully unaware. When male is the default, his needs and behaviours are prioritised over everyone else. We are supposed to be protected by him, but in reality women often need protecting from him.

For women, this means that everything about us is subject to critique. The shape of our bodies, the spaces we occupy, the clothes we wear, food and alcohol we consume, all of these things are used routinely against women to protect men. If he hurts us, patriarchal attitudes tell us that it’s probably our own fault.

“Male to female aggression and its effects do not exist in isolation from other people. Male justification will tend to use existing group conflicts and outgroup prejudice. The main topics of conflict centre around nontraditional sex role behaviour and ability. Nontraditional women are thus likely to receive exaggerated and over-generalised denigration for sexual and other immorality together with allegations of inadequacy in the work sphere.” 

— Heather Hemming, Women in a Man’s World: Sexual Harassment, 1985

Some men silence women through violence. Some men kill women.

Many men who are otherwise non-violent enact small aggressions against women in the course of their daily lives. There are men who still assume if there is a woman in a meeting she will be the one to make or organise the coffee, and will wait for her to do so. A man who denies a female colleague’s work request because he finds it easier to decline her than if she were another man. Men who constantly remark on a female colleague’s appearance. Men who bring up the subject of sex or use sexual language when critiquing graphic design.

These are examples of patriarchal micro-aggressions.

There are also bigger, more fundamental oversights. Oversights of design.

Male designers make cars to fit male bodies. The safety of cars is tested by crash-test dummies that are built to a standardised 50th percentile male form. Vehicle design is then refined to protect men in a collision.

As a result, there are much higher rates of female mortality in car crashes.

“…when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seat-belt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die.” 

— Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women, 2019

Maleness as the default for design, not just male behaviour, has deadly consequences for women.

Male silence — men and patriarchy.

In patriarchal culture male experience is also curtailed. Men are constrained by definitions of masculinity that limit the range of feelings and behaviours they can express without being punished by other men. It is a silencing of a boy’s own tender feeling life, and the adoption of limited, approved, forms of male emotion (anger) and manly action (violence).

Within the patriarchy sensitivity is weakness. Emotional distress is unmanly.

My oldest daughter plays competitive cricket. Three years ago she joined a team of other girls to play indoor cricket through winter. That year, all their opponents were boys. What I observed each week was a powerful lesson in patriarchal masculinity.

When a girl made a mistake in the cage, she was buoyed by her female teammates and encouraged with clapping, calls of comfort and a general sense of togetherness. “It’s okay, brush it off, you got this!”

By contrast, boys of the same age enacted intense verbal abuse on anyone who made a mistake, or didn’t play as well as he should. Boys would turn bright red and cry tears of frustration when submitted to the comments of others, which often made it worse for them “What the fuck was that?!” they’d scream at each other. “Don’t be such a fucking cry baby!” Sometimes one particular father would get involved too, standing and shaking the cage, yelling at his son. Winning for those boys was everything, even if they lost out emotionally and had a hell of a time doing it.

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

— bell hooks, The Will to Change

The path to manliness can be brutal. And the herd is vigilant in its recruitment of boys to men. Women participate in this too. By the time boys are grown, many have internalised patriarchal beliefs without even realising it.

Too often men are silent when they witness injustices against others, even women that they respect and admire. Patriarchy demands the compliance and silence of men and for a long time this has been true in our industry. This silent complicity has prevented change and the result is an industry that for too long has lacked the capacity to critique itself. Only recently have independent publications like Design Assembly’s Graphic Matters, The National Grid periodical, and Designers Speak (Up) picked up the mantle and started a thoughtful, critical discourse about NZ design.

When powerful gatekeepers are silent in the face of inequality and bias, the rest are left to try to affect change at an individual level.

Our own professional body has further silenced women who have tried over and over again to bring issues of gender representation to the fore. How? By ignoring us, admonishing us on social media, by conducting private conversations with individuals but refusing to comment in the public sphere, and, year after year, by stoically refusing to change.

This lack of critical discourse has hurt women and others. It has contributed to workspaces in which male and female colleagues cannot speak openly with each other about issues of representation. It may even have stifled the breadth and range of creativity in design by promoting a limited world view.

Men — because they genuinely might not see it, their privilege rendering them blind, or because they don’t want to lose what they already have, or because they don’t think it is their place. Women — because they have not had the power. Women need to work and we are sometimes compelled to remain silent on matters that affect us.

“Men are not expected to engage in the empathic extension of identifying with a different gender, just as white people are not asked, the way people of colour are, to identify with other races. Being dominant means seeing yourself and not seeing others; privilege often limits or obstructs imagination.”

— Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

Incredibly, silence — both female and male — ended with the Designers Speak (Up) 40-3 posters. A Facebook post gained momentum and there was a collective outpouring of grief, frustration and regret. Many women spoke up, and before long men joined in too. The chorus of comments represented one of the most honest conversations New Zealand designers have ever had publicly. A rowdy email trail followed suit. More men were adamant in their support of Designers Speak (Up) and its criticism of structural bias at the NZ Best Awards.

A way to thrive. Feminism and Patriarchy.

In the 1980s and 90s mainstream media (media owned by powerful patriarchal men) distorted and reduced feminist definitions into several simple, reductive sound-bites that stuck. After ground-breaking feminist second and third waves, the patriarchy hit back hard. Feminism meant ‘man-hating’ or being ‘anti-men’. Feminists were accused of wanting to promote the roles of women over men — rather than share equality with them.

By the late 2000s young female designers would sometimes admit to me that despite not wanting to be labelled as feminists, they had serious reservations about the status quo for women. Feminism seemed the most fitting term for the ideas they were entertaining. But patriarchal media had done a thorough job of demonising the concept.

“Feminism is a range of social movements, political movements, and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.”

— Wikipedia

Fear that feminism threatens the livelihoods and place of men endures despite being unfounded. Much has been done to demonstrate how gender equity leads economies to outperform both economically and socially.

Feminism offers a world-view that men benefit from.

In dismantling patriarchal systems and viewing masculinity through a feminist lens, men are not burdened with the rules about manhood that are oppressive and destructive. Men do not have to withdraw their affection from their children in order to ‘toughen them up’. Men are allowed to have a rich emotional life. Male feminists know this already. Considering professional burnout, poor mental health and the rates of male suicide in New Zealand — more men could benefit from examining their own patriarchal biases and exploring feminist thinking.

“Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation.”

— bell hooks, The Will to Change

Representation matters. The ‘Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa’ posters.

Women have no choice but to raise our own voices if we are to survive and thrive.

This poster series, made entirely by women in NZ design represents a radical step for a conservative industry and yet it feels timely, natural even.

To stand on the street (or scroll online) and be surrounded by the voices of my female peers is a heady rush. As you’d expect, women have enthusiastically answered the call, and confidently expressed themselves. From many vantage points we have explored a range of topics. The works are personal, emotional, rational, frustrated and funny. They’re full of thoughtful passion and integrity. We know the things we speak of. But some of our experiences may genuinely surprise men. After seeing my poster online, one of my old creative directors asked me, “Is that how it happens?”

Women have never had the luxury of separating the personal from the political. The same is true of anyone who is considered as other. By virtue of the outsider status forced upon us in our professional lives we see the web of silence that patriarchal culture spins.

 We resist and we persist. We invite you to do the same.


Emma Rogan / Palagi (French, English), Samoan, Chinese descent / graphic designer, Emma Rogan Design / restauranteur, Hello Beasty / founder, 100 Days Project


** Colleen Ryan’s estimate relates to the NZ advertising industry. Figures specifically for the NZ design industry separate from advertising are difficult to find and/or are unknown. Here is what AIGA knows. Catherine Griffiths’ use of the 42-3 Black Pin data (updated in 2018) in her poster work, combined with records of female representation on industry judging and public speaking panels, confirms how unbalanced things are at the top levels of NZ design. 

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