A New Era for Women in Design

In a changing workforce, female designers push for increased opportunities

As the workforce has changed over the past couple years, so, too, have roles and expectations of women in design—largely for the better. From hurdles and breakthroughs to mentoring the next generation, a panel of female leaders at the Social Hub at HD Expo both celebrated and challenged the industry to keep becoming more inclusive. 

“You don’t have to be a man. Be who you are,” said Gina Deary, owner of Simeone Deary. “You’re going to be great—but have courage.”

All the women on the panel emphasized the unique sensibility that women bring to the workplace, and encouraged female designers to bring their entire selves to the workplace, especially now when the concept of the workplace has shifted and become more flexible.

“If you can’t show up as your best self, you can’t be your best self to everyone else,” said Cindy Kaufman, director of hospitality at ShawContract Hospitality. 



To bring your best self, all the panelists agreed that you can’t ignore your personal life and its various demands (such as motherhood, caregiving, etc). That is, of course, a larger social shift, but Marriott International’s Dionne Jefferson encouraged women designers to ask and negotiate upfront for what they need (be it a flexible schedule or more work from home days, for example) without apology.  

On a daily basis, Anita Summers, principal of The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, said her daily list is a combination of work and personal tasks, which might seem counterintuitive but actually allows her to perform her job at a higher level.

“I’ve got my daily list and that might be going to the pediatrician or it might be work-related; it’s always a blur,” she said. “I can’t focus on work unless I know I’ve got my home life organized.” 

The reality is, Deary said, “if you love what you do and you’re always growing and designing, there is no work-life balance.” Rather, a trip to a museum might serve as inspiration for a design project, or a new idea might pop up during a long drive.

Understanding that not only on a personal level, but also as a leader and colleague, is what the panelists believed will help lead that societal shift. For example, during the hiring process, Melissa Haft, head of environments design at Overmoon, stressed that employers should see a gap on a resume that’s due to child rearing or taking care of an elderly parent as a strength and a contribution to society—not a weakness. 



As a leader, the days of “control and command as leaders is done,” Summers said. The team members of today react better to a more personal, sometimes vulnerable, way of guidance and mentorship. Deary spent the past six months participating in an emotional intelligence for executives program, which she called the best class she’s ever taken.

“It’s an unselfish way of thinking,” she said. “What I’m seeing is that women bring that quality to the office and it is changing the way our studios, even the way our clients, work. They’re very open to that vulnerability.”

That’s extended to the concept of mentorship, as well, which has undergone a rebrand. In today’s connected world, mentorship can come from anywhere and everywhere—as it should.

“A mentor could be an interaction that happens every six months who will tell you the honest truth and will give you advice. That’s mentorship,” Jefferson said. “It’s networking to the next level, having a board of people you can reach out to.”


For more on inspiring women in design, check out KBAA’s roundup of women artists, get to know KBAA president Allison Barry, and see how the KBAA interspersed female empowerment at the C. Baldwin Hotel in Houston.

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