Press for Sustainable Progress

#PressforProgress is the theme of this years International Women’s Day. When I hear this, I feel pressed. Literally. My inbox is filled with pressing issues needing my attention, I’m pressed for time rushing to finish deadlines; my kids come to me with pressing needs of various degrees of urgency; the rising costs of the Bay Area are pressing my family;packed into a BART train I’m literally pressed up against others. Like just about any professional woman I talk to, the struggle to create a work/life balance while juggling a creative career, is pressing.

As designers, work/life balance can become extra complicated when we can’t easily shut off the creative mind after “working hours”. I’m intrigued by typefaces seen in the grocery store, inspired by textures in nature, and can’t help but spend too long picking fonts for the parent volunteer list — like so many other creatives, my eyes always looking, mind always absorbing and hands creating. Like many, I was trained through the classic weekly critique method of art and design school, which becomes another pressing part of design culture; internalizing the design critique of our work, and those around us, is a common weight that many of us carry, women often more than men.

Women are not the only ones who are pressed. Our planet is pressed for resources, as we constantly demand more from our environment. We extract natural resources at a far greater rate than we can replenish them. Rather than nourish our environment, we’ve polluted the air, oceans, and lands beyond repair. Still, the earth gives us a place to live, food to eat and air to breath. These issues are not unrelated. The cries of our earth’s melting ice caps get brushed aside in the face of capitalism, much like voices of women have long been dismissed as being too emotional, unfounded, weak, abrasive and not valid. The same way that the we, as women, try to manage it all, constantly trying to do more with less, with demands coming at us in all directions, not to mention carrying the emotional labor of those in our workplaces and homelives, so is our planet, trying to function in a state where it is continually tapped, stripped of resources, and attempting to hold the labor of its inhabitants. Like our planet, our resources as women are pressed to the limits, yet we keep spinning, and keep providing, and keep taking care of the everyday.

Women are often described as the caretakers, which can be a double-edge sword. It can be the characteristic that stereotypes us into being the one who ends up playing hostess, restocking the paper, and making sure there’s a nice spread of bagels at the morning meeting (now with gluten free options). However, being a caretaker can also be one of our greatest assets. It gives us empathy, compassion, strength and understanding. It’s no surprise that when women lead, they lead with care, and companies with women at the top actually have been shown to succeed more.

Despite this, we all know the facts — women are paid less, passed up for opportunities, unfairly judged, and surrounded in “bro culture” … do I really have to list them here, again? If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve experienced this first-hand. The weight of women’s labor is pressing, but it’s byproducts include empathy, flexibility, strength and creativity —the very pillars of a good design process. If we were to act as Art Directors for the project of gender equity, we’d need to go back to the drawing board because what we have right now isn’t working, and isn’t sustainable — for us, or the planet. Switching to recycled paper and soy ink doesn’t change our consumption habits towards sustainability, it doesn’t even change the message. Pretending that recycling is helping the planet when only 9% of plastics worldwide are recycled, is like pretending that an App or box delivery service is going to solve gender inequity. Like any good design process, new approaches to both gender equity and environmental consumption need to be done in a way that uses systems thinking, ethnography, research, user testing, and inclusion.

As we, as women, as designers, as caretakers, press for progress, it’s time to stop putting on bandaids and get ready for some replacement surgery. We need to press for a redesign of our entire culture and the conversations we have around gender, bias, voice, actions and ecology. We need a shift in the way we work together, and the way we work with, and on, our shared planet. As designers we have this ability to design and create the communities that will lead this change. As we press for progress, let’s make sure it’s sustainable. Sustainable for ourselves, for each other and for the planet.

Rachel Beth Egenhoefer is the Chair of the Design Program at the University of San Francisco, and the Editor of the Routldege Handbook of Sustainable Design. She is the mom of 2 young girls and always looking for recipes compatible with her work/ life balance.