This article is in response to “What Women are Worth: Busting Negative Stereotypes for More Money and Power” by Cheryl Heller, which originally ran in AIGA’s The Journal in 1992 (vol. 9, no. 4). It’s part of a series in which we invite a new generation of design critics to page through our archives and respond to an article of their choice. Check back in a week for the next installment in this conversation between past and present.
“I’m not a feminist,” began Cheryl Heller as she looked back on her 1991 AIGA Design Conference presentation on gender and pay inequality. I was in the Chicago audience, watching as Heller’s talk infuriated many of my fellow female attendees. She took a very firm position and said women made less money primarily because they asked for less. While her speech cited a number of socio-psychological reasons this took place, many women felt betrayed by one of the most successful members of their tribe. She blamed the victim.
In the decades since that presentation, Heller’s life has been filled with accomplishment. She’s led creative groups at one of the world’s most prominent advertising agencies and largest brand identity firms. She created the Sappi Ideas that Matter grant program and the curricula for the School of Visual Arts MFA for Social Innovation. And in 2014 she was presented with the AIGA Medal.
Sitting across from Heller on the fifth floor of SVA in New York City—home to the Design for Social Innovation graduate program she chairs—I asked her if she’d give the same speech today. Still youthful, she is lithe and glides with a noble serenity. She paused, and answered, “Confined to the same context, I might say many of the same things, but that was a long time ago and life is humbling.”
“At the time I wrote that piece,” she continued, “I hadn’t had certain experiences and perspectives. I’ve seen that sometimes things can look good on the surface—you can have a position and a title, and you can make more money than men but that doesn’t mean that things are equal—or that gender bias doesn’t exist. Life has a way of adding gray areas to everything we think when we’re young. In the years since, I’ve seen poverty, hardship, and real deprivation—I think it’d be difficult for me to speak with that kind of conviction today. I don’t pretend to have a grasp of absolutes anymore.
“I do remember some people in Chicago wanting me to be more sympathetic. I think what was left out of the discussion at the time was that I was specifically asked to talk about why women make less money than men, not address all of the issues surrounding gender bias in America at that time. As far as money is concerned, we women are often complicit when we make less than our male counterparts. We do ask for less. We also tend to be more understanding when somebody says, ‘Gee, it’s been a tough year, I can’t give you a raise.’ A man might say, ‘Find a way to fix that.’ On the other hand, those empathic qualities are what make women wonderful.”
With her program bustling with those empathic qualities that create social design innovation, I wondered if Heller’s graduate program discusses the issue of money—a topic that seems in many ways antithetical to “doing good.” Heller responded instantly. “Absolutely. David Baker [whose firm ReCourses consults with many agency and design firms on business practices] is on our advisory board. I invited him to talk to the students. Men and women alike, we have people here who are interested in social good. We asked the students, ‘If you had to rank doing good and making money’—well, every single student put making money last.” David and I both said, ‘Wrong. Absolutely wrong.’
“Young people who are interested in social innovation think business is bad. We have a serious class in entrepreneurship. They have to be part of the default economy. It matters less to me how much you want to make, but you have to make something and you have to value what you do to be able to create what you want.”
Recent studies show that female entrepreneurs, even women who are their own bosses, pay themselves less—a contemporary statistic that supports Heller’s 1991 thesis. We ask for less, even from ourselves. Statistics compiled by Babson College on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative revealed that female business owners entering the course paid themselves, on average, 20 percent less than men. After completion of the program, the gap closed. Whether it closed as a result of a peer-to-peer exchange of information or enhanced self-esteem is unknown.
In Heller’s mind, self-esteem is not driven by gender. She sees it as more socio-economic. As she framed it, “I’m still not so sure that those distinctions run along the gender line as much as they run long generational or economic status or whether your parents were educated and whether they encouraged you. I think there are so many factors there. I do think there’s a tendency to make things all about gender that don’t need to be.
“I think we need to take the opportunities we have rather than imagining barriers that aren’t there, or at least looking at the ones that we’re responsible for creating. I think it’s a really amazing time to be female.”