HomeNewsAIGA Design Census 2016: Investigating Design’s Gender Pay Gap With thoughts from Debbie Millman, Je…

AIGA Design Census 2016: Investigating Design’s Gender Pay Gap With thoughts from Debbie Millman, Je…

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British Designer & In-House Design Lead based in Newport Beach, CA. President, AIGA Orange County.

Aug 8


[Note C]


The gender pay gap is neither conspiracy nor secret. The latest statistics from the US Census Bureau observe that in 2015, women in the U.S. earned 80% of what men earned. Although some reporting has explored the social factors that might contribute to the gap, the reality is that bias and discrimination play a significant role.

But how prevalent is this gap within the Design industry? To jump straight to the conclusion…it’s identical to U.S. national averages. Of those who participated in the 2016 AIGA x Google Design Census, on average, for every dollar earned by a man, a woman earns 81 cents.

The following is a breakdown of the U.S. data:


Figure 1. Women are the most represented gender in the design census data. [Note A]


Figure 2. Of those who participated in the 2016 design census, there are 31% more women in the first 10 years of their careers than there are men.


Figure 3. Of those who participated in the 2016 design census, there are 29% more women under the age of 35 than there are men.


Confirming the Gap

Figure 4. Despite being the majority gender in the 2016 census data, female designers experience unequal pay compared to male designers.


This boxplot breaks the complete U.S. dataset into quarters. It makes it possible to observe statements such as:

  • The top 50% of women earn a minimum of $55,000
  • Whereas the top 50% of men earn a minimum of $68,850


  • The top 25% of women earn a minimum of $78,188
  • Whereas the top 25% of men earn a minimum of $100,000

The black diamonds mark the average annual salary of all census participants who identified as female or male.

  • The average annual salary for a women is $66,331
  • Whereas the average annual salary for a man is $75,371

On average, for every $1 earned by a man, a woman earns 81¢

Replicating the Gap

It’s important to replicate the existence of a pay gap against other design census categories. Doing so confirms that the gap is real, and not simply a misinterpretation or bi-product of bad data. For example: If all participating men were more than 10 years into their careers, and all participating women were fewer than 10 years into their careers, the data would present a false pay gap.

Figure 5. In the categories of years worked and age, there is an almost identical trend of men earning a higher average annual salary than women. [Note B]


The uncanny closeness these trendlines have to each other is strong evidence of a gender pay gap problem in design.

What do we do with the pay gap?

Although data can show us that a pay gap exists, the fact that bias plays such a significant role in the issue of gender equity means it can’t easily tell us why the gap exists. Furthermore, data is also ill-equipped to tell us how we should respond.

Here, with their insights, are some leading female voices in design who have kindly contributed to this piece. They were asked to share their thoughts on how designers (of all genders) can begin to practically respond to this information:



[Note C]

“I applaud what the American Association of University Women (AAUW) recommends:

  1. While some CEOs have been vocal in their commitment to paying workers fairly, American women can’t wait for trickle-down change. AAUW urges companies to conduct salary audits to proactively monitor and address gender-based pay differences. I concur. This has to happen and soon.
  2. Women must learn strategies to better negotiate equal pay. AAUW has some great negotiation tips here.
  3. The Paycheck Fairness Act would improve the scope of the Equal Pay Act, which hasn’t been updated since 1963!!!! This is absurd! We must insist that Congress take action for equal pay.”



[Note C]

“The response to the gender pay gap has to happen from a few angles:

  1. First, there should be frank discussions about pricing and salaries so that all designers understand what a decent rate/wage is.
  2. Second, art buyers and those with hiring power should do their best to narrow the discrepancy in pricing for those that they hire. I understand that an art buyer’s job is to find an artist that is best suited for the job with the best rate for the client, but if women are being consistently less aggressive with pricing than men, they are in a unique position to help narrow the gap by either being more upfront about the budget (setting a negotiation starting point) or alerting those bidding to the range of bids being presented (even after the fact, for education purposes).
  3. Third, there needs to be a cultural shift, both in the industry as a whole and at individual companies, away from impossibly demanding schedules and the celebration of 80 hour work weeks. Every day of my life serves to reinforce the fact that generally women’s lives and work schedules are impacted far more severely when it comes to managing households and raising children than men — if the only way to get ahead (or stay ahead) is to work 12 hour days and every weekend, then female designers will have to choose between having a family and having a career — a choice that doesn’t need to happen if the attitude toward acceptable hours and schedules shifts.”



[Note C]

Pay inequity is ​like the canary in the coal mine because it quantifies ​and symbolizes the underlying bias and discrimination that ​continues to plague ​the modern workplace. ​Research shows that when there is gender balance on boards and in the executive teams, there is more balance throughout the entire organization. That said, until decision makers are enlightened to the many benefits of equal gender representation at the top or ​they ​are pressured to change, the pay gap will continue to exist.

There is a lot of work to be done. In a 2016 study, only 19.7% of board positions were held by women according to a 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index of Fortune 1000 companies. 

What can designers do? W​e think it would be interesting to create an educational campaign and a certification ​program ​that acknowledges ​ ​companies that commit to ​closing​ the pay gap.

For example, ​a group of design leaders supported by AIGA could collaborate to create ​an​ index that could be used to measure and report leadership, salary and benefits equality.​ ​Companies​ would be invited to choose to meet the standards, do their reporting and gain the certification. A peer-driven model led by respected design leaders could help the ​design ​industry become ​a ​role model for other sectors.​”


It’s clear from the comments above that closing the gender pay gap is not something we can simply wait for; there are actionable responses that can (and should) be made right away. The design industry has an opportunity to be a leading voice in what gender equity can look like in today’s working world, and to make that a reality it requires all of us to participate.

Huge thanks to Debbie Millman, Jessica Hische, and the team from Willoughby Design (Ann Willoughby, Megan Stephens, and Zack Shubkagel) for their invaluable contributions.

To learn about AIGA’s Women Lead Initiative, visit: http://www.aiga.org/women-lead-initiative

Read other parts of this series on the AIGA Design Census 2016:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


[Note A] The categories of Non-Binary / Third Gender, Prefer to Self Describe, and Prefer Not To Answer amount to only 1.5% of the total clean data. Due to how small this group is they will not be included in the sample set from this point moving forward. It will be important to see how these demographics grow in future years of the design census.

[Note B] As observed in Part 3 of this series, there is not enough data beyond 20-years worked to draw realistic conclusions from. This gives a total of 21-years of usable data when including 0-years worked. To help comparison, a matching 21-year time-period was chosen for the category of Age: 21–41.

[Note C] Background Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/United_States_one_dollar_bill,_obverse.jpg

Archie Bagnall is a British Designer and In-House Design Lead based in Southern California, and is the current President of AIGA Orange County.

You can visit his website here: http://archiebagnall.co.uk/
Or subscribe to his infrequent newsletter here:

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