By Lauren Jessen

Photos by Janella Ignacio.

When you hear the word “table,” what gender comes to mind? In January, attendees explored this question and more at the half-day empathy workshop, In Their Shoes, organized by AIGA Seattle’s Women Lead Initiative. The Women Lead Initiative is focused on addressing the issues professional women in design face by creating opportunities for conversations around biases and inequities. Through these conversations, women can make their voices and opinions heard and work toward establishing a community of inclusiveness.

Empathy can take time to cultivate. Truly understanding the emotions of another requires practice, but empathy can be learned by taking the time to listen, ask questions, and push past our usual ways of thinking. If you treat empathy like a muscle and work it daily, the results are noticeable. In the design industry, empathy impacts the work we do on both large and small scales. Not only does the work we create need to be thoughtful for our diverse users, readers, and viewers, but creating a compassionate industry starts on the inside. By treating each other with respect, avoiding immediately jumping to conclusions, and resisting putting our own agendas first, we can get one step closer to imagining what life would be like in someone else’s shoes. We can better connect and help one another when we understand and share others’ feelings as though we were experiencing them for ourselves.

At the workshop, one of the main tools used to spark conversations was the AIGA’s Gender Equity Toolkit, an interactive game that helps players confront their own biases and role play scenarios that take them out of their comfort zones and into the arena of real change. Once we are able to trace our thoughts back to the source of why we think and feel the way we do, we can begin to influence our biases. For instance, during the event, we used the toolkit to draw words that we had to name as either masculine, feminine, neither, or both. In the “table” example above, my group had very different thoughts on the word. One person thought that “table” was more feminine because it conjured images of cooking meals and dining, and in his own personal experiences, his mother was the one who cooked the family meals. Another person thought that the word was more masculine, thinking of bosses, desks, and hard angles, because in her experiences in the corporate world, her bosses were men. In a matter of minutes, my group had shared our thoughts and grew more aware of our own predispositions.

The most thought-provoking exercise of the day, a role playing scenario, had straightforward rules: one person played a supervisor who had to say no five times and the other person played an employee who had to make an ask five times. A majority of people found that it was hard to both say no and ask for something continuously.

It’s typical to think that saying no or asking for something is easy. The exercise revealed how awkward and challenging it can be to not only reject someone’s needs but also convince someone that you need something. Whether it’s negotiating a title pay raise or work plan, or asking for time off to care for a sick child, it’s tough to fully understand what it feels like to make those requests until you actually have to. It is important to have empathy when someone is coming forward with an ask but to also remember that you don’t always have to say yes.

During the workshop, the panel of leaders from the design community also emphasized important points. A few takeaways: encourage people to say no (even to themselves), speak up for others, work to create noticeable change when you’re a woman or person of color (or both) in a leadership position, and as panelist Maria Estigoy emphasized, you can have quiet strength as a leader and still be just as effective.

If in two hours of group exercises we could become more in tune with our biases and perspectives and work on feeling empathetic toward others, how might we act if there were daily conversations around these topics? I would venture to say that, for starters, we would all feel a little less alone. Learn more about upcoming Women Lead Initiative events in March here, or try out the Gender Equity Toolkit with friends or coworkers.


Lauren Jessen is a UX/UI designer in Seattle. She is interested in creating simple and intuitive experiences to help users and businesses exceed their goals. She runs the food and film blog A Dash of Cinema and is the coauthor of Youth’s Highest Honor, a book geared toward youth empowerment.


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