Updated: Apr 17
As a Design researcher, practitioner and educator I have chosen to follow my passions and explore the valuable contributions that Design can offer to the fields of Conservation, Sustainability and Social Innovation. What seemed like very separate fields some years ago, are becoming today more and more intertwined. Under the umbrella of a methodological framework popularly called Human-Centred Design, design thinking is being woven into every practice that aims to create positive change in our world.
Well, given our current environmental and social reality, we could agree that we find ourselves in a state of global emergency. The magnitude of change that we require is radical, deep and it needs to target the core of our societal systems. So let’s analyse how the masculine-feminine polarity affects the way we commit to a shift towards sustainability.
The earth is feminine
The feminine revolution is real, it is radical, it is deep, it’s global. Coming from Argentina I have experienced how in the last 3 years the ladies are in fact, rising. But can we say that we are achieving more balance, equity in the dichotomy Feminine - Masculine?
The concept of feminine as a set of qualities non dependent on gender has been widely studied in Oriental disciplines and has also been drawn upon by some western disciplines, such as Jungian psychology (Stevens, 2006). Yet, some people might be unfamiliar with this polarity: Yin refers to the feminine energies in life, and yang refers to the masculine energies in life. If we are talking about universal energies, feminine would be considered the “Greater Yin.” (Deganit Nuur). Although commonly associated with gender, the word feminine is used to represent a series of qualities that could be present on both women and men. We all present a greater dominance of one or the other, and usually, men have a dominance of the masculine, while women present a dominant of the feminine, but not always. Feminine energy is about being, waiting, caring; while masculine energy is about doing, efficiency and results. Feminine traits are emotional, collaborative, nurturing, vulnerable, caring, humble, intuitive, creative, understanding, etc. Masculine qualities are dominant, strong, independent, assertive, brave, disciplined, rational, etc.
In people, achieving a healthy ying-yang balance leads to fulfilment, harmony and equilibrium. In our society, we are far from having achieved any balance of such kind. Looking at these traits, we can easily understand that the current dominant economic and social models are powered by masculine traits and that this lack of balance has led us to the environmental emergency that we find ourselves in. When looking at the feminine, the Yin, it becomes evident why the natural realm is traditionally presented as female, why mother earth is a mother and not a father, and the qualities that we need to foster in order to restore some balance.
In synthesis: we need femininity to rise in every sector of our society.
But what is feminism?
Similarly, we could say that the feminist revolution has taken a masculine and a feminine approach. The masculine approach is younger in time, strong women have taken on masculine traits, they have mastered them, and are exhaustingly gaining terrain in a men's world. These women have joined the boys club, played by their rules and they have won. These are the cases we traditionally celebrate in feminist media: Women astronauts, Nobel prizes in Science, Business gurus, Athletes.
On the other side, there is a long-term feminist revolution that has been slow, understated, and has always ruled, without much buzz, traditional feminine realms. These women have achieved balance between feminine traits like compassion, and masculine traits like leadership. There are many cases: from evident heroes like Molly Melching from Tostan, a multinational organisation challenging the relation between gender and social norms in West Africa, to lower profile, women’s circles distributed globally working for the same cause: empowering the feminine (Global Sisterhood). Nowadays, with the democratisation of the internet, many social-innovation cases led by women are more visible: female heroes solving humanities’ more pressing problems, little by little, on a local, smaller scale. This second group has endured over time, overcoming patriarchy by “quietly working behind the scenes to cure and care for society” (Kristen Joiner). These efforts often take forms that range from informal women associations to NGOs, and are rarely for profit. They play by feminine rules.
Both groups deserve the utmost respect and admiration. What is interesting though is to recognise that the first group, while making the case for women as a gender, is still promoting models dominated by masculine traits. On the other hand, the second case of women using feminine traits for problem solving struggle to gain economical viability or proper recognition, because of their lack of masculine strengths. While diversity of roles in men and women is certainly beneficial, we are still, as a society unhealthily unbalanced.
Playing a boy's game while being a woman
In my personal experience, playing the boys game under the boy’s rules, has been not only exhausting, because I’ve had to work twice as hard, but it has also led to a disconnection from my true self and by this to utter unhappiness. One day while breastfeeding my first child (a time when I was working full time and studying for my PhD) I caught myself thinking of breastfeeding as a very inefficient activity. It consumed lots of my energy and did not allow multitasking, it was a repetitive, time consuming activity that I had to fit in my busy schedule.
This example illustrated perfectly the conflict between masculine and feminine traits. Being a mom and having a predominance of masculine traits is very difficult. I was sad, I was broken, I was at the border of emotional collapse. I used to be more feminine, but I was taught that those traits were not taking me anywhere in a man's world, so I just let them fade. My unhappiness did though, after many battles, push me to reclaim the feminine in me. I am now still breastfeeding my 18 month old second child. I am not doing this because that’s what good mothers do, but I do it for me. By allowing myself to unlearn, to feel, to be in the present moment, and enjoy, and connect, and feel whole. I still work full time, but I have regained some balance, and I feel happier.
The innovation behind DesignThinking is feminine
Engineering is masculine: it is efficient, it is disciplined, it has boundaries and there is little room for intuition. And while some design disciplines are inclined towards masculine traits, like product design or information architecture, Design is feminine, and it's becoming more and more feminine as we speak. Methodologically speaking, it is not only Design that is becoming feminine, examples like the Jane Jacobs one are plenty: it took a strong woman from NY to shrink urban design to a human scale (Jacobs, 1961).
Human-Centred Design is positioning itself as a leading framework for solving systemic, wicked problems, and its main differences with its predecessors, its that its collaborative, empathetic and iterative. It is, in fact, a more Human approach. When Ideo popularised their DesignThinking methodology, there was a big feminine win, because Empathy became the most appropriate mindset, Ambiguity, Error Friendliness and Intuition also made it to their Design Kit. Well, it turns out that the feminine traits of the methodology are its sources of strength, and are certainly its most disruptive innovations.
Of course, let’s not forget that the authors of these books were predominantly men. Men proposed a more feminine approach to problem solving, and it became widely accepted as a respectful methodology making its way to educational institutions like Stanford and MIT, and into companies like Apple and Google.
Although frustrating, since women have tried to introduce humane methodologies into the game for decades, this is a big win not only for the male gender, but also for women. Somehow men’s rules are changing, and they are being changed by men. It is evident that the best people to bring the feminine into the boys club, are the boys themselves by allowing theirselves to be whole.
Time has come to design like a girl
Having said all this, we can agree that the better way is the balanced way. Although very feminine, Design Thinking does have the masculine traits needed to effectively deploy a project. It's stages of prototyping and implementing are efficient paths for ensuring viability and feasibility.
Back to my own practice, as an academic, I find myself creating an agile design methodology more suitable for Conservation, Sustainability and Social Innovation. Instead of challenging the dichotomy human-centeredness vs. earth-centeredness, it invites us to be yet more human, to reconnect to ourselves, our communities and to our land, and turn this feminine-masculine polarity into a balanced whole.
After many years of resigning my femininity in my academic practice, I know that the time has come to reclaim my wholeness, especially in the development of purpose-oriented methodologies. It is scary though, to introduce tools and methods that are predominantly feminine, but I am lucky that others have successfully opened this path. It seems now, that the rules of design have become feminine while not losing credibility but in fact becoming stronger and taking the lead in a male-centric system.
Now, more than ever, it is the time to listen to what design women have to say: it turns out that women have superpowers when it comes to the feminine realm.
Stevens, Anthony in "The archetypes" (Chapter 3.) Ed. Papadopoulos, Renos. The Handbook of Jungian Psychology (2006)