I write a VERY HONEST monthly founder diary on my Patreon page (go here not to miss an issue). This month, I wrote about our process redesigning our logged-out homepage.

Recently, Chairman Mom has been working on a re-tooled homepage. We wanted to have a fresh look and everyone on the team liked the idea of illustrations. Paul and I come from a newspaper background so we’re always suckers for illustrations, and we wanted something that looked different. Too often stock photography is the easy, affordable cop-out.

We settled on a theme of superheroes and tried out two different styles: A strong, racially diverse series of muscle-y, comic-book-style badass powerful women and a more popular, cutesy flat-style animation with a girl power look.

Neither were sexualized, and both series of illustrations were well-executed. And, yet, there was a massive divide among the women on our team about which one we liked. And no one liked both.

This is a team of women from similar backgrounds, with similar political points of view, who have all opted into working for a startup with a stated goal of overthrowing the patriarchy and bringing greater equality to women in the workplace. We all are on the same page when it comes to the damaging baggage of women’s depiction in media for centuries. We all want to be part of a company that is rebranding working motherhood as something badass and fierce and aspirational, and the power of women coming together as formidable.

And yet, the four of us were in violent disagreement as to what that looks like in illustrated from. Probably the largest disagreement we’ve had as a team on anything. And there was no majority: It was 50% on one side, 50% on the other side.

Interestingly, nothing else in the design provoked this emotional reaction. Not the layout, not the next, nothing. Just the illustrations.

Clearly this was personal and subjective for each of us, so we decided to test both sets of images with hundreds of likely new users. When in doubt: Data, right? Everyone agreed that we’d go with the one that tested the best, even though we all had incredibly strong feelings about these. Personally, I assumed my POV was the outlier, and was ready to cave.

The results stunned us further: It was split right down the middle. I had a hypothesis that life stage had something to do with this. I liked the more aggressive, powerful superheroes, in part, because the flat design looked like something designed for my kids. I hypothesized that as a mom, I didn’t want to be depicted as “girly” for the same reason the “girlboss” label doesn’t appeal to me. But both would have appealed to me though in my late 20s or early 30s, pre-kids.

Nope. I was wrong. There was no correlation across age or stage of life. The women we surveyed, like our team, were dead split down the middle. The comments were more illustrative as to why.

In most cases, the women who liked the fiercer super heros scored them higher on words like “powerful” and “strong,” and the comments included appreciating that they weren’t sexualized and represented different races, and how fierce and badass they were. That was how angry women going into battle everyday in an unfair world like me wanted to feel.

Those who picked the flat design style largely didn’t disagree, but many women liked that they were less threatening, cuter, nicer, sweeter. A few picked that one because they had kids. They saw the same thing that I did in those images, that was just aspirational to them, in a way it wasn’t to me.

In some cases, it was a window into the perception of what it means to be a strong woman in our mind’s eye. Some women commented that they were put off by how muscular the women were in the more comic book style. But that was our intention as a community that strongly wants to welcome and support all gender representations and body types, and is sick of female superheroes who are little more than thinly rendered male fantasies.  

The words we’ve used to describe this site have been surprisingly universal. But when we tried to put that in illustrated form, we found the images were highly divisive.

At Shea’s suggestion, we tried a third test: Photos of real users. Guess what? It blew both sets of illustrations out of the water. It was seen as stronger, as more powerful, as more relatable than either. The women were struck by how strong, but also how vulnerable and supportive the women in the pictures were. One of the comments sealed it for us: “Real women are the real superheroes.”

There is a lot of comfort in that for me. Let’s look to each other for inspiration, not a fantasy.

Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:

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