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Closing The Design Industry's Gender Gap

by Bill McCool on 09/13/2018 | 7 Minute Read


According to The American Institute of Graphic Arts, between 4-11% of  US senior leadership roles in design are held by women, despite the fact that half the of the industry is female. The picture is no better in the UK: according to the UK equality network Kerning the Gap, 70% of graphic design students are women, but only 11% of creative directors are women.

There’s a gender gap in the design industry, and that’s a real problem. Beyond the obvious moral case for equality, there’s a clear correlation between gender diversity and engagement, productivity, profitability and retention. Diverse teams also make better decisions and are more innovative and creative than homogenous groups.

None of this will come as a surprise but what can be done to close the gap in the design sector?

Here’s some advice from eight women who’ve made it to the top in management, creative, strategy and client services roles about what you can do to emulate their success – and how employers can help to level the playing field.


What Employers Can Do

There are some equality-boosting measures across all sectors, particularly in areas such as flexible working and pay parity. Leigh Chandler, Creative Director and Partner at Vault49, believes that flexible working is particularly important in the design industry, which still has a reputation for insisting on long hours. "Constantly working long hours just isn’t feasible for working mothers," Leigh says. "We should be encouraging women to find a solution that suits them, even offering an environment in which their children are welcome to come into the office when required.”

Maggie Parkhouse, Group Director of Design at Spicefire, thinks women need access to more information, advice and support networks to help strike that elusive work/life balance. “I think you would see so many more women carrying on into leadership roles if this was in place,” Maggie admits. “I think coaching could also help women to learn to manage these two competing forces. Longer maternity leave would help too.”

Flexibility is essential for Panna Rose, Managing Director and Founder of Our Design Agency, who feels the sector should find better ways of working and start gauging performance by revenue and long-term output. “We must look after people more," Panna says, "and look at the long-term output of someone over their career."


What You Can Do

So, there are measures that employers can take – but why wait for the world to change around you? Why not be the change you want to see?

The first step is to be brilliant and make sure everyone knows about it.

You have to be true to yourself and speak up for what you believe in. According to Samantha Dumont, Creative Director at Cowan London,  being good at what you do, having opinions and making yourself heard are all significant, but so is being a part of a business that listens. But you also have to be decisive.

“I once saw Anna Wintour comment that her team constantly ask her opinion and even when the right choice is not obvious, she always decides quickly, because that’s what is expected of her,” Samantha says. “Decisiveness conveys confidence, which people not only like but genuinely need from leaders.”

“Often women are fearful to speak up and show leadership from an early stage," says Sarah Turner, Managing Director of Carter Wong. "There is a balance between being purposeful and being domineering, so watch the line.” If women are keen on moving into leadership roles, they have to be brave and not only have opinions but make those opinions count.

“If you’re interested in a leadership role," says Caz Hildebrand, Creative Partner at Here Design, "you’ll need to be brilliant at your job, unapologetic and able to demonstrate your vision with clarity and confidence. Don’t see your gender as a barrier to your career, see it as an advantage – younger women are now finding opportunities and reaching powerful positions throughout the industry. The key to achieving a better balance in the design industry is open-mindedness. Clients and employers alike need to assess people by their skills and abilities and the quality of their work, not their gender.”

And be prepared to check your ego at the door.

“People don’t just magically become creative directors,” Leigh says. “We start at the bottom and stick with it and work our asses off. Don’t think you’re too good for the donkey work.”

“You won’t be noticed by following the crowd,” she adds. “Push your creativity, get your inspiration from the outside world, not Google or Pinterest. Work hard but have a life outside of work that inspires you and opens your mind. Don’t feel that you must be the most outspoken person to get noticed, but don’t be a wallflower either.”

Panna Rose says it boils down to confidence and putting yourself out there – even if you don’t always feel like it. As well as being great at your job, you must also speak the same language as the people at the board level. “First you must understand what they value,” Panna says. “Then you must prove that you’ve delivered what they value.”


Learning & Teaching

Learning from senior colleagues – and teaching junior ones – is also critical.  “Always keep in mind that we are all just people," Sarah says. "A good, honest conversation about your career and its prospects with the right person never does any harm. Be willing to learn and take advice when offered and then act on it. Agency leaders want to know that the people around them are as keen and ambitious as they are about the business and that they really want to commit to it.”

Nicole Griffin, Strategy Director at Ragged Edge, agrees, adding that it pays to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible. “Starting out,” she says, “be a sponge and be fearless in forming thoughts. There will be a million ideas that come and go, so embrace the ones that might start out imperfect but have the potential to be great.”

If you’re hoping to move into leadership, one of the things you’ll need to learn about is who you are. “Once you know yourself,” Nicole adds, “you can find the objectivity and generosity to guide others, helping them find their strengths. Leaders don’t need to be the best, but they hire the best. They don’t need to be right, but they must be open to others being right.”

Panna Rose says the importance of mentorship shouldn’t be overlooked adding, “Senior women need to be generous mentors and help bring younger women up behind them. If we want more women in senior roles, a simple answer is to promote them.”

For Rowena Curlewis, CEO of Denomination, success boils down to three key things. “First,” she says, “be true to yourself. Don’t try to be male; don’t try to be an Alpha woman if you’re not one. Leaders can be funny, kind or quirky, and still be effective, as long as they’re confident in themselves and their abilities and they demonstrate leadership qualities.”

“Secondly, be heard,” Rowena adds. “There is a reluctance among women to speak loudly or confidently or to argue their point. It’s important that your colleagues, industry peers and clients see you are prepared to speak up for your ideas, and for others too.

“Thirdly, lead by example. If you want to be a leader, you need to act, think and behave like a leader. Work hard and excel in your role in a way that will ensure that you are recognized by your leadership team. Think big – not just about what this project means for you, but for the agency, for the client, for the consumer, for the industry. Be proactive in identifying and taking on opportunities. And, finally, embrace responsibility.”


Dealing With Sexism

Despite the undoubted progress made to level the playing field, design remains a man’s world at heart – and one in which work is still measured in a masculine way. Panna Rose believes the industry should start to learn to value qualities like compassion and collaboration.

“You still hear about some agencies where the representation at board level is predominantly men of a certain age and from a certain background who still think it’s OK to make politically incorrect jokes and say that women just leave to have babies,” Panna says. “It’s like something out of Mad Men. But then there are other agencies where they are run by people who are willing to embrace change, rather than being averse to it. It’s about finding the best fit for you with an agency that will have the right approach to your development.”

Maggie Parkhouse feels that, for all the sector’s equality issues, there are still plenty of great male design leaders who are supportive of women.  “I think the best thing women can do is to pick role models who reflect their values," Maggie says. "I only had one female leader to truly emulate, who had a family, a career and a top leadership role. I am happy to see more women in senior leadership roles. My executive team at Spicefire is mostly women, and I’m proud of that.

“I recommend picking a company that aligns with your values,” she adds, “where they create an environment that will help you grow, and where you’ll be able to achieve your goals.

And if that company doesn’t exist?

“If you can’t find one,” Maggie says, “create one.”

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