Women are studying design – so where are all the female creative directors?

In her first column, Kerning the Gap founder Nat Maher looks at how female designers face career progression challenges and lack of exposure – an inequality that was revealed to her through a simple Google search.

If you’re a woman in design, I recommend you have a large gin before you type “famous graphic designers” into Google. If you do it, check out the image carousel that pings up at the top of your results. Sure, I’m girl-crushing on Paula Scher as much as the next woman, but after five spins of the carousel, it shows me just five women out of 50 people.

Then again, at the last count, only 11% of creative directors in our industry are women. Given this ratio, Google (as ever) is pretty much spot on.

At Kerning the Gap, we’re trying to change these ratios, and get more women into leadership positions across the entire spectrum of disciplines in the design industry.

We’re constantly seeking to better understand why this is such a challenge, so that we can smash the status quo apart and create some real and tangible change. And with such an energised collective, we’re already gathering momentum.

The question we rarely stop to ask though is, why was it ever thus? Weren’t there any women designing when Paul Rand and Saul Bass were defining the craft?

The majority of design students are women – so where do they go?

Preparing for a talk at Ravensbourne on the history of women in design, I was dismayed to discover that work from female designers only accounts for 30% of the design curriculum at London’s Central Saint Martins (yet 70% of its students are women). The Guardian also reports that art and design degree courses in general are dominated by women. Yet a Design Council survey shows that only 40% of professional designers are female.

The thing is, they were there: the Nike swoosh; the original A-Z (look up Phyllis Pearsall – her story is amazing); the UK’s road signs; and the 1984 LA Olympic Games identity – they just never had the profile.

Without turning this into an essay about the evolution of the design industry, the industry we know and love today has some roots in the arts and crafts movement, where women were not only present, they were actively encouraged to embrace it as a “wholesome” pursuit. But, being as things were at the turn of the century, they were not allowed to hold any official memberships. Their “supporting role” was ingrained from the outset.

Moments in our feminist history, such as poster creation for the women’s Suffrage movement in the early 1900s, gave women designers their first foray into full creative control. Then, of course, war, and the world of work for women changed forever. We had kept the country going, and we were NOT going back. Introduction of the pill in the 1950s boosted our pay equality by 30%. Then we campaigned and got the Equal Pay Act in 1970 (granted, that has been in place for 47 years and women are still 18% behind – but that is a matter for a whole other editorial column).

Only 11% of design business leaders are women

So, here we are in 2017, political, biological and economic barriers have been gradually trampled down and, much like the good old arts and crafts days, we have no trouble attracting women to our industry. And yet, we still can’t seem to get more than 11% of them to the forefront.

So why don’t we get profile? Well, if you haven’t read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, then buy it now. Its mantra of “We’re holding ourselves back by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in” is an important truth and I have yet to find a woman who has not identified with it at some point. Combined with this, women are less likely to build their networks or take platforms to speak, and we tell ourselves “how lucky we are” and continuously settle for what’s on offer rather than push and negotiate. I’ve done all of these things in my career.

Thankfully I found excellent role models, mentors and sponsors, who believed in me and pushed me to do more, and who still do. And I now have my own mentees, who constantly teach me in reverse.

Men need to join the debate

And that’s where I think the mantra of “Lean In” needs a counter-balance. I feel uncomfortable, particularly as a leader of a design business, demanding that women take all of the responsibility for solving workplace inequality on their own. Sure, the need to push, question and self-improve is vital, but all people have the responsibility to create workplaces where those women can flourish. To become the mentors, sponsors and role models.

Half of the challenge we have – 89% of it, in fact – is the current lack of women in leadership positions, who act as vital role models, and bring first-hand experiences of their own challenges to help reshape the legacy behind them. Thus the cycle perpetuates. It’s a fundamental part of why Kerning the Gap is a gender neutral collective. Men aren’t the enemy – far from it.

We urgently need men and women to be equal parts of the solution. Whatever your gender, if you’re in a leadership position, you need to ask yourself if you’ve pulled the ladder up behind you; if you’re doing everything you can to boost diversity (of every form) in your leadership team; if you’re mentoring the next generation to get that bloody carousel looking more balanced.

And if you’re an aspiring leader, reach your hand up. Expect more. Call it out. Build your own bloody carousel, if you have to. Kerning The Gap is here to champion you.

Hide Comments (18)Show Comments (18)
  • tinasparkle April 23, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    From my own quite recent experience I can say that it is to do with women being the one who takes long stretches of maternity leave. Natural, primal instinct in the majority of women (I do appreciate not all women feel this way!) is to have children and nurture them for as long as possible before handing over to someone else to take care of them so the mother can go back to work. The long standing issue of inequality in pay between men and women usually means that it is the woman who takes the long stretch of leave whilst the man continues to work and progress his career and between childcare costs/hours the woman usually has to be on some kind of flexible working pattern so that the children get to see atleast one of their parents during their waking hours, meaning that any career progression is stunted. Businesses have to think about what works best for the business and, depending on the business, a senior role needs someone who can commit 100% of their working day. I’m generalising based on my own experience but I do believe this to be one of the main reasons and applies to not only the creative industry, but most others.

    • Michela April 27, 2017 at 9:50 am

      Thank you Tina, your wrote exactly what I was thinking while I was reading the article. I couldn’t agree more. Impossible to commit to this job if you haven’t got grandparents around to help. If you have to rely on payed childcare you sadly have to decide between your kids or your career.

  • Baggynorris April 23, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Well said. Brilliant piece, thought provoking, informative and well written. I wanna join your gang!

  • DJ Johnston April 24, 2017 at 10:26 am

    Hello, a man here. There are quite a number of CD who are also women – however, they tend not to do a lot of shouting about it and just get on with it. Look around – Horse, Together, Family (and friends), Felt, Design Bridge, Pentagram to name but a few…all have female CDs. The job is to celebrate them in the press – go find them and tell their stories Design Week!

  • tess wicksteed April 24, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    At Here, we have two female creative partners, one female strategy partner and one male creative partner – and I can tell you we are all equally dedicated to bringing women up and with the talent we have its no hardship.

    • DJ April 28, 2017 at 10:35 am

      Exactly Tess.

  • Joanne Bell April 24, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I think it’s interesting to note – as per DJ Johnston’s comments – that it’s not necessarily the presence, rather the profile of women CD’s that’s missing. When The Dieline did its launch conference at Packaging Innovations last year, Deborah Dawton of the DBA hosted five white male designers of a similar age pontificating on the panel. Who chose those people? Representation matters and the design industry’s media (in the broadest sense) is pretty poor at striving to achieve better, diverse representation.

  • Ann Eastman April 24, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    When I left college and hiked my portfolio around from agency to agency; art directors were eager to interview me – responding enthusiastically to my work. BUT every interview ended in exactly the same way: ‘Excellent portfolio, super creative ideas. However, I’m very sorry, we never employ women in our creative department.’ Eventually I discovered that the eagerness to see me was to ‘borrow’ new, fresh ideas. That was back in 1962 – so this story has been running for a very long time!
    Nowadays such overt sexual discrimination is not possible because the law has stepped in, but I strongly suspect that exactly the same mindset still lurks in the hinterland – whether you care to admit it or not.

  • Lisa Marie Hastings April 24, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    I’m a Female CD, having just landed my new big challenge back in the UK, after 6 years in Sydney, 3 years as Senior in Branding & Packaging Design and 3 as Design, then, Creative Director.

    Upon recently mentioning my new role to a ‘mate’ in the industry (albeit one much older than me, and more experienced you would assume) he commented ‘well good luck, you did well to get from Senior to CD’, I don’t shout about what I do, I don’t claim to be the best but I lead by example, I am dedicated, determined, curious, passionate…and determined to prove comments like that wrong.

    Maybe its this sort of narrow minded comment thats led me back to the UK to be part of a team where there is no gender specific job description. Its time we were proud of who we are, and what we do, confidence without ego…and without having to explain why we want to change perceptions not settle down with 2.4 children!

    • DJ April 28, 2017 at 10:34 am

      That’s great to hear. In my previous role as head of a large studio, I did all in my power to promote women to the top of the creative ladder – I accept it isn’t easy, Good luck. DJ

  • Ellie smith April 25, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Women have to fight every step of the way in an art career. It ain’t easy!

  • Caroline Norman April 27, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    All else being equal, we need to be better at self promotion.

  • Anonymous April 27, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    One of the reasons I left my last company was because my creative director failed to provide equal opportunities to the ladies as she did to the men. I was a year older, graduated a year later and equally capable as my equivalent male designer, but to my creative director, I was 3 years behind him, instead of 1. Most ladies that have left that company have done so because they felt stunted and all of them, including myself, have grown outside of her guidance. And yes, you read correctly, my old creative director was a woman. I think what you have said about women who get up to the top is all very well, but we have to ensure prejudices don’t get in the way of giving other women the opportunities to do the same.

  • Emily Penny May 1, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    From what I understand, the important point is that fewer women make it to leadership positions in design than in other sectors. So this isn’t simply a case of women prioritising childcare or not shouting loud enough compared to men. My theory is that design is a profession that readily allows people to work independently as freelancers or consultants, something not always possible in other sectors. And since designers tend to do less and less actual design as their careers progress, as a creative person, if you could work from home, do what you love, and still pay the bills, isn’t that a pretty damn attractive alternative to leadership? My sense is that there is an army of independent female designers out there, doing great work, collaborating to form fluid teams, and seeing their kids at bedtime too. And there’s an increasing number of men who see the value in this model too. Big agencies aren’t necessarily the future.

  • Michelle Williams May 26, 2017 at 11:33 am

    After being appointed Creative Director at Creative Sponge in Norwich, I have become increasingly aware of the role of women in the creative industry. Being a mum of two myself, I understand complexity of balancing home and work life but feel this has in no way impacted on my credibility as designer or as a leader, in fact probably making me more determined to prove myself as a dedicated and passionate person. I fully believe in being yourself (whether you are male or female) and using those skills to build relationships and work collaboratively. I feel very fortunate that gender has never been an issue within my career and have had the support to continue with my career after children and develop into the role I now have. I feel that as long as you have people who support you for who you are, you will be heard. Definitely the best advice is to be true to yourself…

  • Tony Pritchard September 26, 2017 at 8:20 am

    In response to the comments regarding Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Paula Scher. Women poster designers: https://vimeo.com/105599325

  • Tony Pritchard September 26, 2017 at 8:33 am

    In reference to the design curriculum, Suze Myers final major project looked at the booklists and gender. Unfortunately the original site with its research and statistical evidence is no longer online. Here is a link to the project however: https://www.suzemyers.com/womens-lib/ Although the course she was on needs to consider the booklist in light of her findings the course has updated all its presentations to include broader gender and cultural reference points. This is something we endeavor to keep under review.

  • Tony Pritchard September 26, 2017 at 9:49 am

    This course has an unusually high female participation: http://www.arts.ac.uk/lcc/courses/postgraduate/pg-dip-design-visual-communication/ The issue of equivalent gender representation in a number of areas of contemporary life have been the themes of many major projects. This includes the work of Lillias Kinsman-Blake, Cecilia Serafini, Elizabeth Marlow, Suze Myers and Lorna Allen (featured in Design Week). It’s important to profile the successes of DVC graduates and in this regard I would highlight Cat Drew (Policy Unit and Uscreates); Margot Lombaert (proprietor of Margot Lombaert Studio); Valentina D’Efilippo (co-author An Infographic History of the World); Sarah Schrauwen (Unit Editions / GraphicDesign& / proprietor of her own business); Henrietta Ross (DVC course tutor); Miriam Brüggen (ISTD Commendation); Renée O’Drobinak (Ladies of the Press); and Melanie Smith (proprietor Story); amongst many others.

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