It’s a male thing

Design is still largely a male preserve, with females relegated to support roles. Is sexism to blame, or do women just lack the trainspotter traits essential for any creative? asks Jim Davies

I recently went to a creative awards do I’d never been to before. As something of a veteran of these industry shindigs, I was intrigued to see what they might do differently – is it possible to be creative with the format, or is there simply no room for manoeuvre? To be fair, the organisers had made an effort to stamp some personality on the evening, with long refectory-style tables and an ’ironic’ school dinners-style menu.

However, what this setting so cruelly exposed was one of the great failings of the design sector. Walking between the tables revealed a dominant demographic of broad, besuited shoulders and ’number three’ haircuts, reminiscent of a rugby club dinner. Actually, this phenomenon is probably the case at most design get-togethers – but here, neatly lined up in long rows, like some rigorous Swiss grid system, the disparity of the sexes was far more apparent than usual.

You’d think design would be a haven for women. To make your mark in the discipline, you need a mix of imagination and pragmatism – blended with dexterity, determination and excellent social and communication skills. These would seem to be attributes that sit more comfortably with an XX chromosome. And yet, figures show the UK design industry is 68 per cent male, a higher proportion than in many other creative industries, including music and advertising.

From personal experience, the women you come across in design tend to be organisers – project managers especially, but also planning, accounts and administration. It’s almost as if they’ve been assigned mothering roles, making sure the mercurial designer types know what’s what and where they need to be when.

Because at the coalface of creativity, it’s the boys who hold sway. The happy gaggles of five or six lads wielding pints after the awards ceremony served as a microcosm of the design industry as a whole. According to Design Council figures, consultancies with fewer than five staff account for 85 per cent of companies in the industry. How many of these are male-only enclaves, they don’t say, but I’ll wager there are plenty of these small gangs – friends from college who’ve picked up some experience and plaudits at established consultancies and then struck out on their own.

Which begs another question/ there are more female than male design students, so where do all the girls disappear between graduating and entering the jobs market? While there aren’t enough jobs for every graduate, it would appear that men snaffle most of the limited vacancies.

What’s the problem then? Not enough role models – for every Eileen Grey there’s a dozen Le Corbusiers; for every Paula Scher there’s a gaggle of Alan Fletchers? Times have changed – precedent doesn’t seem relevant. Perhaps it’s that most creative directors are men? But surely they want the best person for the job?

A few years ago, New York design guru Milton Glaser controversially suggested that the reason there are so few female ’rock star graphic designers’ is that ’women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.’

I don’t buy that. For me it’s simply that there’s something obsessive and trainspotterish about design (particularly graphics) that’s more appealing to the male psyche. Male designers collect typefaces like football cards, and are prepared to argue the night away over a couple of millimetres. Women are blessed with a greater sense of proportion.

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio

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  • Lucia Rusinakova November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A good question to ask and perhaps there are more than one answer to why design is still mainly a “male thing.” Personally, I haven’t been able to find the answer to this question. However, interestingly enough, after few years of personal experience in the field, I can say and agree with Jim Davies that not many women get to its “top levels.” I have roughly seven years of experience in this industry as a freelancer, as well as a full-timer. And although, I’ve never worked for the “big fishes” in the pond, the tendency was that my supervisor, head designer or design director, was a man. Hmmm… Based on my brief calculation, about 70% of time. Yet, there were female designers and/or production artists in most of these companies.
    I guess I never really stopped to think about this because my main concern had always been, why “I” can’t even get a chance at one of those really creative design positions at these really cool design studios/agencies. I assume one of the main reasons would be that I have no BIG names in my portfolio and/or “they” don’t think my creative style matches theirs (even though, there were times when I really thought it would be a “perfect match”). Perhaps my portfolio and presentation skills don’t show that. Or, “they” just don’t think I’m good or interesting enough, in whatever sense they may measure.
    But back to the “male thing.” I have been seeing portfolios of plenty of talented women designers, at least in my own opinion, and I believe women have the creativity, great ideas, hard work ethic, attention to detail, organization, communication and computer skills needed. Yet, they still seem to linger in the lower parts of design career hierarchy. Maybe it is the “kids and family” thing, maybe it is because women might be less aggressive and less obsessive than men. Perhaps, women end up moving into less demanding roles, or maybe yet, they give up trying to make it in this place dominated by men. Or, they just never get a chance to really shine and bring their potential into full bloom?
    Then again, there is the “it’s in the eye of the beholder” thing. And if the majority of “judging panelists” are men, then maybe they are inclined to go with the “male creative style,” whatever that may be.

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