Sexism in design: “I have been cowed, intimidated and embarrassed”

Allegations around harassment scandals are rife, with Westminster and Hollywood currently under fire. We ask female designers to discuss their experiences of sexism in the workplace.

Erika Clegg, co-founder, Spring

“[Early on in my design career] and of tender years, there was a middle-aged man of middling authority who propositioned most of the female staff in the crudest terms. Some took it in their stride, some were hugely unsettled by it; none of us said anything at the time and so no-one knew the scale of his behaviour until we put the jigsaw together years later at a reunion. The studio was a hothouse of hard work, and I think we were all afraid of causing disruption.

In my case, my silence led to a near-firing. My junior role involved processing ads; once a week he was meant to approve them and I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere near him. Inevitably, there was an error one week. I was nearly fired by my furious boss by phone at 7.30am on a Sunday morning.

I told her the full story years later; she was horrified that this had been happening without her having the faintest idea.

Never mind sexism or opportunism, it’s straightforward bullying and I’m still furious for all of us. Lesson learnt: if this stuff happens, tell someone. It’s not you upsetting the apple cart, it’s them.”

Emily Penny, independent brand consultant, Colourful

“All women experience sexism in the workplace at some level. I’ve worked in entirely male-led consultancies where the culture was less than female-friendly. And I’ve worked in female-led consultancies, one that refused the option of flexible hours when I became a parent and another that happily contributed to perpetuating gender stereotypes in its work.

The latter is worth some reflection. In the design industry, we have a wonderful, unique opportunity to shape brands and how they communicate. Sexism is often built into design briefs. There might be an expectation that models conform to unhealthy ideals, or that colourways follow pink for girls and blue for boys. Male or female, it’s our responsibility to push back and help clients take steps in a better direction.

Now I work for myself, I do take more of a stand. I aim to inspire clients to think more progressively and responsibly, to show them that there is another way, and that there is an audience for it, too.

We’re designers. We make the future. It’s important not to squander that privilege.”

Sarah Weir OBE, CEO, Design Council

“I started working at a time when overt sexism, racism and homophobia were rife. I doubt if there are many, if any, women of my generation who have not been subjected to sexism and sexual harassment in varying forms – I have on many occasions. This has ranged from regular, subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-downs and having my voice ignored until a man has made the same point, all the way through to very much unwanted sexual advances from those in power and who have had influence over my career.

I have been cowed, intimidated and embarrassed by it but have also spoken out against it and called it out, particularly when it has happened to others. With the centenary of women’s suffrage fast approaching, now is the time for men and women to work together to ensure this type of behaviour becomes so unacceptable in workplaces that it is no longer heard nor seen.”

Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean

“I have been fortunate that sexism has not significantly featured in my work story so far, though I am also aware from friends and colleagues that it can be a big issue. Once, early in my career, I did feel that gender was the reason for me not moving on.

A male colleague of mine with similar experience and expertise was given opportunities within the business with subsequent promotion. I was not offered the same opportunities and my confidence was affected. Eventually, I realised this was probably not due to ability so I confronted my boss stating that I had not been allowed to show what I could do. He was totally shocked that this could be down to gender but agreed with my point of view.  From then on things changed for me in that business and my confidence grew.

I think women have to go the extra mile to prove themselves at work, but I am hopeful that gender prejudice will become a thing of the past.”

Tessa Simpson, design director, O Street

“I’m very lucky to work in a workplace with a bunch of feminists, both male and female – so I’ve never had the bad fortune of experiencing sexism within my design studio. However, I have sometimes felt the impact of an undercurrent of sexism when dealing with clients – often just a subtle preference for dealing with a male colleague over me, even when the idea and work being discussed is my own.

This has only happened once or twice, but enough to knock my confidence when presenting ideas to some clients, who will naturally look to the men in the room for answers and direction. Luckily though, my male colleagues aren’t afraid to look to me for the answers or direction required!”

Have you ever experienced sexism in the workplace? Let us know in the comments section below (comments are moderated), or email in to

Hide Comments (12)Show Comments (12)
  • Emily Penny November 12, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    What a cringe-worthy photo you’ve used to represent this one Design Week? Not just about younger women in short black (provocative?) skirts and older men, bit of a cliche. Much more complex than that, ingrained in culture.

  • Peter Beach November 12, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Totally agree with the article on sexism, mercifully that was mostly years ago, what about agism which is alive and kicking for both sexes right now and is responsible for my early retirement!

  • Ann Eastman November 12, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I wrote here about this recently, recounting my experiences of sexism back in the ‘swinging sixties’, and also about how difficult it was, as a woman, to obtain employment. The only difference was that one was bluntly told: ‘Sorry, we dont employ women here’. Half a century later, now that women are under the impression that they have been ’empowered’ (really!) nothing much has changed..

  • Ann Eastman November 12, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    No gender bias in design? Take a look at Design Week

    vack in 2010 …
    Finally, the important question about why there are so few women in senior roles within the design industry (Hugh Pearman’s Private View, DW 21 October) was answered in Rising Stars (DW 28 October).

    The answer? Because, even at the start of their careers, there is a dearth of good ones. Your supplement featured 14 Rising Stars – 13 men and one woman. So that’s it: women are rubbish at design. Phew. We don’t need to concern ourselves about the question any more. Or your methodology. Or the possible inherent sexism within the industry. Or about those blinkers worn by so many people.

    Or, indeed, anything else, ever again.

    Hester Thomas, by e-mail

  • Dean Morris November 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    A student in the corporate identity class I was teaching wasn’t happy with her grade and demanded a meeting to convince me she deserved better. When she arrived she wore a brown leather or vinyl bustier which I assumed was to be fasihonable (I’m gay) but it dawned on me later that it was a sexual tool for special favorable treatment. It’s not an assault but it is sexism.

  • david November 12, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Yes, when I worked at a large London firm the female HR Manager/Office Manager would forever put her hand on my behind if she was standing beside me or walking past
    The receptionist used to constantly ask me out or ring me and have suggestive conversations etc despite me telling her firmly I had a girlfriend.
    Became embarrassing

  • Beth November 13, 2017 at 4:01 am

    “All women experience sexism in the workplace at some level”
    I’m sorry if you have suffered through this but you have no right in generalising and assuming this happens to all of us females. I have been in this industry for 20+ years since I was 17, working in agencies, newspapers, printing companies etc etc and I have always been treated as an equal and have NEVER had a man be sexist to me, nor do I have any collegues who have had this issue – so I would be interested to know where these facts are coming from???

    The only problem I have ever had is working in offices with too many females who treat other females poorly!!! There are simply too many women in the workplace who spend their work day gossiping, backstabbing and competing with other women – purely over ego, or boredom or who knows why they do it, but too many simply treat the work place like they are still in High School.

    Women keep going on a about “women need to stick together” yet all i see on a daily bases is women bullying other women normally in sneaky and subtle ways – and nothing is been done about that!!!

    • Ella November 16, 2017 at 6:01 pm

      I totally agree, Beth.

    • Av December 15, 2017 at 4:59 pm

      You’ve been lucky if you haven’t experienced men in their backstabbing nature. Until now, after being an intern and a worker in 7 diff agencies, 2 out of them have been men wielding their sword and two have been women being what you described. The rest were indeed male lead places, and they were always people that were friends in their personal lives, they had the same dream of being a creative working with other creatives, and that is the difference. When men or women join only for financial reasons, hell raves.

  • Ella November 16, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    I used to work in a design studio for 14 years. I started working there when I was 23 and was the only woman for the first 8 years among 8 men of different ages, from 25 to 45. Never, ever was I harassed by anyone of them. They always treated me as an equal individual. I even got payed a lot more than some of my male colleagues. You know why? Because I was good at my job, consistent, punctual. We were a super team. Then came 2 women designers. They were horrible! One of them said that our art director was a sexist when he told her to be more carefull when sending final files for print. She always made mistakes and we had to reprint everything! Women are not always nice to work with. Since then I have tried to work with other women, but it never works.

  • Av December 15, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    I am leaving the place I work at the moment, following a number of insults both to me as a person and a professional. The insults come from men that have made their way to the top on behalf of knowing who to shut up and trying to persuade the person to believe it was their fault in the first place, denigrating when they can. Their strategy is intimidation and the whole place stinks of fear. They are nudging the last buttons they have to put me down even in the last week, because I wouldn’t stay with crossed arms. I feel gross that I am not doing anything more to warn young people that respond to their posts about this place. I am mad and feel hopeless that i can’t denounce them for using their power wrongly, and that they are getting away with this since 15 years. Suing them would mean having to see their faces again for months to come and losing my blood and sweat stained savings without a guarantee that my voice would get heard.

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