Voxpop – Where are the women in design?

There are fewer women then men leading design consultancies. Last week Designer Breakfasts met to discuss the underrepresentation of women in design and asked, ‘Where are the women?’ What do you think can be done to address the gender imbalance?


‘Let’s stop looking at unmarried 30 year olds as baby machines waiting to get going.
Let’s get over maternity leave as a necessary evil – we’ve got 9 months to prepare – more notice than most departing clients!
Let’s not introduce quotas or discriminatory processes; we want jobs on equal terms.
Let’s create more flexibility in work patterns–they make for invariably more productive staff.
Let’s create jobs that women actually want to come back to – they had a baby not a lobotomy.
Let’s have more mentoring.
Let’s stop measuring commitment by hours put in – for all our sakes – presenteeism and quality are two different things.Let’s get Dads home on time.
Let’s acknowledge that men and women, if primary carers, cannot abandon that responsibility for a night in the pub. Teamwork can be demonstrated in other ways.
Let’s accept that working part-time doesn’t require you to use only half your brain.
Let’s accept that working from home makes sense and shouldn’t be an earned right!
Let’s acknowledge that men and women are equal but not the same – sorry if that’s come as a shock!
Let’s accept that men, having been a numerical majority, have shaped the culture of our business.
Let’s accept that we change the culture of our business –a shift towards family-friendly policies would be a start.
Let’s make it more acceptable for couples to parent together sharing child-care responsibilities as they think is necessary.
Let’s be aware that sex discrimination claims are on the up as are unequal pay claims.
Let’s also be aware that failure to encourage gender diversity in our businesses and the statistical make up of senior employees in terms of gender would likely be used as evidence of a sex discriminatory environment.’

Deborah Dawton, chief executive, Design Business Association


‘I’ve never hit any barriers purely because I’m female but the hours are pretty macho. And for an industry that’s all about innovation, what success looks like – big, since you ask – is surprisingly conventional. Design thinking is now creating better services and processes. So it’s time we turned that expertise to our own business model and working practices. If we can get it right, it won’t just be good for retaining talented women: blokes will be able to breathe out too.’

Lydia Thornley, founder, Lydia Thornley Design


‘While I don’t subscribe to the view that men are exclusively from Mars and women are only from Venus, I have noticed that the more I get involved with design projects which do good for society, the more I get to collaborate with talented, driven women. As  the emerging role of design in social innovation is embraced, the more demand there will be for such talents, and this will naturally create next-generation design organisations more evenly led by women and men.’ 

Mat Hunter, chief design officer, the Design Council


‘There are not enough women at the top, this is true. We need design businesses to take positive steps to change this. What can be done? A paradigm shift change is necessary to allow environments which encourage women to be able to lead these companies. But first steps: It’s a given that there are excellent female creatives but often they’re not in a business but working independently by senior levels. Better flexibility in working hours would enable women to remain involved. Businesses tend to get set up by friends from art college. Women are traditionally more risk averse. There’s an opportunity to further encourage entrepreneurship at graduate level which encourages women to feel empowered to do their own thing when they want to.’

Rhiannon James, director of education & professional development, D&AD


‘The bottom line is that tax deductible childcare is a policy decision that could make a material difference to the underrepresentation of women in all sectors not only design. In design we need to improve our profile and perceived value as a sector, in doing so we could increase salaries and benefits creating more realistic working conditions for women at the top of their game with families to support. I have two children and a third on the way. The post tax cost of full time, quality childcare – and if you’re that way inclined, private education – far exceeds the average salary of even directors in the design sector. I think this is the reason we loose so many fantastic female designers. Add to this the female trait of self-depreciation (not asking to be paid what they are worth!) and guilt (feeling they should be the one putting baby first) and the only ones left are those with considerably bigger balls than the boys!’

Georgia Fendley, creative director, Construct


‘In my experience it has always been the case that there are more male designers than female at all levels so inevitably more men will grow into senior roles. The reason for this isn’t clear to me as I honestly can’t think of any barriers to dissuade women from choosing design as a career path if that’s what they want to pursue. Of course it’s far better that senior posts reflect a balance I firmly believe that the people doing the role should be there on merit not quota so would impulsively resist any initiatives to promote more representation. In my mind if you are driven to do the job then nothing should be able to stop you. I believe there will always be hurdles to overcome for both men and women but undoubtedly the most challenging would be for women in balancing their career and family. Whilst great strides have been made with flexible working for returning mums I still think there is a perception that senior players need to ‘be there’ all the time thus sometimes negating consideration for senior posts.’

Clare Styles, creative director, The Brand Union


I look across at my peers and yes there are more lads than lasses working in design. I’m not totally convinced that there is this fabled ‘glass ceiling’. I believe that capitalism is the only route to take, so if you’re good enough to cut it at the top then you’ll make it to the board-room, regardless of gender. If as a businessowner I falsely engineer who we employ then we’ll quickly find ourselves out of business. We promote talent.

Paul Mellor, design director, Mellor&Scott Design


Where are the women? Well, there are certainly many female creative directors across the design industry. With that in mind, perhaps it’s a question of changing perceptions rather than addressing an imbalance. If we could make our female role-models more visible, it might help reflect a more balanced picture.

Daniela Nunzi-Mihranian, Creative director, JKR

Hide Comments (6)Show Comments (6)
  • Paul Mellor November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    DW – Why have you posted 6 people’s opinions (albeit all very good comments), yet the split of opinions is 5 female and 1 male.

    That isn’t doing anything for the improved balance of women in design! Positive discrimination is not the route to take! Regardless of whether you agree with the comments from industry you should post an even and balanced argument. i.e 50/50 split of opinions!

    I’m not bothered, but you emailed me on Monday asking for my opinion on this topic yet didn’t publish the comments I sent – I wonder was I the only male comments you didn’t publish?

    DW – If you are going to debate real issues, you should put forward all the points of view.

    That said I agree with all 6 comments published in the Voxpop.

  • Matt Baxter November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A really interesting set of views, especially following on from the recent Designer Breakfast conversation on the same subject.

    Deborah’s list of points is spot on (and the longest Vox Pop entry I’ve ever seen!). And Lydia’s dismay at the lack of imagination shown by our industry is equally astute. For an industry that claims ‘innovation’ as one of it’s core attributes, we’re unbelievably conservative when it comes to this issue.

    I’m sorry Paul, but claiming the glass ceiling is ‘fabled’ ignores all evidence to the contrary.

  • mark glynne-jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Interesting. Having done the UCAS rounds (x5 Uni) with daughter about to embark on Fine Art degree (chosen Falmouth) it was interesting to observe the gender thing when each course was ‘called out’ by tutors/guides at interviews, hardly a fella to be seen on fine art but complete opposite on graphics, animation, web related courses.
    A snapshot I know but interesting.
    Oh yes, Falmouth, a degree in Drawing. Brilliant. Where do I sign?…

  • Andrea Siodmok November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’ve always maintained that being female in product design has opened more doors for me than closed them and despite this I have never subscribed to positive discrimination on gender. However, I sense across the industry that women are often quietly getting with the job rather than seeking accolade and visibility for doing it. When conference platforms and public fora favour brash traditional views of leadership it distorts our view of the truth. As every US election shows when it comes to popularity leadership has always favoured the taller, better looking candidates. I am proud that the UK is diverse and egalitarian but not surprised that in an industry that is founded on style, surface and image, we occassionally overplay the stereotypical view of the male ‘creative director dressed in black’.

  • Paul Mellor November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Matt, I can only go on what I can see and to support. I think back to my student days (2000-04) Industrial Design at Loughborough, out of the 120 students in my year, I think there were less that 20 females, a lot of whom were on the PGCE conversion to become teachers.
    If it is like Mark suggests that girls are more likely to study art orientated courses and chaps on web, animation, etc then this would even it up but I don’t see that from the graduates we get applying for vacancies – it is heavily weighted that more males are applying that females.

  • David Godber November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I can argue I&D is important but I would suggest women are more poorly represented in some categories than others – ie. product and industrial design – than perhaps they are in graphics, fashion, textiles and interiors. We do need some more global heroines though, people like Kate Aronowitz, Christine Brodbeck, Nancy Broden, Liz Danzico, where are the Brits? We need more Jane Priestmans, Laura Haynes, Sophie Thomas, Harriet Devoy, Nat Hunter, Maria Grachvogel, ….. hang on, we have a few….and as for what can be done? It starts in the early years. We need to inspire the next generation, show them what can be achieved. Perhaps we need some of the above to be in an ambassadors network….

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