Where are all the women in design?

Where are all the women in design? The question has been a hot topic in over the past couple of weeks.


Last week’s Designer Breakfast was a panel discussion, featuring Penny Baxter, Nat Hunter and others, which aimed to answer this very question, and our resulting voxpop has elicited some interesting, varied and passionate views on the issue (including a superb manifesto from Design Business Association chief Deborah Dawton).

The very same question also popped up from an audience member at the Alan Parker, David Puttnam and Bob Gill D&AD lecture a couple of weeks ago following some ribald and macho tales of ’60s japes from the trio. The panel seemed nonplussed, suggesting, ‘Things have changed now though haven’t they?’

Well, maybe on one level. Open discrimination seems to be largely (and thankfully) a thing of the past, and figures suggest a reasonably even gender divide in design – a 2010 Design Council survey shows a 60/40 male/female gender ratio in the industry – although crucially it’s unclear what the ratio is at more senior levels.

But anecdotally it’s clear that whatever the situation with open discrimination, a more invidious inequality is still rife, both in design and in other sectors.

One of the main issues is pay. A report from the Chartered Management Institute last year showed that, on average, male manager-level employees were paid more than £10 500 more than their female counterparts. It seems almost unthinkable that nearly 40 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force in the UK, the pay divide could be this wide.

Another key issue, addressed by many of our voxpop respondents, is maternity leave. As Deborah Dawton says, ‘Let’s stop looking at unmarried 30-year-olds as baby-machines waiting to get going.’

And when you see comments like the one from Wallpaper, Monocle and Winkreative founder Tyler Brûlé in a recent Observer interview – asked why he’s never set up a business in Scandinavia he replied, ‘Everything [in the Monocle offices] is from Scandinavia, but the maternity leave would kill us’ – it’s clear that this attitude is still embedded.

So where are all the women in design? The answer is that they’re everywhere, but this still seems to be in spite of the odds.

Hide Comments (12)Show Comments (12)
  • Tamsin Allen November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    We are alive and well, contributing quietly to the design industry in many different areas. 🙂

  • Bhavisha Panchmatia November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Women are contributing to design but rather than be quiet, we should aim to make an impact. Women in design have so much to offer. Surely a diverse team with a good set of skills will be able to bring more to the table?

  • jo hogan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    there are loads of talented women designers out there but they are largely invisible in design press.

    not sure why this is or if it will ever change.

    i noted the d+ad had no women at all included on the panel recently.

  • Deniz November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Instead of people telling women to ‘SPEAK UP!’ maybe we should ask men to pipe down and let women contribute. After all, it’s not women’s’ faults they are underrepresented and underestimated (in so many areas besides design).

  • david November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Someone feel free to jump in and correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the maternity leave in Scandinavia available to both parents equally?

    Wouldn’t that make it a ‘people’ problem, rather than a ‘women’s’ problem?

  • clare whiting November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    we are busy working, just not making a song and dance about it!

  • Belle November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    We’re here, passionately creating and innovating, while giving perspectives that the other half don’t have… and personally I’m not doing it quietly!

  • Ingeborg de Gooijer November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Dear Angus,

    At The Wonderland, a creative & marketing agency set up and run by only women, we read the original article regarding “Where are women in design?”, as well as your commentary with interest.

    The Wonderland was founded out of a belief that setting up on our own would be the only solution if we wanted to do things our way. Let’s be clear, we’re not trying to get our own back on the male-led industry. It’s simply turned out that way. We only recruit those that show most talent for our needs and display a good cultural fit.

    In addition, all of the partners we work with – very successfully, I might add – are headed up by males. Together we are an impressive bunch!

    We’re all females with ages ranging from 25-40, nearly all married and one of us has 2.5 year old twins. We work hard to deliver our projects, but we are firm believers in balancing work and life, and giving our employees and ourselves the space needed to organise their and our lives in tandem with work. That is one of the reasons why we set up our own business. It was difficult when one of us went on maternity leave, both from a financial and human resource perspective, but we discussed it, agreed the maternity leave, hired a new account manager to cover the leave and got the company through it by working more hours and determination.

    For The Wonderland, having an all female team and 3 female Directors has had several benefits. Firstly, it creates a very natural, non-testosterone-lead atmosphere, making for a great environment in which to work on design projects and be creative. Secondly, although the Directors have very complementary skill sets they welcome each other’s input; it’s not about one-upmanship, but the best result for the client. This doesn’t mean we never clash, but at least being females we can talk it over to find a resolution.

    Finally, we create lots of fun in our office environment just by conversing, without the desperate need to go out in the evening – we all live some way away from the office and when it gets to 5.30pm we want to go home, to our other halves.

    From a design perspective, our female bias doesn’t impact our ability to create designs targeted to a male audience. Male designers have equally created female targeted designs for decades, and still do. I suppose you could say we’re very much in touch with our masculine side!

    Although we could probably earn more in the industry, we don’t have any desire or feel any pressure to change our set-up, or to abandon ship. In which case, we’d advise all under-valued female designers to find like-minded individuals and set up on their own. It’s not an easy ride, but worth the effort. We are here, we want to be heard!

    Yours sincerely,

    Ingeborg de Gooijer

    Marketing Director
    The Wonderland

  • Amy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wrote my dissertation on this last year after reading the same Design Council survey and discovering an article, in which Milton Glaser’s answer to the question you are asking was this:
    “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 necessarily disagree with this as it’s just highlighting that if women want to have children it’s likely they will end up missing a few years of career building time. It’s by no means a reason to discount women or pay them less.

    In terms of senior levels, I found the following, quite surprising, statistics: “Only 2% of women working in design earn within the highest salary bracket (£41,000 or above) compared to 20% of men (Creative Choices, 2008). This means that out of the 74,000 women in design, only 1,480 of them are earning over £41,000 compared to 37,100 men.

    To be honest, after all my research, I decided that I just wanted to be a designer, and that it shouldn’t matter whether I am male or female! Although, it is nice to see that I’m not the only one who finds this an interesting subject.

  • Eilish Bouchier November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I have been working in design for over twenty years. Firstly for others and then I had a small and agency for about ten years working for local and international brands. I often found being a woman gave me an advantage as design was in some cases seen as a ‘soft’ business. Nothing to do with being a woman but after a time I began to feel that everyone wanted the same thing and to follow the pack. (it’s never been my thing) Often clients weren’t interested in solving problems. They were more focused on what they perceived as their competition was doing and how they could get that piece of the market too. I have always believed there is more than enough business for everyone and business is built on relationships. If you build good relationships you will ‘do’ good and profitable business. It’s a win win for all, staff, suppliers and clients. I have always advocated inside out branding where your company is driven by real leadership, values and a unique voice: while many companies were excited by this, they were often unwilling to discover it or resource it. I discovered through delivering many workshops that men saw business as akin to ‘war’. I suggested they view it as a ‘game’. You win some, you lose some and it’s ‘fun’ rather than potentially fatal. They felt they wouldn’t be taken seriously. This was likely the point where I felt I wasn’t heard and maybe the place where men and women divide rather dramatically. They think we don’t take it seriously enough and they seek others who share their approach.
    Of course women are also challenged by family commitments and design is particularly suited to small business and flexible work when done on a micro scale so many women choose this when they have children.
    I still work in design and do some branding for smaller companies though my main business is now jewellery design which is all about the subtle energies of gemstones so creating beautifully designed pieces that connect people with their own power to find their unique expression so they can bring this into the world and hopefully into the world of business because it would seem it is still needed there. Women have a great deal to offer in the design world as do men but isn’t it the yin yang we are all seeking in business and in all areas of our lives.

  • Anna Ekelund November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Our design agency is run by me, a female, and my co-director is male, and this is surprisingly, not that common a set up – to generalise, design agencies tend to be either set up by a partnership of men, or women – rarely a mix.

    We find the combination of male/female works very well and is something that both our clients and employees react positively to, but we don’t make a big deal out of it – good designers are good designers, regardless of gender. Me and my co-director don’t happen to be of the same gender, but we share the same design philosophy and mindset – and that is really all that should matter.

  • Sultony November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I find any organisation that separates the sexes, or excludes one sex in favour of another, abhorrent unless it is for medical reasons. The Wonderland comes under this category. To work or play in a one sexed group soon exposes the need to be in mixed company. Being a male I cannot think of anything worse than being surrounded by men all the time. Both sexes need to survive by interacting with each other intellectually and socially. A single sexed group’s products will be deficient and incomplete because of this artificial, and narrowly confined entity. The comfort that such a group may derive, is based upon the false aims of excluding possible tensions or competition, or classic irritations that the opposite sex can produce. This is dangerously exclusive and if my faith in human nature is correct, is bound to expose the group as one dimensional.

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