What’s it like being a woman in the design industry? Don’t ask me.

 

Being on LinkedIn nowadays can often feel like you’ve opened the floodgates to a slew of cold emails from recruiters. But recently I was contacted with a job spec that got my attention. The agency was looking for a Design Director with a broad range of client experience with award-winning work in their portfolio. So far, so unremarkable. Then they stated that they were looking for a woman. Intruiging. Why did they want a woman so specifically? They wanted a female Design Director to mentor the other female team member and to enhance their skills when working on certain clients: think, they suggested, pitching for female hygiene products with an all male team!  I did think.  The more I thought, the more the idea felt laughable to me. Absolutely I can imagine an all male team working on female hygiene products. I have, for example, worked on a branding project for a prison charity but I’ve never been to prison. This part of a project is called research. It's called imagination. It's called creativity.

More worrying however was the fact that they felt they needed a woman to mentor another woman. Surely by now men and women have learned to communicate with each other? I have always found it odd, and hugely irritating, when I hear a woman asked at the end of a talk or in interview ‘what’s it like being a woman in this industry?’ I have never heard a man asked what it’s like to be a man in this industry. This implies by default that the industry is a man’s world.

Have I been too naïve for the past 41 years of my life? Having been brought up in an age where girls were taught that they could do anything a man could; that they didn’t have to choose between family life and a career, had I fallen for the fallacy that we could ‘have it all’ ? That men and women were truly equal in the workplace.

Things have improved in the past 30 years, but women are still under-represented in this industry. There are not enough women on judging panels, not enough women speaking at events and not enough women in leadership positions (still only 30% of executive leadership in the creative industries is female).

At graduate level it seems pretty even, both in terms of numbers of recruits and in the balance of pay. However, as women climb towards leadership level, their numbers decline. As do their earnings in relation to their male colleagues. Figures from the Office for National Statistics at the end of 2013 showed that there was a 12% salary gap in the creative industries and there is no current indication of of improvement.

So how do we push for change? I’ve always been adamantly against positive discrimination and targeted recruitment. But I’m also against organisations being run predominantly by white, middle class men with similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and therefore similar ideas and opinions. There is a danger that creativity will lose its richness, range and relevance unless a diverse group of people contribute to it.

Some, including Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, seem to suggest that women should act more like men to put themselves on a level competitive field.

Surely that will only perpetuate the status quo? We need more women in leadership to show that you can be successful without compromising on so-called feminine values.

One of the main, and most obvious, reasons that the numbers of women decline at senior levels isn’t necessarily to do with gender, but with motherhood. For women who take time out to have children, returning to the long and unpredictable hours of agency life can be a challenge to balance with the responsibilities of caring for small children, especially when childcare can be prohibitively expensive. The agency I currently work at has offered me the same opportunities as my male colleagues and yet there are still only two women with children in an organisation of almost 70 people. Most of the senior female designers I know work as freelancers, where they can juggle work and life more easily and enjoy higher earnings to accommodate childcare costs. For a supposedly creative industry, many agencies still seem to have surprisingly narrow-minded views on flexible ways of working.

It’s not just about gender; there’s a broader diversity issue. Creative industries are overwhelmingly white, male and middle class and this is a problem. Exciting new ideas and creative approaches usually come from teams that comprise people with a range of views and experiences. Allowing flexible working to widen the opportunities, to embrace more people with a wide range of backgrounds and situations, can only enrich this. You can’t say ‘let’s hire a woman; it’ll add a bit of diversity’; you just need to hire people who aren’t all from the same mould, to make sure you get a rich enough input of ideas and opinions.

However, if you are a man and you find yourself with a woman in your company, don’t feel you need to hire another woman to talk to her. You can talk to her yourself. You might find that men and women aren’t as different as you think.

 

First published on The Drum, 10 April 2015.