Is design still a man's world?

In a sector where more than half of emerging graduates are now female, Jessica Philpott considers whether the design industry has a glass ceiling.

Women make excellent designers, there's no question about that. We're fantastic communicators and we're multi-taskers. Anthropologist Helen Fisher describes women as 'web-thinkers', saying: "Women tend to collect more pieces of data when they think, put them into more complex patterns, identify more options and outcomes." These are all skills that undeniably make for a good problem-solving designer.

Today, over half of all design graduates are female, and the opportunity to combine the many different characteristics of female and male minds sometimes results in dream collaborations. Take NYC-based design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, for example. In 2012, graphic design legend Stefan Sagmeister joined forces with savvy SVA graduate Jessica Walsh, and an unstoppable, award-winning team was born.

So when invited to write about being a female designer and 'the thorny topic of the glass ceiling', I had to ask myself – have I been discriminated against during my career because I'm a woman? By my employer and work colleagues; absolutely not.

Equal opportunities

In 10 years of working at branding agency The Partners, I received exactly the same opportunities and support as the male designers. Gender was never considered an issue. In the teams at the agency there's an even balance of men and women, there have been both female and male creative directors, and staff are hired purely on the strength of their portfolio and personality, not their gender.

That's not to say that being a female hasn't been an issue occasionally. During introductions at pitches and presentations I've seen the look of apprehension on corporate clients' faces when informed that their creative director is the 30-year-old in the skirt and not the grey-haired guy in the suit. But that just fosters all the more incentive to present outstanding work, build solid relationships and develop trust.

I've seen clients' faces when they're told the creative director is the 30-year-old in the skirt, not the grey-haired guy in the suit

A former colleague of mine describes similar experiences: "I remember going to meetings with my male creative director and clients acknowledging only him – it was as though I was invisible. The clients soon found out that if they actually wanted any work or amends done, they really needed to talk to me."

I definitely learnt from an incident several years ago. In a meeting with an ad agency with which we shared a client, we were collaborating to find a solution for a tricky problem. I casually dropped a thought into the conversation, which a male ad exec (let's call him Bob) heard and repeated louder, for the room. Well, everyone liked that idea and by the close of the meeting they were patting Bob on the back for getting us out of our difficult situation.

I didn't say anything. Neither did Bob. At the end of the day it didn't really matter, we had our answer. However, in the lift on the way out of the building I was crawling up the walls with annoyance. Why didn't I speak up and say, "By the way, that was my idea"? More importantly, why didn't I just speak louder in the first place?

Make some noise

A lack of confidence and ego are probably among the reasons so few of the rock stars of the design world are women. That's definitely not because female designers aren't doing great work – but when it comes to self-promotion, it often seems to be the case that women simply aren't as noisy about it as men.

That is, of course, a generalisation, but over the years I've observed that it's in most women's nature to share success rather than fight for credit. We just don't do the chest-beating thing so much.

So, back to that 'glass ceiling'. Is there one? There are indisputably fewer women than men in senior creative roles at bigger agencies, and, overwhelmingly, child-rearing seems to be the ultimate reason why.

We might work hard and reach the top, but the last minute nature of this sector's demands and the dedication required makes combining a senior role and a family challenging. Design team management isn't a nine-to-five job, and having children frequently necessitates stepping back. However, evolving work practices and improved facilities for remote working means there are still lots of options.

Working for a personal company or going freelance allows for increased flexibility, but when it comes to family and high-flying careers, I really have immense respect for the women who achieve both.

Words: Jessica Philpott

Jessica Philpott is an independent branding designer currently working with various agencies in London. Previously she worked for The Partners for 10 years, in London and then New York, where she rose up the ranks to creative director.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 219

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