How can the design industry tackle gender inequality?

In honour of International Women’s Day, Point 6 discusses issues facing women in the design industry – and what we can do to help.

As you’re probably aware, yesterday was International Women’s Day. Occurring every year on March 8th, the event raises widespread awareness for global gender equality.

Before you go and have a good laugh at comedian Richard Herring taking down keyboard warriors on Twitter, here’s our take on issues facing women in the design workplace – and what we can do to help.

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The current stats

According to last year’s Design Census, women in the US hold just 11% of leadership positions in the design industry, despite accounting for 61% of designers.

These figures are not surprising. But they do remind us that we still have a long way to go.

Of course, this problem runs a lot deeper than design. The gender pay gap in the UK sits at 17.9%, with women more likely to work lower-paid, part-time roles. In fact, around 15% of men work part-time, compared to 42% of women.

However, charity begins in the home, and examining how we can raise the bar is a great place to start.

For example, the ghost of the Christmas Peloton advert will haunt the creative industry for years to come. Widely panned as being ‘sexist and dystopian’, it depicts a housewife waxing lyrical about her Christmas present from her husband: an exercise bike. As the (notably already very slim) star of the ad graciously thanks her partner for such a ‘life-changing’ present, the undertones are that the best gift a husband can give his wife is the gift of weight loss.

Would this have happened if more (or any) women had been involved in the creative process? Almost definitely not. So, to avoid this sort of mistake happening again, what can be done to help?

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Take a stance

Well, if you’re a man, you play a huge role in championing your female colleagues. For example, amplifying women’s contributions in meetings – by affirming their points or asking follow up questions – can help women feel heard. Encourage women to apply for more senior roles, and celebrate their successes – loudly. This is important, as women are 50% less likely to apply for promotions than men

Artist Timothee Goodman has a policy of not taking part in events or projects that don’t offer equal gender and race representation. In fact, he recently shared this email exchange he had with a podcast. This is a strong example of solidarity, where those with power are willing to give up their seat at the table in order to promote equality. Stances like this are really important in an imbalanced world.

During day-to-day studio life, seemingly small things can make a difference. For example, when account managers allocate work, they need to ensure that any technically-challenging stuff is shared equally between both women and men.

And when it comes to maternity leave, which has long been the nail in the coffin of many women’s careers, levelling the playing field is the way to go. In Finland, parental leave now consists of seven months for each parent. This allowance can be taken simultaneously, and shared between both parents however they like. This marks a solid step towards gender equality in the workplace. If men and women both take equal time off, it would balance out the numbers, helping women progress into more senior roles.

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Mentorship for the win

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that women mentors have a definitive impact on more junior staff. For example, the quality of a company’s mentorship program is highly correlated with female employees’ overall happiness.

Veronica Ditting, Art Director at The Gentlewoman magazine, ‘I’ve never encountered any direct difficulties myself as a result of being female, but I’m aware of the challenges. I owe this to having been taught by confident female teachers during my studies, who were fabulous role models for myself and my peers’. It’s possible then, slowly but surely, that a new generation of women-empowered-by-women could make a real difference.

Point 6 designer and mural artist Elloise Mae Foster points out the importance of being your own cheerleader. ‘I have found unofficial mentors in nearly every job – about 70% female, and 30% male. Relationships are important, but when being the mentee, you need to initiate and do the bulk of the work yourself.’

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Looking forward

It’s worth noting that many design-industry challenges affect everyone, regardless of gender. Ariane Prin, Product Designer at Ariane Prin Design Studio, says; ‘It’s not to say that gender-specific challenges are a non-issue in design, but I have never experienced these differences personally.’

And Point 6 designer Em Angel is positive about recent steps forward. ‘I think nowadays female designers do get the same recognition as their male counterparts. However, it was very different back in the 1980s, when most industries were very male-dominated.’

Despite the established disadvantages women face in the workplace, it’s encouraging to hear first-hand accounts of positive experiences. So what does the future hold? Time will tell, but for Elloise, she’s pretty confident. ‘Baby, my future is BRIGHT!’

What is your experience with gender inequality in the design industry? Let us know!

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