Gender Equality in the Design Industry (Computer Arts)

How do you think gender affects the design industry, both in terms of the people in the industry and the work created?

I’d hope it makes us more balanced. Better placed to relate to the plethora of problems our clients put to us. Making all our work relatable to the masses, or to the specific audience we need to capture. The more eyes and the more points of view the better, so the more diverse we are and differing the characters in the studio, the stronger our output will be. 
 
Do you feel your gender has affected your career or work?

Previously I’ve said no, but I’m beginning to question how true that is. Luckily for me, I’ve only felt positive effects.

As for my work, I think it does. I’m trying to see my gender as a benefit — my passion often manifests as emotion, which helps clients relate to me, my fellow designers engage with my ideas and generally works as a leveller. When I started in this industry, I used to suppress the things that made me really feminine, at the risk of them being seen as weakness or insecurity. Embracing these traits and channelling them is very empowering, and I prefer the heart I see in my work because of it.

As for my career, I come down on the ‘yes’ side of the fence even heavier. The tides are turning, though it’s probably too bold to say it’s harder to be a young, white male designer than a woman in this climate. But I’ve been asked to work on career changing projects *because* of my gender (hopefully because of my design capabilities too) Other opportunities like speaking at Universities, writing for design blogs & magazines, talking at events… All historically unbalanced. As we strive to redress that balance, am I being asked over my equally capable male counterparts, purely because of my gender? We’re trying to right a history of inequality and injustice, and it’s possible the pendulum needs to sway a little far the opposite way for a while to begin the change.

You said: “Hard not to have an active interest when you’re looking up the ladder to a predominantly male top end” about gender equality. When did you realise that the people at the top were male — was that something you were aware of when you getting into design, for example? How did that make you feel?

It’s fairly well documented that University is predominantly female. Even looking at the tutors. It’s not a conversation we were having at that time (not like the students now), so I had little to no awareness of the imbalance when I took my first job. My boss invited me to a private viewing for a charity poster project and then onto the pub afterwards, where I met all the creative directors and founders of the agencies we’d been worshipping for three years. A pretty exciting moment. They were all men, mid-thirties, majority white. It’s unfair to take this pub gathering and summarise the whole design industry but at that moment, coming back from the toilet and trying to recall which bearded man with glasses I was talking to, it felt like there was no Katie in 15 years time in that room. No representation of where I wanted to be, no one to look up to.

Do you think that the industry has a diversity problem in general (i.e. not just in terms of gender)?

I work in Bath which is hardly renowned for its diversity. It’s one of the whitest middle-class places in the UK. Coming from South Wales, and being brought up in a working-class village, I’m hyper-aware of our privilege. You need only wait in line at Waitrose for 5 minutes before being smacked in the face with it.

I can’t speak for the industry as a whole because I’ve seen the inside of so few studios, but at the design events here there isn’t much diversity. Speaking to my boss (who’s been in the game for a few decades longer than me) he can name the amount of designer’s he’s worked with who are mixed-race. Which is bonkers.
 
Are there ever any projects where one gender is better placed to respond to the brief? Why/why not?

I’m reluctant to say better placed. I think there are projects that need a response from both genders. Or maybe it’s just needing two different points of view. Would it be hard to design tampon packaging as a man? Maybe, but not impossible. I’d be pretty annoyed if someone said I couldn’t design condom packaging (not the best direct example but…) It can be really interesting to take someone with no frame of reference, or not the intended user, and see their outcome.

Of course, some of the most memorable and longstanding projects are because the designers really got under the skin of the problem. It is hard to know the pitfalls of tampon packaging if you’ve never used one.

Do you think women and men bring different traits to the table (you mentioned being emotional, compassionate and empathetic, for example?) and how does this affect studio life/the industry/the work created?

They absolutely do. That’s not to say these traits are strictly assigned to gender, I know some incredibly compassionate, empathetic, emotional men. Those qualities in myself I saw as a negative, maybe because we’re taught they are? “Oh I’m just over-reacting” is a classic example. When you decide that those reactions actually mean you’re super passionate, that changes how you act on your feelings.

I truly think a balance makes for a more stable work environment. I do some freelance work with a friend who could be described as the yin to my yang. Opposite in every way, but aligned in our goals. This principle is mirrored in some of the best partnerships I’ve seen — Sagmeister & Walsh, Baxter & Bailey, Wiedemann and Lampe. Although predominantly male, they work well together because of their differing characters and opposing traits. So capitalising on the differences between male & female designers could be very powerful.
 
What practical measures do you think people of any gender take to readdress the current gender (im)balance in design?

We should all start with an awareness of the gender split in our studios. Is it fairly even, or is it male top heavy? Are there legitimate reasons for that inequality? We need to constantly question ourselves and each other, in a non-attacking manner. Timothy Goodman (a talented designer based in New York) always asks for a full line up of speakers before he agrees to attend an event. He’s checking for inclusivity — if different genders and ethnicity are represented fairly. And if not, he suggests alternative people he thinks would help to create a more diverse programme. This seems a very tactful, but powerful way to do your bit to correct the imbalance.

What do you think we should be aiming for as an industry: gender equality in all areas? Gender neutrality? Gender fluidity? Something else? (I know these terms are all super-hard to define so interpret as you wish!)

Equality. Freedom to do as you wish — whether that’s run the meetings, work part-time, wear heels & wear trainers, speak up, stay quiet, cry at an advert, talk fantasy football all day. Everyone should have all the opportunities, and then feel free to choose which ones they want without judgement or shame. We should be aiming for our work to define us, not our choices or our genders.

Has the #MeToo movement helped/affected any of this stuff in design specifically? Do you think it will lead to long-lasting change, or is it just a trend?

We’re seeing a shift in portfolios, I don’t think I’ve received a female portfolio this past 12 months that doesn’t touch on the subject of gender equality. So I suppose it’s brought the subject to the forefront in our, and every industry. It will be interesting to see how these women (and men) who have done their learning during this conversation approach situations. What will that awareness mean? Hopefully, it will keep us all on our toes, questioning and striving to be better. And best case scenario, it will mean the generation after us will be closer to equality than ever before.

Are there any further projects, books, work or groups you would recommend people look at in this area?

If you’re a young woman looking for guidance or a role model, I’d recommend signing up for Kerning the Gap. Nat (the founder) is so passionate and eloquent about the space between men and women in the design industry. Ladies, Wine & Design is another one — started by Jessica Walsh and carried on by incredible ladies everywhere. See if there’s one locally to you, and if not, start one.

Small changes we can all make — I wish we bigged each other up a little more. I feel like the men are really good at it, especially on design twitter. Women are naturally quite competitive with each other and we need to work to break that habit. Like that feeling when someone compliments your outfit in the street. I’m going to work harder to dish that feeling out.

This article featured in issue #290 Computer Arts.