The creative female-led projects fighting for equality

Gender imbalance is still pervasive across design professions, so what’s being done about it?

In 2016, we published an article discussing the lack of representation for women in the design industry. The statistics were depressing: 78% of designers were men, and 41% women in design were paid less than £20,000 per year, compared to 26% of men.

Three years on, and things have remained much the same. Recent research analysed by the Design Museum found that the percentage difference between male and female designers hasn’t changed, with just 22% of design roles occupied by women.

Even looking back as far as 2004, it’s clear that little progress has been made. The number of women working in design has only risen by 4% in the last 15 years, with underrepresentation seen across every discipline.

This is despite the fact that girls currently make up almost 70% of A Level entrants in design-related subjects. There are evidently young women who aspire for careers in design. Yet once they enter the working world, their ambitions are stifled by a long-standing and outdated tradition of male dominance.

The Co-Foundry is proud to be a female-led design agency. We strongly believe that women have valuable and innovative contributions to make to our field. When given the chance to lead, women thrive. Yet the next generation aren’t being given the chance to prove themselves.

As International Women’s Day approaches, we wanted to revisit the topic of underrepresentation for women in design, and see what’s being done at a grassroots level to change things. Perhaps through projects like these, there’s hope for gender equality to be achieved.

Empowering female communities

New York-based designer Jessica Walsh founded Ladies, Wine & Design as a place for women to encourage and support one another in their creative professions. By seeing other female designers as allies instead of rivals, LWD chapters in over 200 cities around the world challenge issues such as sexism, underrepresentation and the gender pay gap as a united front.

Jessica explains her reasons for starting LWD in an article on her website. “The fact that we are still focusing on women’s appearances instead of our talents or merits is obviously not helping,” she writes. “If we’re all being sexist – even women ourselves – how can we hope to end these ridiculous, insulting stereotypes?”

Changing the discourse from one of competition to collaboration is one of LWD’s key aims. Women like Jessica show that by forming engaged communities of female designers, we can work together to achieve change.


Amplifying female voices

“The simplicity of seeing a woman talk about her design work can have an enormous effect on the people watching and listening,” says Emma Blackburn, MD of the West England Design Forum and founder of gender equality initiative Up!. The group aims to champion women in design professions, providing a platform for their voices to be heard.

“In recent years WEDF have made a concerted effort to scout out and encourage women to speak at our events,” Emma continues. “This is to instil confidence in other women and give them the courage to talk on a stage; to challenge the notion that a woman on a panel is a ‘token’ of diversity; but mainly because woman create fantastic design solutions and run successful design businesses.”

Up! recognises the institutional barriers that often prevent women from furthering their careers. By embracing shared parental leave, encouraging mentorship for women and promoting the benefits of flexible working for both genders, Emma and her colleagues envision a world where groups like Up! are no longer needed.

“We know that one of the most powerful things we can do is to encourage local design leaders to be open and communicative about how they’re supporting women working in design on a practical level,” Emma adds.

“To quote former WEDF vice chair Lynne Elvins, ‘teams with more women demonstrate higher collective intelligence and bigger innovative success. Diversity encourages the search for new information and perspectives. It leads to better decisions and a greater level of problem solving.’ Surely this is the holy grail for all good designers?”

Promoting female leadership

The disproportionately small percentage of female leaders in design isn’t just unfair; it’s also suppressing diverse ideas that could change our industry for the better.

Motivated by the fact that only 11% of women are creative directors, London-based collective Kerning The Gap helps aspiring female designers to reach their potential and promotes discussion about the need for more women in senior roles.

In a column for Design Week, Kerning The Gap founder Natalie Maher explains her reasons for taking a stand against the lack of diversity in creative leadership. “Half of the challenge we have – 89% of it, in fact – is the current lack of women in leadership positions, who act as vital role models, and bring first-hand experiences of their own challenges to help reshape the legacy behind them.”

With more women in leadership positions, it’s possible that more female designers would recognise their potential to achieve similar levels of success, and strive for greater impact in the industry.

As Natalie points out, “We urgently need men and women to be equal parts of the solution. Whatever your gender, if you’re in a leadership position, you need to ask yourself if you’ve pulled the ladder up behind you; if you’re doing everything you can to boost diversity (of every form) in your leadership team.”


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