KTGA few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a very, very special breakfast.

On the top floor of The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, a group of creative types gathered to eat bagels, mingle and, above all, discuss one very important issue: women’s role in the design industry.

Kerning The Gap (founded by MD of Good Creative, all-round Wonder Woman and long-term friend to Copy Kat Creative, Miss Nat Maher) is a collective of like-minded people who want to see more women in design leadership roles, hear their voices and be inspired to create change. So…pretty important shiz, I’m sure you’d agree.

The truth is, we have a problem in the design world. Namely, we girls are not getting our slice of the opportunity pie. Everyone loves a good hearty statistic, so feast your eyes on the following:

  • 70% of graphic design students are women; yet only 3% are Creative Directors.
  • Girls consistently outperform boys in all spectrums of education, yet only 18% of the board of FTSE 250 businesses are women.
  • The Drum’s 2015 list of the top 100 ‘designerati’ features 13 women.
  • David Cameron has insisted that businesses over 250 publish their pay scales, yet 98% of design businesses employ less than 50 people. So most of the design industry will scoot, unmoderated, right under that radar.

And if that hasn’t convinced you, try typing ‘CEO’ into your Google image search and see what crops up. See many women? Nope, you don’t (apart from an inexplicable picture of Barbie a few rows down). Instead, you see a rather exclusive deck of middle-aged, white men (granted, that search isn’t specific to the design industry but you get the idea).

I mean, what the actual fuck? This IS 2015, isn’t it? What, in the name of Pankhurst’s bloomers, is going on? Where exactly are all these ladies pulling over on the road from perky humanities student to Creative Director?

Motherhood, would seem the obvious answer. We need  a little time off if we are to start a family, it’s an inarguable fact of life. And that time off can often stick the proverbial lead pipe in the spokes of our journey up the career ladder, particularly when it comes to snagging those juicy directorial roles.


But, BUT. There’s more to it than that. Some of the stories I heard at Wednesday’s breakfast were from as-yet childless women who had been preemptively discriminated against for being, well, women. It would seem that anybody over 25 and under 50 with a womb can be minding their own business and find themselves being considered a flight risk by prospective employers. So much so that women are losing out in the interview room simply because they are (often inaccurately) considered to be at a ‘fertile’ time of life. Which, frankly, makes us sound like cattle.

Much like many of the women (and men) present at Kerning The Gap’s launch event, I had my own collection of first- and second-hand war stories of sexism experienced in the workplace. Ideal female candidates being dismissed in the interview room under a cloud of “She’ll be skipping off to have babies the second we hire her”; prime Head of Creative roles going to male employees with children over female employees with children; teams of almost entirely female designers being managed exclusively by male heads of department. We heard it all. But the most distressing story I heard that day, however, was when one brave member of the congregation revealed that she had fibbed to her colleagues about where she was that morning. She feared that her attendance at an event that raised questions about women’s rights within the design industry would be frowned upon by her employers and – worse still – deemed a waste of precious work hours. Jeepers.

Of course, we cannot laden employers with all the fault. One of the issues that was raised by our magnificent guest speaker (ex-CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, Cheryl Giovannoni) during the morning was the crowd-splitting notion, “Are women actually taking too much maternity leave?” In other words, have we dug our own grave? Have our sisters who have gone before us paved the way with a ruinous domino effect? By taking (in some cases) over a year or maternity leave and then blithely expecting a business to have remained static without them, our foremothers have potentially given all women a bad rep for this kinda thing. Does taking an “indulgent” amount of time off to have a baby mean that you really ought to expect to forfeit your rung on the ladder? The various answers to that question can really divide a room, lemme tell you.

And lest we forget, to actually ask a candidate if she or he is planning on starting a family any time soon is a big professional no-no. That’s how you get yourselves sued, or so legend has it. So, you’ve just got to…what? Take your best guess? Seems a pretty reckless hiring technique. So as an employer, your options are limited: take a chance on the female candidate who, while perfect for the job, is the better side of 30 and looking a touch broody about the eyes, or give it to someone (be they younger, older, male or simply wearing a big ‘I hate children’ sandwich board) who is less likely to leave on the next train for Babyville. While chronically unfair, choosing the candidate who is less likely to abandon the business for a year and demand that you keep their role open for that period of time (they need paying for that time off as well, don’t forget) inarguably makes better business sense.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one yet, of course. But it would seem that everyone – employers and employees alike – need to change their attitude towards women’s place in the designerati in general, with specific emphasis on changing how we view maternity leave. Employers need to stop regarding women as ticking baby bombs who are out to ruthlessly rinse them for maternity leave, and employees need to seriously question whether a company should really be expected to wait over year for them to return to work while they start a family. To paraphrase Giovannoni, some days in Design there isn’t time to stop for lunch, let alone time to have a baby.

My generation were told that we could have it all, but what I left the room with that morning as a 20-something woman trying to cobble together a career in Creative, was more along the lines of “We can have it all, but not all at the same time. What on earth do I want right now?”

The loftiest roles in the industry should be reserved for those that really want and work for them. Regardless of gender or age. THAT much, we can all agree on.

Our daughter’s’ daughters will adore us…

Are you a woman in design that would like to see more women at the top? Check out Kerning The Gap and come along to the next event to learn more.