The gender gap in the design industry (or, the least surprising news you read this week)

If this suprises you, let's talk.

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There is a gender gap problem in the design industry. You'd think that in a field that's all about creativity and forward-thinking, there would be equal representation of men and women. But, that's not the case. Despite many women studying design and entering the workforce, they still face significant underrepresentation in leadership positions. Surprise, surprise, the world is still a patriarchy, even in the design world.

So, is there actually anything that we can do to change it, short of a revolution, of course?

The problem (an easier title would have been ‘men’ but we know how sensitive they can be)

The causes of the gender gap in the design industry are complex—as are the gender gap problems that we see in a lot of other industries. One big issue is unconscious bias. This is when our implicit attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes influence our decisions and actions without us even realizing it. With men usually being the ones in leadership positions making hiring decisions, they can unconsciously favour men over women.

This is the beginning of a vicious circle where more men get promoted to leadership roles and are then the ones making the hiring decisions. And, in an industry that is all about networking and building a portfolio, this is obviously a huge issue because men get put on better projects. They can then use this as justification for getting promotions but if women are never given the same opportunities, the process is rigged.

The way women would usually go about handling these kinds of problems would be with an HR department, but, in the design industry, a lot of people work as freelancers or for smaller companies that don't have HR departments. So, there is no one to take your complaints to.

Another factor is the culture in the industry. With long hours and tight deadlines, someone who has commitments at home, like caring for children, is at a real disadvantage. And, of course, these kinds of responsibilities often fall on women. This is why it’s impossible to separate the issues in the design industry from the issues that we see in society at large.

Will things ever actually change?

It's difficult to think that the gender gap in the design industry will ever disappear while it's still so apparent in the world at large. In fact, Otta, a recruitment company, took a look at their data and found that women ask for less money than men across the board—15% less to be exact. What is even more startling is that black women ask for 40% less than white men as their minimum salary for the same role.

Increasing transparency in all industries, including design, on hiring practices, salaries and diversity and inclusion initiatives is a start. And we should be praising companies that are trying to address the issues.

Some design schools and professional organizations are offering things like mentorship programmes, networking opportunities, and professional development workshops. Also, some design firms have taken note of the problem and are implementing practices to promote gender equality and diversity. This includes flexible working arrangements, equal parental leave policies for men and women, and unconscious bias training for those responsible for hiring.

But a big part of addressing the problem is changing the way people perceive women in the industry. The unconscious bias that exists comes from somewhere, right? And this is often the belief that a man would be better at the job. We are exposed so much more to the work that men do that it can be easy to start to think that men are the only ones doing it well. So we have to increase the visibility of women in the industry.

There have been so many successful women who have made significant contributions to the field, and they deserve to be celebrated and highlighted in curriculums and design publications. By shining a light on the achievements of women in the design industry, we can help to dispel the myths and stereotypes that have perpetuated the gender gap.

This is not just a women's problem, though. It's something that everyone in the industry should be concerned about. Even if not for the reasons of decency, humanity and allyship, but for the fact that it will make the industry better. Design is best when it draws inspiration from diverse cultures, views, and backgrounds, but that can only happen with actual diversity in the industry, including in leadership and decision-making roles. If leadership roles aren’t diverse, even if other parts of the companies are, then the changes will always only be a facade rather than real systemic changes.

Where do we go from here?

Women who have the ability to do so should consider starting their own businesses and building the design communities they want to be a part of. With more opportunities for smaller brands out there, this can be a positive thing for women who feel shut out by the male-dominated businesses in the industry.

These communities can be places where not only are women given a more equal opportunity, but also people from other minority backgrounds or anyone who comes into the industry with a disadvantage. Building intersectional communities is the only way that the industry will change at all.

The other option is revolution. Burn it to the ground and start again. I’m on board for either.