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  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

Challenging the gender of creativity

Last autumn I was a lecturer on an ethics and diversity brief for BA Graphic Design at Kingston School of Art and one student was looking at the statistics of women working in creative industries.

In a Design Museum study in 2018 women only made up 22% of the design workforce. This is despite over 60% of university arts and design courses being filled with female students. So where do all the women go?

My experience of the UK design industry probably hasn’t been typical. I started out in the early noughties freelancing in a female-dominated publishing department at the BBC, then landed my first full-time design job in a small but established studio where the majority of the design team was female, besides the boss. The studio remained predominantly female for the 16 years I worked there, so although the culture wasn’t the typical ‘late night working with beer and pizzas’ kind of studio where many of my peers from art school had found themselves, I felt when my wife and I were expecting our daughter that working in a design studio wouldn’t be a compatible career with having a baby. The simple reason being even on non-deadline days I wouldn’t be home in time for my daughter’s bedtime. Therefore we founded our own company where we could be more flexible with our hours as well as working closer to home (well we built a studio downstairs!).

In a Design Museum study in 2018 women only made up 22% of the design workforce.

The design industry is by no means an anomaly – in most, if not all industries, as people climb the career ladder there are less women, with a very small percentage of women reaching CEO level. Organisations tackling the ‘motherhood penalty’ such as Pregnant Then Screwed and Gendering Change are doing great work to lessen female inequalities in the workplace but the fact we’re still talking about it means we are nowhere near a place of parity. Whether the blurring of work and life for many designers working from home through Covid has helped or hindered the cause remains to be seen.

I’m interested to find out if women at varying stages of their design careers feel hindered by their gender, so I’ve asked six successful women I know, some questions to hear their views. And what better day than International Women’s Day to have this conversation, challenge our industry and help provoke change.

Here’s my chat with Rebecca Sutherland, Sana Iqbal, Gill Thomas, Ruth Sykes, Lucy Davidson and Katherina Tudball.


Julia: Firstly can you tell me a bit about your design backgrounds and how long you’ve been in the industry.

Rebecca: I started as a graduate in Graphic Design at Norwich. This was the mid-eighties and we were all lumped into one class of around 35 photography, animation, illustration and graphics students. I went there to do illustration, but the graphics part of the course was more welcoming, so I tried really hard to get a good degree. When I graduated I trawled around with my portfolio to get a job, and I eventually landed one at Coley Porter Bell. There I worked with a team on brand packaging. What I learnt was I didn’t want to do that! However, fate stepped in and I started a family, only to emerge years later as an illustrator.

Sana: My passion for social justice and creativity naturally led me to study Graphic Design and Illustration at Liverpool John Moores. After graduating in 2015 I've led an unusual path, from interning around different London studios to designing the visual identity for Labour Party fringe festival ‘The World Transformed’ to branding the Mayor of Lewisham selection campaign for Damien Egan. I now work for The Storytellers creating employee brands and culture change campaigns.

Gill: I fell into design by chance rather than making an active or informed choice. I studied graphic design at Liverpool in the early eighties. I didn’t really know what it was and was very surprised that everyone else had done a foundation course, I didn’t know what that was either and I had just turned up after completing my A-levels.

My first job was at Pentagram working for Mervyn Kurlansky in the mid-eighties where I learned about the craft side of design. My second job was at Newell & Sorrell (now part of Interbrand) where I learned to work very quickly! My third and final agency job was at The Partners (now part of Superunion) where I started as a mid-weight designer and left a staggering 18 years later having been the Creative Partner and on the board for a few years. I left in 2006 and since then I have been an ‘independent creative brand consultant’ (whatever that is) working with a number of agencies, including my first agency Pentagram, and clients on the strategic side of brand and communications projects, with a bit of teaching and coaching thrown in. I find the strategy side of projects considerably more interesting and no longer work on the design side at all.

Having children remains the elephant in the room for most professions.

Ruth: I started working as a graphic designer in 2001 and began teaching a couple of years after that. I freelanced at various places before setting up in partnership with Emily Wood (who I was at college with). Our first job was exhibition graphics for an art exhibition in the V&A garden (pictured) working for the curators UP Projects. It was a brilliant one to start off with, and our design practice became a mix of exhibition graphics, publication design and visual identity work, alongside teaching.

Lucy: I graduated from Kingston School of Art’s graphic design BA in 2019. Since then, I have been freelancing as a designer, illustrator, facilitator and maker for a variety of organisations across the charity, social impact and co-design sectors but primarily on projects to do with local government, places, spaces and inequality.

Katherina: My mother is a designer and artist, so I grew up with the existing privilege of understanding the term ‘graphic design’ and having a female role model. I studied Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins where I began collaborating with fellow student and host of this chat, Julia. On graduation in 2001 we were both hired (as a junior design duo – highly unusual in retrospect) by Michael Johnson at the design and branding agency Johnson Banks. Julia and I worked there together for over a decade. In 2016 I joined The Partners as a Design Director and began leading a creative team and heading projects. The Partners was one of the agencies that joined forces to form Superunion in 2018 which is where I work now in my role as a Creative Director.

Rebecca Sutherland. Menagerie Californica for San Francisco Design Festival.

Julia: Do you think gender equality has changed over the course of your education and careers?

Rebecca: I think it’s changing. I think men and women are waking up to the fact that we have to force ourselves out of this white male profession to be inclusive to all groups. My daughter did the same course as me and complained that speakers for talks were all white middle-aged men. Yet I still have to ask universities if I can talk to their students and have only been invited once on the premise that my husband would do a follow-on talk.

Sana: During my second year of university I visited different design studios around Liverpool. It was problematic as my course was full of women yet the studios were male-dominated. Since then I have noticed a positive change with more female designers in positions of influence. I believe women and non-binary networking groups have been essential in this progress. They're helped me to find a safe space for support, brilliant mentorship and opportunities to build my self-confidence.

Gill: It’s not something that I have been that conscious of but thinking about it now when I worked at Pentagram, all the partners were men and all the secretaries were not. There are now two female partners and ten male partners in the London office 37 years on – slow progress indeed. The Partners was also very male dominated with token women in senior positions – most of the women were in project management roles. The design teams were pretty evenly split.

All the partners were men and all the secretaries were not.

Ruth: Yes. At school I wasn’t allowed to take technical drawing as it was for boys only.

According to the careers advice hand-out from the council (at the time, my only source of information on how to be a graphic designer), technical drawing was the first step on the path to becoming a graphic designer. I needed that first step because like so many of us, I had no role models (of either gender) to speak to about how to have a creative career, let alone graphic design. That’s changed, the idea that only one gender can take a particular subject.

Lucy: Since working professionally, I’ve worked almost completely with and for women – not intentionally, but in my experience, there are a lot of women in the social design sector and I can’t say I’ve faced any gender related issues. I can’t speak for any other corners of design or how things used to be, but the little pocket of work I’m in is full of genuinely very inspiring, interesting and thoughtful leaders who are women. I’m really lucky to be so early in my career at a time where these conversations are happening and where we’re hopefully heading in the right direction for equal workplaces. That being said – it would be great to see some more women of colour and marginalised people next!

Katherina: Studying design in the late 90s I was barely aware of the lack of equality in our industry. There was a kind of “post-feminist, ladette culture” in Britain at the time – as if women drinking pints and the Spice Girls had solved the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers. On graduation I soon observed that many London studios were extremely male dominated with women seeming to only work in non-creative support roles. It looked like all the designers in those places were young clones of the Creative Director. Every design hero I could see was a white man, and figures like Paula Scher felt like extremely rare exceptions to the rule. I also remember once mentioning that perhaps being successful as a designer was harder for women – the comment was flatly denied and dismissed by a group of respected male designers.

I can see that women in design are far more aware of the subtleties of inequality now and that is a great thing. Visibility of female creativity is so important for younger women to imagine their future selves and feel equal to the men that dominate our industry. I suspect sometimes that I have been invited to do things as the ‘token woman’ although it feels like what started as an empty gesture is becoming a real commitment with many more gender balanced awards juries and conference speaker lists. But the big issues women face in design are the issues of wider society: how can motherhood and career actually balance when men are not under the same pressures to do it all? How can supposedly female traits and behaviours, such as empathy, be seen as truly valuable in leadership. And how can women and minority groups be seen as whole, fully rounded human beings? We need to shift the norm of white, heterosexual men being the default for ‘human’. Things are changing but there is so much further to go.

Sana Iqbal. 'The World Transformed' festival branding

Julia: Do you think being female has hindered your career progression?

Rebecca: As soon as I was expecting my first child I realised what the difference between men and women was. Design is not 9 to 5. It is a commitment above and beyond your personal time. I have always felt there was no other hindrance in terms of my sex. In design you are judged on your talents, your work ethic and your attitude first of all. A company like Together have no problem with female staff and pregnancy. When I was pregnant, the bosses at CPB in 1988 were mainly women, yet I was told that people in our profession just didn’t do that at my age. Having children remains the elephant in the room for most professions.

Sana: There have been moments in my career where I've walked into a male-dominated room, and I've not been seen. It was traumatic, and it's taken me time to understand the harsh reality that I'm not only female, but Pakistani and Muslim which brings further barriers. I'm sad to say I did change to give myself a better chance to be taken seriously such as dressing less 'feminine' or 'ethnic'. As I've matured and surrounded myself with supportive designers I've become stronger in expressing my identity.

Gill: I’m not sure if gender has hindered my career. I find it difficult to know if my persistent lack of confidence and imposter syndrome is due to my gender or my character, maybe a bit of both. I have always felt that I need to work harder to earn my place at the table and have never been able to ‘wing it’ as I have seen more often with more of male colleagues than female.

I have not had children but feel pretty sure that if I had it would have hindered my career progression at The Partners as it did for other women. The men who had children may have seen less of them than they might have in other environments, due to the nature of the late night and last minute working culture.

I had a very extraordinary experience once when I was working on an annual report and needed to stay in a hotel for a few nights as we would be called at any time day or night to approve work on the printing press. I returned back to my room around 4am one morning to find I had been locked out of my room. When I checked at the desk I was told ‘the hotel would not tolerate people like me at the hotel’ and handed over my packed bag. I was confused at first and then realised they thought I was a prostitute. I decided to sleep in a chair in the lobby until I could get a cab home in the morning much to their horror. I’m not sure that would have happened to a male colleague…

I’m sad to say I did change to give myself a better chance to be taken seriously such as dressing less ‘feminine’ or ‘ethnic’.

Ruth: Discrimination delayed me starting my career as a graphic designer, as I went down a more academic path at school after the technical drawing disappointment. So I started my graphic design career ten years after I wanted to.

Once I started working as a graphic designer, there were the usual unwanted comments at work. ‘Only boys work here, though, why are you here?’ ‘I like your work but I just don’t think you’ve got the balls for this job.’ ‘You were allowed chips as a child? We were told girls who ate chips would do anything’ (rather bizarre and gratuitous that one, just over a general comment about what shall we have for lunch).

It’s hard to know if that general stereotypical attitude hindered my career progression.

But when men speak to you like that, in front of other designers, clients and professionals, in a work context, maybe it builds up in your mind over time and starts to knock your confidence. Even if the intention is just for a ‘laugh’.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had those comments, thankfully. I hope that means the message has got through that they’re not ok.

Lucy: I don’t necessarily think it’s hindered. I think that there are times where I’ve subconsciously steered away from opportunities that feel like ‘boy’s clubs’ because I really can’t be arsed but never at times that would be detrimental to career progression. Again, I’ve been really, really fortunate to work pretty much solely with great women and as a result I’ve never had to question how my gender affects my work.

Katherina: For me Central Saint Martins felt very gender balanced and international, young women were exceling around me, I admired my female tutors and anything felt possible. Working at Johnson Banks was also a bit of a protective bubble – although our boss was a man the small studio was majority female and more diverse than most. In those environments my gender didn’t seem like it would hinder me. However looking back I certainly experienced everyday sexism regularly as a young woman – it was so normal that it was barely worth remarking on.

The older I got the more I realised that I couldn’t imagine myself as a Creative Director and that somehow my early ambition had been slowly dampened. I also had the vague idea that if I started a family in the future I would have to sacrifice my career entirely and I saw no direct examples of a successful path to leadership that I could emulate. I was limiting my own potential because of what I saw as the norm. I sought career advice from men, who were very kind, but all had a similar experience and point of view. Eventually I spoke to a few leading women in our industry, including two female Creative Directors – it turned everything around, those small conversations gave me a huge sense of my worth and potential.

Gill Thomas. Lockdown walks

Julia: Do you think Covid has made it more or less difficult for women in the design industry?

Rebecca: It has had little effect on me as I have worked from home for many years. I am accustomed to organising my time and being alone. But I have had very little freelance illustration work. It’s starting to pick up now and I’m finding the diary filling up again.

Sana: I have heard a few horror stories, the worse has been the consistent experience of female designers being furloughed or made redundant whilst their male colleagues are untouched. Personally I've found lockdown to be a blessing. Being on your period and working in an office is awful. You feel pressure to work as usual when you're in complete agony. Working from home has allowed me to be comfortable as I can have my hot-water bottle, rest when I'm exhausted and worry less about forcing a smile when my body is in pain.

Gill: I have worked from home for many years now, only going into client or agency offices for meetings and presentations as needed – so less of a change there than if I was heading into a studio every day. Work definitely took a big drop when the first lock down hit. It picked up from the middle of last year and I’m now a full time Zoomer and miss my daily lockdown walks! I have noticed a significantly higher impact on the women who I work with in agencies than the men. The demands of having children at home has most definitely fallen to them in most, not all, circumstances.

Women in design are far more aware of the subtleties of inequality now and that is a great thing.

Ruth: It’s been so difficult – tragic – for many people. At least much of the work in design and higher education can be done at home, safely – if the work is still there, of course.

Most of us aren’t in a front line, essential service situation. I’m grateful to be well and working.

Within families, it’s often women who are more likely to do more of the caring, domestic, and emotional labour anyway, and lockdown has increased that load. Or, if their partner is male they are potentially more likely to be earning more (pay gap…). So if anyone has to take furlough to cover the extra home labour, economic pressures – caused by gender inequality – make career progression harder for women if the home labour isn’t equally shared. Presumably the graphic design industry isn’t an exception to any of this.

Lucy: Specifically for me, I’ve enjoyed being able to spend time at home and not having to get dressed if I don’t want to and not needing to brush my hair and not having to get on the tube – I haven’t touched makeup for months and my skin loves me for it.

On the flip side, I know more women than I should who’ve been made redundant or who’s work has seriously dried up. Obviously there’s no proof this is down to gender but it wouldn’t be surprising if a man’s security was prioritised over his female colleagues’.

Katherina: In some ways I think working remotely as the norm has finally made a level of flexible working acceptable and real for some designers with children. But balancing life right now is hard enough for everyone let alone those with little ones to care for. My admiration for all the creative mothers working through Covid is enormous. Personally, I like being able to work in a more focussed way in my own space without the distractions of the studio, but I desperately miss the magic of being in the same room and bouncing ideas around with the team. A bit of both is probably my ideal.

Ruth Sykes. Invitation and flyer for The Other Flower Show exhibition at the V&A, curated by UP Projects, designed by REG (Ruth Sykes & Emily Wood)

Julia: A route I designed once for a branding project was deemed too ‘male’ by the client (who didn’t realise I had designed it) which rather baffled me. Before that point I had never considered that a piece of graphic design might be seen as male or female. Do you think the work you do gives away your gender?

Rebecca: I was also told a couple of times that my writing was very male – this is for what has turned out to be a graphic novel – a long term project. I’m not sure gender has been assigned to any of my illustration work. Most should know what they’re getting through my work examples online. I work to art direction, so I’m as good as what is given.

Sana: I've never had anyone explicitly refer to a gender when it comes to my work. I have continuously experienced 'we need more women and ethnic minorities represented'. I'm strongly against producing work which doesn't truly reflect an organisation as it feeds tokenism and perpetuates inequality. After the Black Lives Matter protests the atmosphere has changed. I've experienced both designers and clients being aware of the harm caused by tokenism and understanding they can't place women on employee posters when they have none in their teams.

Gill: I can’t remember a time when anyone has made any overtly gender related comments about my work.

Gender codes are really weird and outdated – I think it’d be good if we could stop doing that.

Ruth: I don’t know. Once I went to a client meeting and they mentioned other designers who they weren’t using for the project because their work was too ‘boysey’ for the brief, though.

Lucy: Probably, I do a lot of hand drawn work and I’m into some pretty kitsch stuff, visually, so I can imagine it shines through in places. It’s never really been an issue though, nobody has ever gendered my work or commented that it’s too much of any one way. Gender codes are really weird and outdated – I think it’d be good if we could stop doing that.

Katherina: I’m not sure, I’m interested in creating work that expresses emotion but don’t know if that looks particularly ‘female’ and I’m equally drawn to brutal simplicity which perhaps might be seen as more ‘male’. I remember once my handwriting was selected by a client as the script font for their brand because they saw it as ‘gender neutral’. I think I’d prefer it if we didn’t judge visual culture in such a gendered way.

Lucy Davidson. North Star

Julia: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge’. In what ways do you challenge gender bias in design?

Rebecca: Firstly, university courses have to actively pursue a fairer portion of female speakers. Secondly, on a personal level we can all reject clichés of women and see them as people first. Finally, we need to befriend designers (whatever their sex) and build bridges. It’s hard, but we’ve tried the easy/lazy way for a millennia and it no longer fits with the way we live now.

Sana: I challenge gender bias by beginning with myself. That gender bias is beyond 'male vs female', it goes across all gender spectrums. That I will place time to support the next generation of women and continue to champion the poignant words given at my first lecture as an art student that 'there is plenty of room for everyone in the industry'.

Gill: I challenge gender bias by being me – being proud of what I’ve experienced and achieved and can now share with others especially through my coaching of female designers and young strategists.

It’s nothing to do with lack of female talent, suitability or supply, but due to social, cultural, economic, political forces that work systematically to support gender inequality.

Ruth: In my lecturer job, I make sure at least half of the speakers I invite are women.

I try and include a mix of male and female designers in teaching examples.

I research the history of women in graphic design to show women’s contribution to its development. I communicate my findings through exhibitions, writing for books and journals, doing talks, through teaching and sharing information online. Sometimes journalists ask me to share content about the subject for their articles and I am really happy to do that.

If students are interested in women in graphic design I share my knowledge with them. Historical research tells you why things are as they are. The reason why there’s gender disparity in graphic design historically and right now, why women’s work can still be valued less than men’s, why there are less female senior and prominent graphic designers.. etc. etc.

Even the reasons why graphic design history books are mainly about men’s work… it’s nothing to do with lack of female talent, suitability or supply, but due to social, cultural, economic, political forces that work systematically to support gender inequality.

It IS changing though … slowly! Bit by bit, drip, drip, drip the message is getting through. Thanks for hosting the chat Julia – it’s all part of the change!

Lucy: My mum was a graphic designer and had to give it up when she had me and my sister. I think she probably would’ve liked to have had more of a career but the early 90s were a different time. She always encouraged us to do what we loved, be kind and take up space. Along with some great mentors, I’ve never been made to feel like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do because I’m a girl. So that’s how I challenge gender bias - I do what I love, I try to be kind and I take up space.

Katherina: I hope I challenge gender bias by speaking up, being visible and being myself. I think honest conversations about creativity are more valuable than polished presentations and showing off – so I try to show the difficult bits and acknowledge the self-doubt and vulnerability that comes with creative work when I’m working with others or sharing my projects and experiences.

Katherina Tudball. BBC Two rebrand

Thank you to Rebecca, Sana, Gill, Ruth, Lucy and Katherina for sharing their thoughts and experiences of the design industry with me on International Women's Day 2021.

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