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Analysis: Where are all the women in design?

Journalist Mairi Clark attended a recent Designer Breakfast seminar looking at the role of women in the design industry. Here, she writes on some of the views to emerge from the panel of speakers, which included Penny Baxter, Sara De Bondt, Nat Hunter and Jack Renwick.

The issue of why there are not more women in senior positions in the design industry is a problem that can only be solved by a change of attitude by both the industry and women, according to the panel of speakers at a recent Women In Design breakfast seminar.

The seminar, held on 20 March at The Design Museum in London, is part of a series of Designer Breakfasts organised by designers Mike Abrahams and Amanda Tatham since 2005.
Discussing the theme of “Where are the women in design?” were Penny Baxter, co-founder of 60-strong Salter Baxter; Sara De Bondt, director of Sara De Bondt studio and visiting professor at School of Art, Ghent and co-founder and director of Occasional Papers; Nat Hunter, founder of the recently-closed Airside, who left after 14 years to become the new co-director of design at the RSA and director of Tokyo Digital; and Jack Renwick, the former creative director for The Partners who has just founded Jack Renwick Studio.

Women’s role as mothers and the challenge that presents was omnipresent throughout the conversation; however several of the speakers made succinct points that women’s choice of work or family was not the only hindrance in the rise of senior women in design. “It’s not about a male/female balance,” said Baxter. “It’s about performance. There are a lot of women in design but we are not seeing a lot of women coming to interviews as designers. In account management and consultancy there’s more but not design. It creates a different dynamic when you have a team of all-male designers.”

Renwick agreed with Baxter’s views, saying; “I’ve struggled to find really good female designers and when I did find any at all the work wouldn’t be as strong. I was actually getting to the point where I was debating whether I was willing to compromise. And I wasn’t. It’s very difficult to have a high profile career in design. It’s not a sexist thing, it’s a biological thing. There are compromises that you have to make when children are involved and once you get into the situation of working with international clients, there can be a lot of travelling. That can’t always be worked around.”

Karen House, one of the delegates and a former designer, is now a life coach. She disagreed with a couple of the speakers’ points about compromise. “I think it’s less about compromise and more about flexibility,” she said. “One of the things that women bring is that huge amount of flexibility. They will work around their children and email at 11pm at night. And the travel can be accommodated, as women are incredibly organised because they have to be when they have children.”

An interesting comment was made by the sole male delegate at the event, Simon Driver. He introduced himself by explaining he was a designer whose parents had been architects, and when he was a child they were always working so he hardly saw them. He admitted that he’d left work with a design agency, to work for himself when he started a family. “I wanted to see my children grow up,” he said. “Now, some 14/15 years later, I’m in a position now when I want to go back into working with big companies, and I’m dealing with people who don’t understand why I went from working in an agency to working for myself. I’m almost like a man with a female problem.”

Nat Hunter also shared her experience of speaking at conferences citing one where she was asked to present, and when she appeared in the ‘green room’ at the conference was approached by “one of the middle-aged, bald men who seemed to make up the majority of the speakers”. “He explained that he was so pleased to see a female speaking as every year there were comments that there should be more women speakers,” she said. “He told me that most women said no, and if they did say yes, they would drop out just before the event.”

Hunter went on. “Women don’t want to boast, and in order to compete, they have to be more male.” She told of an experience of advertising for a member of staff where both male and female applicants were asked about their salary. “The men were far more adept at stating what they thought they were worth.”

She also picked up on Baxter’s point about women moving into account management and non-creative roles. “Women get lost in the admin of design rather than the creative side,” she said. “Simply because they’re better at organising things and good at people management.”

Staff perception of women in high profile roles is also something that can hold women back. Renwick pointed out that at The Partners, some members of staff would seek her counsel for difficult issues. “I’ve never felt that being a woman was a hindrance,” she said. “I think there’s a perception that ‘if it’s a soft issue, speak to a woman.”

Renwick also touched on the difficult subject of women and maternity leave. “I do think that women as well as men also think about it when hiring women,” she said. “You do wonder if they’ll go off to have children. I know we should all be ‘women together!’ in this, but it does go through your mind. But ultimately, if the person is great, you hire them.”

The next Designer Breakfast will take place on 17 April, again at the Design Museum. The speaker will be designer Harry Pearce from Pentagram, who will talk about his work with Peter Gabriel’s human rights charity, Witness.

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