Independent design strategist Lynne Elvins discusses the lack of diversity in top design roles – and the hows and whys of closing the gender and diversity gaps.
Surveys find that 70 per cent of graphic design students are women, yet only 11 per cent are creative directors. Girls consistently outperform boys in all spectrums of education, but only 18 per cent of the board members of Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 250 businesses are women (in 2015 there were more ‘men called John’ leading companies in the FTSE 100 than the total number of women on the list!). The 2015 top 100 ‘designerati’ listed by The Drum had just 13 women.
These are some of the headline points from Kerning the Gap, a new London-based collective of design industry people who want to see more women in design leadership roles. And they are not alone; Kat Gordon created the 3% Conference to address the fact that when she began, only 3 per cent of creative directors in the US were women.
So, is this all about women’s rights? Some of it is, and rightly so, but this demonstrates a wider issue about diversity, which is not just about gender but also about age, background, learning and thinking styles, nationality or other aspects that make us different. Embracing diversity is particularly vital for the design industry, because diversity fuels creativity.
In terms of gender alone, 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 greater problem solving.
So if the results are so great, what is stopping us? As the publication Graphic Designers Surveyed revealed in its findings of designers in the UK and US, the problem is not a shortage of women with the right skills and talent. The recent HeForShe conference in Shanghai confirmed that in China, women represent over 50 per cent of the talent pool and the same is true for women going into entry-level company positions. But it’s at the senior level where Chinese women represent only around 10 per cent.
It is cultural and organisational issues that prevent businesses from diversity. Cultural fit means familiarity, which doesn’t bode well for diversity, and in some organisations it is more important than professional skills. The other major problem is unconscious bias: whilst we might persuade ourselves we understand and encourage diversity, we carry a deep sense of preferring people like us. The flipside is that being amongst people who are not like us can cause discomfort, inhibit our communication and make cohesion more difficult.
We will therefore only reap the rewards of diversity if we work to overcome it intentionally and strive to override our inner programming. So, here are seven practical things that can be done to improve the diversity of your project teams or agency. And it is worth making changes, because creative strength lies in embracing differences and the friction of disagreements, not in the safety of similarities.
Speak up: to encourage diversity you have to discuss it and open up the subject to other people around you. It needs to be visibly recognized, supported and celebrated.
Flex: offer flexible working options to suit different needs. It will open up a wider talent pool and helps to retain staff.
Don’t interrupt: patronising or biased remarks often begin with an interruption. Look for anyone who cuts someone else off. Point it out as unacceptable.
Reword: women apply for jobs if they meet 100 per cent of the qualifications. Men apply if they meet 60 per cent. Rewording of job descriptions can boost the number of applicants.
Refuse: question teams, events or meetings that have a lack of diversity and consider a refusal to participate unless things are rectified.
See life outside: encourage people to show their hidden talents. Making time to share hobbies, interests and life stories will reveal another valuable layer of experience.
Share: if you have diversity in your senior people, share them as mentors, judges on award panels, or speakers at events.