Where are all the women?

When I started at O Street, I was the only woman in the team amongst a bunch of beards and beers. Meeting the Glasgow creative scene for the first time at a design festival, my experience was much the same. This introduction to working within the design industry was at odds with my recent, predominantly female college experience. Where were all the women?

My Graphic Design degree class at Edinburgh College of Art had 11 graduates; only one of those graduates identified as male. As we approached our graduation in 2014, there was an undeniable air of optimism for us to boost the ranks of female graphic design graduates. On reflection, we were probably just making up the numbers. According to Graphic Designer Surveyed published in 2015 by GraphicDesign&, over half of emerging graduates were women. This is a startling fact to consider when, just a few rungs up the ladder, only 20% of partners at graphic design firms were women.

Despite my bubble-bursting introduction to the lack of gender diversity in graphic design and the industry generally, I never felt ‘othered’ by the O Street team. My gender never hindered or indeed influenced my time here. I am fortunate to be mentored by two genuine, inspiring and compassionate leaders, David and Neil. As a result, I have thrived as part of this creative family—going from a fresh-faced Junior to Creative Director at one of the best design agencies in the UK.

So, what’s the situation now? Are things any better nine years on?

International Women's Day - Kerning The Gap quote on yellow background.The gender disparity, while improving, still exists across the industry. As reported by Kerning the Gap, while 63% of graphic design students are women, only 17% are Creative Directors. We know that having female leader visibility is vital to pushing change—something that Natalie Maher (founder of Kerning the Gap) identified in creating her mentorship programme. So, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day by highlighting some of the incredible women at the forefront of design.

We have changemakers like Jessica Walsh, who founded her agency, &Walsh, in 2019, one of the 0.1% of creative agencies owned by women. A vocal advocate for women and non-binary representation in the industry, Jessica launched a non-profit initiative, Ladies, Wine & Design offering mentorship and networking events around the world. Check out Ashleigh Robertson and Lorraine Smith who currently run the Glasgow division. Ones to watch…

Speaking of ones to watch, Ilka were the OG female figureheads for me as a budding designerI was initially introduced to Lisa and Laura as the first LWD Glasgow hosts and celebrated later as they launched their design agency. They’ve gone on to become the first B Corporated certified studio in Scotland. Aspirational indeed; they set a precedent for a women-led design agency in Glasgow.

In more recent times, Sachini Imbuldeniya took pioneering steps to combat the lack of diversity in the industry, specifically the barriers facing women, people of colour, people living with disabilities, and people from a working-class backgrounds. She founded Studio Pi in 2020, a photography and illustration agency that champions the underrepresented. Their manifesto centres around bringing a fresh perspective to clients and brands, by creating a fairer world for underrepresented producers, illustrators and photographers.

Another headliner who has created a studio making iconic work for global clients is Rejane Dal Bello. Author of Citizen First Designer Second, Rejane refined her craft at Dunbar Studio and Wolff Ollins before launching her own studio. Rejane specialises in design with social needs in mind, exploring how simple design ideas can make a real impact.

Despite these pioneering figureheads, it’s worth acknowledging that there is still a way to go before we achieve a balance of gender, both in the design industry and in society in general. Among a myriad of issues, everyday sexism, prejudices, systemic discrimination and the gender pay gap contribute to this ‘lag’ in women in leadership. I can only hope that, as an industry, we can continue to build on the changing landscape that has started to emerge in recent years and champion those who deserve recognition.

Now when I look around our studio, I’m proud to see a strong, solid team of eight folks, five of whom are creative, ambitious and interesting women. I appreciate working with each of them every day and look forward to what the future holds for them (and us as a studio!).

This blog isn’t exactly an entirely new take, but we’d like to use it as an opportunity to share resources—tell us your favourite inspiring creative women, women-led studios, podcasts or authors. Where are all the women? We’re right here!

—Tessa

Relevant Reading:

Design by Women
It’s Nice That: Follow Their Lead
Design Week: Women are studying design – so where are all the female creative directors?
The Floating Magazine: People – Jessica Walsh
Creative Boom: Studio Pi

Women-led studios:

Practise for Everyday Life
Sail Creative
Rejane Dal Bello
Together Design
Salt and Sister
Studio Nari

Disclaimer: This blog is written from personal experience. I’m discussing a small part of the industry’s overall lack of representation and aware that many underrepresented people are affected by this disparity. I have not intentionally excluded anyone. However, please let me know of any errors.

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