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In this video series about the future of women in design, The Drum speaks to female leaders and judges of The Drum Awards for Design about their experiences within the industry and finds out what actionable changes they’d like to see today.

The conversation around gender has evolved a lot recently, from the Me Too movement to calling out how few women there are moving up through the ranks. And in the design industry too, there’s still a long way to go before equality is claimed. 

It was this specific issue that was covered in a roundtable discussion The Drum hosted, moderated by John Mathers of the British Design Fund and involving Interbrand executive creative director Sue Daun, Design Bridge creative director Chloe Templeman, Bow&Arrow founder and creative partner Natasha Chetiyawardana, and Rosanna Vitiello, the co-founder of The Place Bureau.

A few years ago, the Design Council released figures that showed how 78% of the design workforce is male, despite women making up 63% of all students studying creative arts and design at university.

As an explanation of why this might be, Vitiello describes the design industry as being very extroverted. “That’s not something taught to women as they grew up.”

When looking at the advertising industry as a whole, 29% of creative directors are now female. Not so long ago that was just 3%. To be a female in those industries, however, there has long been a certain attitude and character you have to portray, says Daun. Thankfully, she says, there has been a move away from this type of leadership characteristic more recently and there are some agencies where women are leading without false personas.

“Seeing is believing,” Templeman puts it. “And the more women that are seen in leadership roles, the more it will feel attainable. When I was a junior, it was mostly males – it was really male-dominated.” 

In the past 15 years, Templeman has seen a shift in the alpha-type roles that creative directors portray. Women – and men – don’t need to be the loudest or most dominant character to succeed. Leaning into female characteristics and bringing those to the table will only encourage better leadership from the next generation of creatives.

One good thing to have come out of Covid is that agencies are becoming more flexible. Daun insists that it has forced the industry to reappraise itself, male or female, about how flexible it can actually be around working lives. For many who are juggling day-to-day life with work, it has giving back some control and allowed multitaskers to shine. 

“It’s forcing design businesses to think and reframe how they look at inviting and engaging with all types of individuals. Whether that be working parents or women who are coming back into the work and offering flexibility.” 

Chetiyawardana says one perception that continues to darken agency doorsteps is that when mothers head back to work, they’re a shadow of their former self. “If women can multitask in general, then mothers can get more out of every minute than you could imagine. It takes multitasking to another level. That perception that women coming back into the workplace won’t be as good – I would say they can be better.” 

Adding to that, Templeman says it’s a two-way street. For gender equity, we need to stop putting men down who want to take proper parental leave beyond the 14 days.  

“He’ll build the same type of bond with his baby as the mother does. He will establish that responsibility of parenting as an equal responsibility. That enables both of them to pursue their careers equally. That’s what we’re wanting. We want equality in the workforce, not female dominance.” 

The Drum Awards for Design are closed for entry but extensions are available now