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Design agencies need to move faster on gender equality if they want to keep clients

In this video series about the future of women in design, The Drum spoke to female leaders, and judges of The Drum Awards for Design, about their experiences within the industry, and what actionable changes are possible today.

The design industry in general is still not moving fast enough in the direction of gender parity. To make systematic change, more progress must be made in recruitment and in relationships between clients and agencies.

Moderated by John Mathers, chairman of the British Design Fund, The Drum staged a roundtable discussion on the subject with Sue Daun, executive creative director, Interbrand; Chloe Templeman, creative director, Design Bridge; Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and founder of Bow&Arrow and Rosanna Vitiello, co-founder of The Place Bureau.

Embracing the full spectrum of humankind, Daun says. “If we are truly going to reflect the real world, we have to work hard to bring that mix and menagerie into our businesses, otherwise you’re always going to be fighting the balance. It’s much bigger than that.

“Where the industry sees a drop off of women at senior level, we don’t even get the entry levels at for disability, race and ethnicity. That’s something that we’re struggling with massively as an industry.”

Daun says that agencies should work more closely with colleges and universities so that those coming into the industry share the same mission.

The pandemic has shown that people can be more productive if given flexability and that working from home can be as effective as being in the office. But leaders must be cautious, and make sure that men don't feel alienated as well, adds Templeman.

“It’s not about raising this next generation where men are inferior, and women are amazing. There needs to be equality on both levels. But for women, there is certain points that they tend to fall away. And it’s about making sure that we support women coming back to work [from maternity leave] or encouraging them when they’ve done a good job and rewarding them for it.“

Leaders should take a look at their employees and understand the nuances of those relationships. Vitiello notes that is a lot of focus in design on the output, the craft and the process, but team building falters.

“Regardless of gender, we must help people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Take a step back, train people up and then see how that works on a project.”

We are now in a world where a third of FTSE 100 board members are now women but there is still a long road ahead for equality – and gender inequality more becomes apparent further up the hierarchy. “It might be 50/50 at junior level,” Templeman explains, “but by the time it gets to senior design director it’s dropping off. And then by the time it gets to creative director, it’s completely gone.

“It’s important to embrace those points, look at the whole scale and your company as a whole. We need to make sure that women feel motivated, that they feel supported to thrive in this industry. It’s like having a cheerleader. For me, that’s our executive creative director, Claire Robert Shaw. She cheerleader-ed me when I joined as a middleweight. Always putting me in the right situations and given me that confidence to grow.“

As businesses move forward, they may find that inequalities in their systems keep progress-minded clients wary. Vitiello says it's already happening. The Place Bureau has already had clients request all-female teams, which it was able to deliver because it had spent time promoting senior women partners and promoting younger women as the voice of the studio.

Templeman agrees. Design Bridge won a recent pitch for a feminine hygiene product, which was partially down to how its team mirrored the client’s own.

“We stood apart from the competitors, and the client actually commented that they’d never met a women creative director on all the other places that they pitched before. Which shocked and saddened me, because I know that there’s amazing women creative directors out there.

“More and more clients are looking for people who reflect their brands, whether that be for females, or a more diverse in a project overall. We’re going to see more of this.”

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

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