Surveys find that 70% of graphic design students are women, yet only 11% are Creative Directors. Girls consistently outperform boys in all spectrums of education, yet only 18% of the board members of 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!). 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% of Creative Directors in the US were women. The conferences have since expanded and share knowledge and insights on how to understand and overcome the various barriers to equality.
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 might make us different. Embracing diversity in all sorts of ways 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 a greater level of 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, and that is true globally in business. The recent HeForShe conference in Shanghai confirmed that in China women represent over 50% 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 only represent approximately 10%.
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 that we have unconscious bias, so whilst we might logically persuade ourselves that we understand and encourage diversity, we carry a very deep sense of preferring people that are just like us. The flip-side of that is that being amongst people who are not like us, can cause discomfort, inhibit our communication and make cohesion harder.
So, we will only reap the rewards of diversity if we work to overcome it intentionally and strive to override our inner programming. If we don’t actively seek to widen the diversity of our teams, senior or otherwise, we will unintentionally exclude by default.
So here are seven practical things that can be done to improve the diversity, and therefore the creativity, of your project teams or your agency. Some of them are small, but it can be the little things that sometimes make the biggest difference. And it is worth making changes, because even though we are more comfortable with those who resemble us, creative strength lies in embracing differences and the friction of disagreements, not in looking for 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 recognised, supported and celebrated.
Flex: offer flexible working options to suit different needs. It makes people more productive and more satisfied. 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 will apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Men will apply if they meet 60%. 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 diverse experience.
Share: if you have diversity in your senior people, share them around as mentors to others, judges on award panels, or public speakers at events.
Written by Lynne Elvins, an independent Design Strategist based in Bristol.
Image by Emma Hopton.