Shutterstoick parenting illustration by Len OK

Why does the creative industry have so few mothers at the top?

We discuss how parenthood affects people’s relationships with their creative identities, and explore the new mindset the industry could adapt to close the career gap for mums

Clichéd aphorisms – ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, for instance – exist for a reason: because there’s some truth in them. That idea of influence or tradition perpetuating unhelpful existing biases might do something to explain an issue that’s long been endemic in the creative sector: the gap between the number of women who study graphic design and go on to work in the industry, and those in leadership roles. According to Kerning the Gap, 53% of all graphic designers are women, but only 11% of those are in leadership roles (with even fewer as agency principals).

Bulletproof creative director Holly Karlsson recently spoke about what those figures look like in reality: “No representation of mothers at the top … where are the moms at management or director level? Where are working mothers that the up-and-comers can aspire to and emulate? Where do the creative working mothers go, and can they please come back?”

It follows that if mothers aren’t visible at the top, women in the creative industries might – whether consciously or not – feel that it’s hard to escape having to make a binary decision between children or career at some point, or at least make some big compromises on one or the other.

It seems far less likely that men feel this way. As part of her PhD thesis Feeling devalued: The creative industries, motherhood, gender and class inequality, Dr Tamsyn Dent, now a lecturer in cultural work at King’s College London, spoke to 33 women who worked in the creative industries, 24 of whom had partners in the same field. In every single case, following the birth of a child it was the female partner that left the industry.