New report offers a stark picture for women in design

Covid-19 and inequalities in the industry such as pay disparity are hugely influencing women’s experiences in design, according to a new report from Women’s Design and Research Unit, which also offers some advice to create change


Newsflash. There is gender disparity in design. It’s a male-dominated/led industry, with a dearth, or invisibility of female leaders. This likely won’t come as a surprise to many. What might be a surprise is how little is being done to address this.

According to a new report, a majority of women working in design experience a lack of long-term job security, with many either changing roles or moving out of the industry altogether. Much of this, say the researchers, is down to a range of everyday discriminatory practices.

The Brave New Normal report claims that some 79% of women designers have changed careers, with 30% moving from the industry to education, 30% either moving from commercial to charity/voluntary sectors or a more specific design practice, and 27% turning to freelance work. The report was informed by researchers’ own experiences within the design industry, and awareness of the inequalities and precarity experienced among women working in the sector.

“The main intention for our project was not to look at why women may be leaving the industry (although that is of interest), rather to explore specifically what was currently happening for women in the workplace,” explains report co-author Siân Cook, senior lecturer in Social Innovation and Strategic Design at London College of Communication, and founding member of Women’s Design and Research Unit (WD+RU).

The team encountered feedback on the more nuanced and often hidden impact of women feeling unheard, undervalued and not respected

Along with her colleague Teal Triggs, PGR Lead, School of Communication, Royal College of Art (RCA) and also founding member of Women’s Design and Research Unit, Cook had already identified through anecdotal evidence, “a need to critically address stereotypes, inclusivity, diversity and an ageing workforce”.

In the research, daily discrimination was reported in two ways. “Firstly, the overt and practical restrictions including caring responsibilities, maternity leave, pay inequality, working hours, health issues, and a lack of flexibility in the workplace,” Triggs explains. “In theory, these issues could be ‘fixed’ more easily in situations where employers/clients were willing to engage with making improvements in working practices.”

Secondly, the team encountered feedback on the more nuanced and often hidden impact of women feeling unheard, undervalued and not respected, leading to a lack of workplace confidence. “These are more difficult to tackle in some ways,” Triggs says, “as they are also associated with stereotypes of women reacting ‘emotionally’ and ‘unprofessionally’ to stressful situations.”

The inequitable workplace environment in the design industry is something the research team has been acutely aware of since the inception of WD+RU in the 1990s. “What has surprised us is the remarkable slowness in which the field is proactively addressing issues around class, race and gender,” says Triggs, “And, today, reflecting on the ways in which more senior women are seen in the workplace.”

What has surprised us is the remarkable slowness in which the field is proactively addressing issues around class, race and gender

Gender disparity in pay has never really gone away, says Cook, “but women cited their precarity as freelancers in the UK’s creative industries and the ongoing financial uncertainties and systemic or patriarchal structures in the workplace, which often meant career development and progression were hindered”.

With Covid-19 these inequalities intensified. New kinds of home-working conditions emerged and led to screen fatigue and isolation. This, says Cook and Teal, “also directly impacted women who were primary carers and involved in homeschooling. Freelancers experienced an increase in contract loss and in lockdown, a loss of networking opportunities.”

Four out of five (82%) women designers described significant changes in their employment as a result of Covid-19, such as decreased flexibility, lack of social interaction and loss of contracts and commissions, not to mention reduced income. Some 63% felt these changes were permanent. For some, isolation and lack of social contact restricted access to their usual support networks and freelance opportunities. Some women stated that they were impacted by a lack of work or job loss, leading to a greater loss of self-confidence and increased financial hardship.

The report’s authors are calling for some changes in training and education. “The report confirmed our hunch,” says Cook, “there is an urgent need to redefine how women are supported at all levels of their professional careers.” The researchers suggest measures such as intergenerational mentoring, improved awareness training across the sector regarding gender equality, employment rights, disability and/or access needs – which is then implemented and measured. “It is important that there is consultation and discussion to ensure that work practices are aligned to the needs of women designers,” she says.

The report confirmed our hunch, there is an urgent need to redefine how women are supported at all levels of their professional careers

This intergenerational mentoring can be most successful when it is reciprocal, Cook suggests, “So there is not just a mentor and a mentee (which traditionally is the older, more experienced participant advising the early career designer), but both parties are helping and supporting each other.”

She adds, “As our research showed, confidence can be an important factor, and this applies equally to older women feeling sidelined as to younger women struggling to get their voices heard. So creating a mutually supportive environment in which everyone has something to offer is empowering and demonstrates to employers why they should value all of the voices in their organisation.”

The results of the research led the team to set out five principles in a call for action, underpinned by this process of intergenerational mentoring. But, says Triggs, “The research never set out to draw conclusions as to how awareness training should be delivered – this is a much bigger project.

“Instead, we sought to set out guiding principles that emerged from the research and in documenting the stories and experiences of the women who participated.” However, she says, “the conclusions established the need and appetite for intergenerational mentoring schemes which were dialogic – a 360-degree proposition of knowledge exchange.”

Project team:
Teal Triggs & Siân Cook (Women’s Design + Research Unit)
Lorna Allan (Hidden Women of Design)
Susan Potter (Consultant, Arts Evaluation and Research)