The Hand Talks

Closing the gap on gender

by The Hand

I was recently chatting to a few colleagues at the Design Business Association (DBA) and the conversation turned to gender equality. As the owner and founder of an all-female business, they asked me to share my thoughts in an article they published yesterday. 

COVID-19 has turned everything upside down. It’s revolutionised the way in which we work; possibly forever. And it’s presenting some really exciting ways in which the design sector can address ingrained and outdated practices. In a week where we have both International Women’s Day and a return to school for pupils, what a timely moment to look at ways in which changes to our workplace practices could benefit working parents, and in fact, us all.

The gender disparity in the UK design and creative industry is well documented by the DBA Annual Survey Report. Whilst the gender split is relatively even in agencies (53% male and 47% female), only 18% of creative directors in agencies are women. Or put another way, over 80% of creative leadership roles are held by men.

In the light of the global pandemic, we know this is just one of many challenges for the design industry right now; furlough, pay cuts, agencies experiencing difficulty and shrinkage, and so on. Not to mention the hugely important issue of broader diversity itself.

But back to gender… Although the gender split is quite even at face value, when you start to look for women in more senior roles, that’s where the drop off occurs. In fact, it seems to be around the age of 30 onwards that the proportion of women in creative agencies drastically decreases. The reasons behind this are complex and while there is no single solution, it’s evident that there’s a problem around retaining (valuing) and promoting female creatives.

Recent research by the Fawcett Society in November 2020, highlighted the fact that the UK is at a “coronavirus crossroads” when it comes to workplace gender equality. While there is the risk that the pandemic could widen the pay gap between men and women, the research has also shown that with more flexible working initiatives and adjustments to working culture, real change is possible.

Here are some thoughts about how we can capitalise on changes brought about the by the pandemic to improve opportunities for all:

  • The working day
    We’re an incredibly forward-thinking industry, but yet ironically, more flexible working is an area where, in the past, we’ve lagged quite far behind others. We’ve held on tightly to the notion that the studio environment facilitates all creativity and collaboration and that this can’t be equalled elsewhere. We’ve also taken this even further by overlaying the 9 to 5 element – where we expect our creative teams to come up with their best ideas during the confines of that rigid working day. As an industry, we’ve been reticent to move away from more traditional work environments and patterns, but this could actually bring rewards for everyone. Allowing our teams to work during their own personal peak times with different sources of inspiration, could actually lead to higher productivity, greater creativity and higher levels of job satisfaction and there’s a growing number of agencies which have started to experiment with a more personalised approach to working patterns, 4 day weeks, and shorter work days.
  • Re-thinking agency culture
    Anyone who’s been around creative agencies will tell you that ‘working long hours’ is just part of the deal with agency life. Sometimes, it’s even worn as a badge of honour, a sign of your ultimate commitment to the business. In an article I read recently, Marei Wollersberger, co-founder of Normally, describes it as a ‘culture based on the assumption that you don’t have anything else going on in your life.’ The pandemic has forced us to think differently about valuing our teams for what they output, rather than hours spent staring at a screen. This shift in focus can only be a positive thing for our businesses, our people and our clients.
  • Supporting parents
    When talking about the gender gap, we often come across arguments for how we can support women more. Rightly so. Women, despite an increase in shared parenting, generation by generation, are usually still the core primary caregivers in most households in the UK. But the flip side of this fact is that we talk less often about supporting dads to help care for their children. During lockdown fathers have doubled the time spent on childcare. Dads want to spend time caring for their kids, and a greater balance can only be helpful for working mums too. With the shifts brought about by the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to review our existing workplace policies and change our approach and attitudes to childcare. By questioning how we can better support both mums and dads, we can bring about more equality in the workplace generally.

As a sector we should see the pandemic as a catalyst for change. By embracing these new working practices, this can be the moment where we really shake things up, open our minds, question old ways of working, and allow positive change to happen in the ways we work, that benefit our entire teams and help us move to greater equality across our sector too. What a positive silver lining that would be to this past year.

One thing’s for certain, we won’t see a move to greater equality in our sector by doing exactly what we’ve always done.