Gender balance in design: Creating an equal future

In time for Internation Women’s Day, Aileen Lee looks at a gender balance initiative by the Institute of Designers in Ireland.

Gender balance in design: Creating an equal future

In time for Internation Women’s Day, Aileen Lee looks at a gender balance initiative by the Institute of Designers in Ireland.

MUCH like the efforts being made to increase female participation in STEM careers, the Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI) is launching Why Design, a gender-balance initiative for the Irish Design sector. The present demographic for design in this country is 25% female to 75% male, with even lower numbers of women working in more technical aspects of design.

Aimed at second-level female students, their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors, the IDI will launch its Why Design website on March 8 next, which is International Women’s Day. A large element of this project will be showcasing practising female designers from all design disciplines, with new professionals added monthly. Also promoted will be the various third-level creative design courses running across the country.

The initiative is the brainchild of Kim Mackenzie-Doyle, who took over the reins of the IDI presidency in May 2017. Mackenzie-Doyle is a product designer and one of only a tiny percentage — women account for just 5% of people working in this area in the country.

She was lucky to get a job straight out of college with Design Partners, she says, and was the first female product designer to work there. She says she had a tough first year trying to carve out a space for herself before she settled into the company and her role.

“I was there for 13 years, so I really grew up as a designer. It was great — they really championed me through the consultancy. From there, I got married and had two little girls. My clients were international, so I was doing a lot of travelling and it was not conducive to a young family. It broke my heart to leave.”

Mackenzie-Doyle’s own experience of not finding industry life compatible with family life is one she has heard voiced repeatedly by other female designers in Ireland. In her case, she stepped away from industry work for two years, before taking up a position as head of product design and innovation for a clean-tech start-up called HUB Controls.

Speaking about the IDI’s new initiative, Mackenzie-Doyle says: “It’s about being treated equally and then adding value. Michel Landel, (CEO of Sodexo, an international €11.8bn company), has done some interesting work [on it] and for me, it was even more powerful that a man was proving that gender balance in business made a serious financial impact.

“He carried out tests where he had female/male-heavy groups, and then balanced groups and the outcome every time for the balanced group was better work, better outcomes, better financially-performing teams and happier teams,” says Kim.

The study in question was undertaken across Sodexo units in 2015 and showed that where the gender balance was 50-50, the companies involved were consistently more profitable. Speaking about the findings to Shellie Karabell at the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society in 2016, Landel said:

“The study’s results showed an impressive correlation between gender balance and performance indicators across every category, including employee engagement, brand image, client and consumer satisfaction, and growth and profits. For instance, entities with gender-balanced management saw an average increase of 4% in employee engagement compared to only 1% for the others. Client-retention rates showed similar patterns.”

Better economic performance leads to better financial outcomes when there is increased representation of women in senior positions — so how does Ireland match up statistically on female leadership across the design sector? Mackenzie-Doyle says that approximately 11% of creative directors in Ireland are female, but that figure is even lower in some disciplines.

Danielle Townsend
Danielle Townsend

This is something that graphic designer, Danielle Townsend, has noticed in her own sector: “I have found it hugely positive. I have, however, when I was in industry and in agencies, always reported to or worked as part of a team where men were at the helm.

“It’s rarely been the case that women were in those leadership roles. It was only when I began to freelance and became self-employed that I realised there were a lot more women in that side of the industry.

“They’re leading their own businesses in terms of being self-employed or they’re freelancing. I think it shows that it possibly provides a little bit more flexibility from a woman’s perspective —but also none of the security of having a job,” added Danielle.

Mackenzie-Doyle feels that there are a couple of issues at play here: “There has never been so many women studying design, yet they’re not getting hired in industry. There are gender reasons for that: Unconscious bias and privilege — men just being born men are more privileged than women. It sounds dreadful, but it is a fact.”

So how does Ireland match up internationally? “It’s worse in the UK with 22% of women in the design industry and in the US it’s 18%, so actually Ireland isn’t doing too badly, but it’s not good enough,” says Mackenzie-Doyle.

Which is the aim of Why Design — the IDI President says.

“It’s really about opening up the conversation about a design

career. We wanted to create a one-stop-shop where the question comes up from a parent’s perspective ‘why design?’ and the second-level female can say ‘this is why’.

Mackenzie-Doyle also sees the initiative extending its reach to college-going students. This link-in with third-level students is an important aspect for Townsend. She lectures in Griffith College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Design where she is Head of Department for Graphic Design.

The number of women studying and working in graphic design is a lot healthier, Townsend says: “In education, the cohort is 50-50. Because I am in education and in the industry, I want to know that the students that I am teaching today are empowered to become the leaders of the sector tomorrow.

“If the classroom is equal at that stage, I don’t see why it shouldn’t stay equal as they go up the ranks.”

Deloitte Digital is a major sponsor and has been on board at the early stages with the IDI initiative, along with Bank of Ireland. Mackenzie-Doyle hopes to secure additional sponsorship to allow the volunteer-run scheme to expand.

Townsend feels that a collaborative approach is necessary: “In terms of the creative space, I think women need to champion other women. And bosses need to start building a culture, particularly in agency and studio work, where good work is rewarded as opposed to staying late and always being available.

“I think there’s a difference there and that’s the cultural shift that, if changed, would create a more level playing field in which women could operate.”

Buy-in from male designers is key, says Mackenzie-Doyle: “If the majority of designers (who are male) aren’t in on the conversation then nothing is going to happen. For us, it’s essential, so we’re really hoping to have a good number of men support this initiative”.

Speaking at the Why Design launch is Annie Atkins, an Oscar-winning designer and Chris Do, an Emmy Award-winning designer; MC will be comedian, illustrator and author Aoife Dooley.

- See for further details from March 8

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