“Gender balance is not just a moral or social imperative, it’s a business imperative…”

 

WhyDesign is a collective of female designers who showcase their work, and the influential work of other female designers living and working in Ireland. It provides a space for career testimonials from successful female designers about how they achieved their goals. Founder, Kim Mackenzie, is hoping that WhyDesign will inspire younger generations to pursue careers in design.

WhyDesign’s event for this year’s International Women’s Day [March 8] will see Natasha Jen, Partner in Pentagram New York and Thierry Brunfaut, Co-Founder of Base Design speak about how balanced teams make for a better workforce. I spoke with Kim about the negatives of Irish humility, gender balance in the workplace, and being a female designer in Ireland.

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What inspired you to set up WhyDesign? Why is this collective important?

I have two daughters and I feel a massive responsibility to make their path a little easier than my own. I moved a lot when I was a child, so I had to make a few new starts in different countries, which was difficult. I have been told ‘no’ a lot and didn’t have the opportunities that perhaps the majority of students have now. I had no female creative role models in my chosen profession, product design, when I first started out. All the superstars were men. I was surrounded by mostly men in college, my lecturers were 99 per cent male. I was the first female designer to be hired in Design Partners, my first step into the industry. Where were all the women?

During my presidency in the Institute of Designers Ireland (IDI) I introduced WhyDesign; it was an absolute no brainer. I wanted to showcase the amazing female designers we have in this country. We simply do not see enough of them, it’s perhaps not in our nature to promote ourselves and this needs to change. We should be proud of our achievements and celebrate others. WhyDesign helps to share these inspirational role models’ stories and lets second level female students know that being successful in the creative industries is achievable. It also helps answer the question, ‘Why Design?’ from parents, teachers and guidance counsellors, key stakeholders in the college course decision process. There are sustainable, rewarding careers in the creative industries and these stories prove it.

With the Irish design sector being 25 per cent female to 75 per cent male in 2016, what changes do you think WhyDesign has made since its founding?

WhyDesign launched in 2018, so it is early days. Last year was about pointing out the problem, raising awareness that gender balance is not just a moral or social imperative, it’s a business imperative. This year, we continue that message, highlighting that 89 per cent of leadership roles are held by men in our industry and without them, nothing can change. We are encouraging participation in the conversation, and at our International Women’s Day event on March 8, we hope that we have a 50:50 audience, just like our line up of speakers.

What was the most unexpected thing you learned from the process?

The sheer amount of people who are thinking the same way. Both men and women have been hugely supportive; some of the most passionate feminists out there are men. We really want to have an inclusive discussion and eventually, we do hope to feature men in women-heavy disciplines. For now, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, so we will concentrate on showcasing as many women as possible on the site.

Creative industries have been proven to benefit from diversity, why do you think they have historically been male-dominated?

It seems unfathomable that it has been so male-dominated. But it has suffered like so many other industries. In Ireland, the Constitution still says a woman’s place is in the home, so we have an uphill struggle when applying for a job. A CV with a female name is reviewed more critically than a male’s. The majority of interview panels are male, and unconscious bias is an issue. Men hire what they know and that’s men, data proves that. Then if women do get in and decide to have children, they ‘impact’ the business. It might not be said, but until paternity is treated equally in this country we will always be treated differently as an employee. We also tend to do 40 per cent more of the childcare, so if the opportunity for advancement happens, how do we cope with the additional responsibility? Often, we can’t or choose not to, so our career suffers. It can be an easy choice, as we are usually paid less than our male counterparts. It’s not doom and gloom though, I hate to sound so negative but they are the facts. Change is happening, but slowly, there are wonderful opportunities in progressive companies. We just need more of them!

Irish society has yet to fully embrace the ‘creative industries’ as a sector that presents viable job opportunities. Why do you think that is? Why do people educated in design fail to take that step into their sector in the working world?

There are quite a few reasons for this, the creative industries have been poorly represented by the government. Funded agencies have been pushing craft rather than design, giving the perception that design is more in the craft/maker space. Hence there is a lack of understanding of what design actually is and the opportunities and the careers that are avail- able. Great design is business development on every level; creative thinking is the essence of innovation and should be lauded as such.

Millions of Euro have been pumped into STEM [Science, technology, engineering, and mathe- matics], when really there is a huge opportunity in the creative sector for Ireland. We have some of the best agencies and studios competing on a worldwide stage. Unfortunately, the word ‘design’ is too easily tagged onto many things, the industry is unregulated in Ireland. Design can bring you anywhere. It’s a passport.

What challenges do female designers still face in Ireland?

There are more and more women studying design in different disciplines across Ireland, but those numbers are not transferring into the industry. Where do they go? Are they applying for the jobs? We are trying to find this out. When they do get in the industry, it’s male-dominated, it can be tough to compete when we have been pre-programmed to ‘slow down’, ‘be quiet’, or grown accustomed to constant interruptions. There are all too few female creative founders as female role models are usually juggling too much to be visible in the industry. Do we also suffer from the self-prescribed guilty mum syndrome? Is it any wonder there is 89 per cent male leadership in the creative industries? I am not surprised.

WhyDesign speaks with Natasha Jen and Thierry Brunfaut March 8, Twenty Two on South Anne Street.

Words: Aoife Donnellan / Photography: Myles Shelly 
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