Creating A Female Tribe

Creating A Female Tribe

Today we are featuring the first in a series of posts exploring Women In Design. As supporters of and believers in gender equality, Shook Kelley asked a couple team members to share their perspectives and experiences working as women in the design industry. This first post is written by Leigh Ryan, who shares her personal point-of-view on what she saw happening over the course of her career both in and out of design. Leigh offers us advice and solutions on how to participate in change.


It feels like the flood gates have opened, and some of the silence around sexual harassment and abuse against women in the workplace is suddenly gaining a voice: “Me too.” While this momentum is amazing and in many ways ground breaking, change rarely comes in these moments, but rather in the changing of minds. 

There is still a significant gap in equality between men and women in the workplace. Despite the notion that the creative industry is overwhelmingly liberal, inequality is an extensive and permeating issue here. In the advertising world, for example, only a small percentage (11%) of creative directors are women. And while that is a great improvement from more than 10 years ago, when that number was only 3%, it still means that 89% of creative directors are men. In architecture, the numbers are similarly low, where only 17% of principals and partners in architecture firms are female. While most would agree that overt gender bias (think Mad Men) is arguably rarer in today’s work place, sexism is still very much alive and well, existing in different forms that are usually more subtle and certainly structural. Stereotypes of women are ingrained, ubiquitous and woven throughout our society. As a result, unconscious sexism is much more elusive. And to be clear, men don’t have a monopoly on biased thinking, women are just as likely to suffer from unconscious bias as men.

In response to this persuasive and deep-seeded gap between conscious and unconscious bias, I want to offer a call to action for women working in creative industries, especially my fellow graphic designers: to come together as a cohesive community to build and strengthen our voices, share and learn from others’ experiences, and design and create real solutions; to use this momentum to push history forward by changing the way people think. 


As a woman working in male dominated industries for over 10 years, I’ve experienced both overt and unconscious sexism. I’ve been called a “bitch” and barked at by a partner because I expressed a viewpoint different from his. Despite those (and more) insulting statements made in front of two other men—one a partner—nothing was done to condemn the actions. The reality is that I was the one that had to pay a price as the target of sexist behavior. As a result, I was the one seeking new employment. 

I’ve experienced unconscious bias, too; those types of behaviors that always hover around inappropriate but are not usually explicitly derogatory. When being interviewed by a male partner at one firm, he told me, “This is a great place to work when you start a family.” The sentence in and of itself seems harmless, but I had never raised the topic of children. What was the implication? Would my decision to remain child-free be viewed skeptically, breaking with the stereotypes of women desiring to be mothers? Why did my choice to have a family or not even enter into a work-related conversation? Would he have made that same statement to a male counter-part? 

This unconscious bias seeps into the way that women are treated on a daily basis. A friend of mine is an Art Director at a large advertising firm and is partnered with a male copywriter. She works endless hours and weekends, and helps outside of her role’s responsibilities. She’s incredibly talented and her work ethic is beyond reproach. Her partner? He absconds whenever he gets the chance, leaving her to do all the work. He’s a “man’s man” and “in” with all the higher ups (almost all of whom are men—they even play in the same fantasy football leagues). As a result, they ignore his unabashedly slacking behaviors. And when my friend works tirelessly to formulate amazing ideas, he is the one given credit. He’s given the same promotions as her. Should my friend learn fantasy football and try to be one of the guys? Should she have to call him out on his limited contributions? How would that be perceived by the very people unaware of their own bias?    

These are just some of the stereotypes, misperceptions, expectations and inequalities women face. We, as a society, expect women to be soft, delicate, amicable, cooperative, and pleasant.

These are just some of the stereotypes, misperceptions, expectations and inequalities women face. There are more. We, as a society, expect women to be soft, delicate, amicable, cooperative, and pleasant. Meanwhile, we expect the exact opposite of men: decisive, assertive, confident, and authoritative. Therefore, when women act as men are expected to behave, we call them: bossy, difficult to work with, loud or uncooperative. Our unconscious bias goes into full force. We need to admit the problem doesn’t lie with a few bad apples, but with our culture as a whole.

Companies of all sizes have recognized the important value that diverse views can bring to the table, making overt statements in favor of female leadership. They recognize unconscious bias exists in the workplace and are striving to increase the number of women in their ranks and in leadership positions. But despite these over-arching statements about desiring diversity, many working women still experience very different workplace cultures than their male counterparts. The problem can be found in this murky cultural world of unconscious bias. This can’t be solved simply by hiring more women. It can’t be solved by grand statements that lack resolve behind them. It is not about women succeeding by “breaking through” that glass ceiling. It is about changing the way we think, the way we view the workplace and the cultures that surround it.


A friend of mine is a practicing attorney. She works incredibly hard, long hours and is on the verge of making partner. Knowing she would be fully responsible for her own cases, she requested from the partners to talk with one of their female jury consultants to get a better understanding of how others (in this case the judge and jury) would view her. She was told that there was no need for that, as everything she needed to learn could be offered by the three male partners. Although she tried to explain that men and women in similar roles were not viewed equally and that assertive females are not viewed as favorably as their assertive male counterparts, her statements fell on deaf ears. The male partners didn’t want to admit that within almost everyone lies a form of unconscious bias.

While her experiences are from a completely different industry, my friend is also trying to navigate her way in a traditionally male environment. Her biggest concern: lack of female role models. She didn't know how a successful female attorney presented herself. That same phenomenon is true in the traditionally male dominated creative industries.

With so few female designers in leadership roles, it is not surprising that a lack of visible female role models results in lack of females able to obtain these positions. And while there are countless male role models in the field, a role model needs to be someone we can see ourselves in, people to make us go, “Hey, that can be me.” It is the same reason that as a child, I wanted to be She-ra, rather than He-man.


As designers, we have opportunities to influence people’s perceptions, expectations, and possibly affect unconscious bias towards women. Evidence of these perceptional shifts are already evident. In 2007, Getty Images reported that the top-selling image for “woman” was a naked woman covered by a towel. In 2017, it is a lone woman, hiking in Banff National Park, in a jacket and hiking pants; her face is barely visible. It is a striking embodiment of power, though it also speaks to the notion of “going it alone.”  

A lot of this can be attributed to the work of the Lean In Collection, a partnership between Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization and Getty Images, one of the world’s largest stock photo suppliers. The Collection promotes the message that “You can't be what you can’t see.” But there is still a lot of work to be done. The majority of these images showing powerful women are used to talk about the inequalities faced by women. Images of women in science and engineering are used in articles talking about women in science and engineering, rather than just science in general. And the same goes for images depicting women of color. 

Designers can push and argue for improving the imagery and iconography of women by presenting better options and questioning flawed logic. 

Given the current make up of leadership in the design world, women typically lack final decision making power when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media. But this doesn’t mean that designers can’t push and argue for improving the imagery and iconography of women, both by presenting better options and questioning flawed logic. 

Because it is absolutely true: you can’t be what you can't see.   


One of the toughest parts of any social change movement is recognizing your limitations. There is a realization and a hopelessness that comes from trying to challenge bias: you can’t reach everyone. So what can be done to help women working in less than ideal environments? How can we provide sponsorship opportunities to women who don’t have access to them? How can women be provided with a more supportive, constructive and creative environment?

To advance women’s place in the creative industries, it is important for women to trust that they are truly badasses. The path to success will always be challenging and the truth is, it will not be fair, equal or nearly as easy as it will be for male counterparts. But progress has been made and women can learn from each other, minimizing that learning curve. Let’s remind each other that women can do anything they set out to do. 

What if we create a group—a tribe—for female designers?

In fact, that’s exactly what I propose. Let’s create an environment that fosters female creativity and provides a supportive structure where we can grow and learn from one another. What if we create a group—a tribe—for female designers? 

The goal? Simple. Increase female confidence and maybe, just maybe, increase the percentage of female leaders in our industry.

Women are powerful and routinely bring improved communication, provide a more empathic perspective, increase creativity, innovation, and better decision-making. Overall, female leaders encourage collaboration, keep calm under pressure without the air of aggression, are more highly organized with a higher attention to detail, are more open, intuitive and empathic. In fact, 84% of women think femininity is a strength, not a weakness. Companies only benefit from having more women leaders. Let’s tap into the proudness of being female.

Be proud of your female-ness. Stop trying to conform to the male qualities deemed necessary for success, and start providing real life examples of what it means to be female, strong and successful.


The gap between women and men won’t narrow without taking the first steps and we can’t expect others to take those steps for us. Because we at Shook Kelley believe in progress and hard work, they are supporting my initial step forward. I look forward to announcing a new program, where I hope our fellow female designers come together and join me in perpetuating equality and diminishing unconscious bias. Maybe the solution is different than I imagine. Maybe the issues are larger and broader than I’ve included today. Having a conversation is the first step to better understanding how to move forward, and I look forward to leading that charge. 

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, email me at


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