Sexism in design: “I have been cowed, intimidated and embarrassed”

Allegations around harassment scandals are rife, with Westminster and Hollywood currently under fire. We ask female designers to discuss their experiences of sexism in the workplace.

Erika Clegg, co-founder, Spring

“[Early on in my design career] and of tender years, there was a middle-aged man of middling authority who propositioned most of the female staff in the crudest terms. Some took it in their stride, some were hugely unsettled by it; none of us said anything at the time and so no-one knew the scale of his behaviour until we put the jigsaw together years later at a reunion. The studio was a hothouse of hard work, and I think we were all afraid of causing disruption.

In my case, my silence led to a near-firing. My junior role involved processing ads; once a week he was meant to approve them and I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere near him. Inevitably, there was an error one week. I was nearly fired by my furious boss by phone at 7.30am on a Sunday morning.

I told her the full story years later; she was horrified that this had been happening without her having the faintest idea.

Never mind sexism or opportunism, it’s straightforward bullying and I’m still furious for all of us. Lesson learnt: if this stuff happens, tell someone. It’s not you upsetting the apple cart, it’s them.”


Emily Penny, independent brand consultant, Colourful

“All women experience sexism in the workplace at some level. I’ve worked in entirely male-led consultancies where the culture was less than female-friendly. And I’ve worked in female-led consultancies, one that refused the option of flexible hours when I became a parent and another that happily contributed to perpetuating gender stereotypes in its work.

The latter is worth some reflection. In the design industry, we have a wonderful, unique opportunity to shape brands and how they communicate. Sexism is often built into design briefs. There might be an expectation that models conform to unhealthy ideals, or that colourways follow pink for girls and blue for boys. Male or female, it’s our responsibility to push back and help clients take steps in a better direction.

Now I work for myself, I do take more of a stand. I aim to inspire clients to think more progressively and responsibly, to show them that there is another way, and that there is an audience for it, too.

We’re designers. We make the future. It’s important not to squander that privilege.”


Sarah Weir OBE, CEO, Design Council

“I started working at a time when overt sexism, racism and homophobia were rife. I doubt if there are many, if any, women of my generation who have not been subjected to sexism and sexual harassment in varying forms – I have on many occasions. This has ranged from regular, subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-downs and having my voice ignored until a man has made the same point, all the way through to very much unwanted sexual advances from those in power and who have had influence over my career.

I have been cowed, intimidated and embarrassed by it but have also spoken out against it and called it out, particularly when it has happened to others. With the centenary of women’s suffrage fast approaching, now is the time for men and women to work together to ensure this type of behaviour becomes so unacceptable in workplaces that it is no longer heard nor seen.”


Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean

“I have been fortunate that sexism has not significantly featured in my work story so far, though I am also aware from friends and colleagues that it can be a big issue. Once, early in my career, I did feel that gender was the reason for me not moving on.

A male colleague of mine with similar experience and expertise was given opportunities within the business with subsequent promotion. I was not offered the same opportunities and my confidence was affected. Eventually, I realised this was probably not due to ability so I confronted my boss stating that I had not been allowed to show what I could do. He was totally shocked that this could be down to gender but agreed with my point of view.  From then on things changed for me in that business and my confidence grew.

I think women have to go the extra mile to prove themselves at work, but I am hopeful that gender prejudice will become a thing of the past.”


Tessa Simpson, design director, O Street

“I’m very lucky to work in a workplace with a bunch of feminists, both male and female – so I’ve never had the bad fortune of experiencing sexism within my design studio. However, I have sometimes felt the impact of an undercurrent of sexism when dealing with clients – often just a subtle preference for dealing with a male colleague over me, even when the idea and work being discussed is my own.

This has only happened once or twice, but enough to knock my confidence when presenting ideas to some clients, who will naturally look to the men in the room for answers and direction. Luckily though, my male colleagues aren’t afraid to look to me for the answers or direction required!”


Have you ever experienced sexism in the workplace? Let us know in the comments section below (comments are moderated), or email in to sarah.dawood@centaurmedia.com.

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