Balance for Better: Being a Female Creative Director

 

Running a design studio is one of the things I’m most proud of - I love what I do and the people I get to work with on a daily basis. For me, this is the dream job. So I was shocked to learn that I’m in a very rare position. Only 3% of Creative Directors in the UK are women. 

I am currently sitting on a green velvet sofa in the middle of the work space in our studio. The studio is very much a work-in-progress - the stairs are mid-way through their first coat of paint, the floor hasn’t been varnished yet and there’s a line of pictures leaning against the wall ready to be put up. But I love this studio. It is a place I have imagined for such a long time. A place where I can nurture talent, create beautiful work, meet fascinating people and do a job I adore.

 
 
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For as long as I can remember I have wanted to run my own business. I didn’t always think it would be a design business, but I knew I wanted to start something of my own and grow it into something I could be proud of. When I met Ewan at university, we clicked over our shared love for a challenge - both of us had been selling our design work in one way or another since we were in high school and were deeply frustrated by being told we weren’t allowed to continue this while we studied. I was a fine artist, painting whenever I had a free moment (and often when I should really have been somewhere else). 

When I was 16, my stepdad encouraged me to enter one of my pieces, an oil painting of a cat, into the Tate-Times Painting Challenge he had seen advertised in the newspaper. He saw something in my work and believed I had a shot. The theme was ‘Poetry and Dreams’, which fitted beautifully with my painting because the cat had huge, glassy eyes that looked very dream-like. I sent off my application and forgot all about it until a call came to say I had made the final cut and my piece would be hung in the Tate Modern. 

He saw something in my work and believed I had a shot.

Seeing my work in the famous gallery gave me a taste for what could happen if I just put myself out there. It was the most incredible feeling. I spent that whole day thinking about what I was going to do next and how I could use this opportunity. I decided I would put on an exhibition of my other pieces, so I put a call out in the local paper for venues. A beautiful cider museum offered me the use of their gallery space free of charge, so I set about gathering sponsorship for the framing of my work. I approached all the businesses in my town and offered to have their logo included on a board in the exhibition, in exchange for them covering the cost of a frame. Within a month I had raised over £3,000. This was enough to cover all the framing, but also left me enough change to commission a basic website design so I could start selling online. At 17, I was in business.

Over the next few years I painted commissions of people’s pets to fund my way through college and my first year at uni. I entered more competitions, winning prize money that covered the cost of a DSLR, new clothes and, in my second year, paid for the rent on a small flat in Cardiff. I worked in a little shop in my home town in the summer holidays and crammed in every hour I could there - turning up an hour before opening and staying late into the evening to redesign the shelves, work on the website or unpack stock. I was often there by myself and found there was something so addictive about looking after the business and helping it to succeed. I think that’s where my love of business really blossomed.

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Fast forward a few years and I meet Ewan at uni. We decide the Illustration course isn’t for us (mainly because we were being encouraged to focus on our studies rather than our commercial work) and we drop out at the end of second year. Our families are hugely supportive and everyone encourages us to do what we want to do in order to be happy.

In 2013 we found out we were having our daughter, Alex. When we started to look into our options for maternity/paternity leave, neither of us liked the way the system would work. The idea of one of us taking time off while the other worked seemed so unfair. At that time you couldn’t choose to split your time or alternate responsibilities - it was very much one of us could stay home for 6 or 12 months and the other needed to go back to work after 2 weeks. Neither of us wanted to miss out on watching Alex grow up, and we knew we’d go crazy if we couldn’t choose to work.

We decided that if the workplace wasn’t going to offer us the parental equality we wanted, we’d go and make it for ourselves - so in December 2013, two weeks before Alex was born, we started Steele & Stovell.

We decided that if the workplace wasn’t going to offer us the parental equality we wanted, we’d go and make it for ourselves.

Of course there’s a whole other story about how tricky it is to run a brand new business while bringing up a baby (and in our case, renovating our first home at the same time) but the short version is that we made it work. We put the hours in, we took everything in turns, and we worked as equals. Ewan and I are Partners in this business in every sense - we balance each other out, we help each other as best we can and we spend just the same amount of time with our daughter. 

I’m sharing this with you because today is International Women’s day, and this year the focus of the campaign is #BalanceForBetter. 

My role within Steele & Stovell is Creative Director - I am responsible for the direction of all of our design projects from start to finish. I work with my team to create concepts that I believe will deliver for the clients, and ensure all the details are exactly as they should be. I make all of the decisions within our studio. It’s a role I have naturally fallen into and therefore live and breathe. What I didn’t realise is that being a female Creative Director is an unusual thing. 

 
 
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Last year I became aware of Kerning the Gap - a collective of like-minded people who want to see more women in design leadership roles. It caught my eye because I didn’t realise there were a lack of women in senior positions in design. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. 70% of design students are female, but only 3% make it into Creative Director roles.

Of course this isn’t an issue specific to design. We’re all aware of the pay gap and the lack of women sitting at board-level. I’m not here to shock you with statistics or make you feel rubbish about the world. In fact I’d like to do quite the opposite.

The Drum’s 2015 list of the top 100 ‘designerati’ features 13 women.
— Kerning the Gap

I wanted to thank all of the people who have encouraged me to step out and do the things I have wanted to do. My stepdad encouraged me to take that first step and send my painting off to The Times. My family supported me when I worked through the night on commissions and had to frantically play catch-up with coursework for school. My friends were kind when I couldn’t afford to get them birthday presents because I had a new business and a new baby, and now they have my back whenever I need advice or guidance. My in-laws helped us out with childcare whenever we were stuck. I wonder whether we would have such an issue with the gender gap at senior level if more people were as supportive and unbiased as those that were around me when I was starting out? If more people encouraged and supported the women around them when they wanted to work, and didn’t ridicule the men in their lives if they would rather be at home with the kids, would we have such issues surrounding the assumption that women are going to disappear off on maternity leave?

The design studios Ewan and I interned with and freelanced for in the early days were both female run - Betsy Benn and Kerstin Klerke (now Fruition London). They probably had no idea that they had made an impression, but because we had worked with them it never even entered my mind that a woman ‘couldn’t’ run a studio.

A balanced world is a better world. Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias.
— International Women's Day

There are lots of wonderful people out there working very hard to close this gap and bring balance into the workplace across all sectors, like Mary Portas who recently published her book ‘Work Like A Woman’. She looks at how traditionally ‘male’ traits have dominated the corporate world and made it impossible for anyone with ‘female’ values to reach the top, and explores how we can all do more to break this cycle and introduce a new way of working that will help to equalise the playing field. It’s well worth a read if it’s not already on your bedside table.

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In the design world, fabulous designer duo Two Girls Co. have released an enamel ‘Girls Who Design’ pin with the aim of opening up the conversation and bringing more diversity to creativity. We all have them and I’d encourage any other female designers to bag yourself one. These are great ladies doing a brilliant job of discussing the 3% issue.

And as far as our contribution - I’m making a conscious effort to educate myself about my industry and the lack of equality at senior level. I am trying to cultivate a working environment built on kindness, compassion and encouragement, where teamwork and collaboration is encouraged. I also visited a local secondary school last week to talk to year 8 and 9 kids about a career in design, and am pleased to say there were a pretty equal mix of boys and girls who came to chat to me and get more information. Frustratingly the GSCE design class only had three girls in it, but hopefully that will be a different story this time next year. 

I hope that you will also take a moment today to consider your workplace and the decisions you make within your business to see if there are ways you can improve the balance. I’d be so interested to hear your thoughts on this topic so do pop me a message if you’d like to contribute to the discussion - @bekki_stovell and bekki@steeleandstovell.co.uk

 
Bekki Stovell