Sarah Weir OBE, CEO Design Council

Posted in Business, People on 14 February, 2018

We spoke to Sarah Weir OBE is the CEO of the Design Council to mark the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time, came into action in 1918…

This month (February 2018) marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time what does this anniversary mean to you?

It was hugely significant. Until that date, women had no political voice, although they already had to pay taxes in the UK. For the first time, some women’s voices and women’s views were able to be heard. And although it was not until 1928 that full voting rights were granted to all women over the age of 21, the debt we owe those women, right across their different geographical, political and socio-economic backgrounds, who actively took part in the campaign for women’s votes is immense. For me, it enabled me to be one of the first 50 women to work in the Lloyd’s insurance market in my first career, among 5000 men, and become the first female MD, to take out a mortgage without a male guarantor and then to campaign for equal rights as a Trustee of Stonewall in the 1990s. None of that would have happened without those early campaigners.

Do you think there is genuine equality for men and women across the design industry today? 

No there isn’t. We know that from our independent research carried out in 2015 that the design economy is 78 per cent male compared to 53 per cent female across the whole working economy. There is also a gender imbalance in terms of pay. The figures are also very skewed in terms of BAME, with areas such as digital design employing well above the average of 11 per cent across the country and both architecture and graphic well below at just 6 per cent and 4 per cent of people in those areas.

What does equality mean to you? 

Just that. Equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities. I discovered several times in my life that this wasn’t the case, either for me or for other people and have always sought to do something about it.

What does diversity mean to you?

Difference. We are all different and if we limit ourselves to being with people who we think are ‘like us’ we would actually be in a very small world of just us. So diversity means that multiplicity of views, opinions and positions that come from having people of different gender, age, ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. And the reason that is important is that one dimensional views produce one dimension results. And in design terms, that is incredibly limiting and would mean that probably any of the innovation we have seen over the past decades would not have happened.

Do you think that real ‘talent’ is being hindered from coming into the design industry because of a need to fit a certain box, which includes a need to have a degree or formal qualification of some sort?

Yes I do. Although I would question the meaning of ‘real’ talent, as opposed to talent. Talent is talent. It just may not have been noticed, sought out or given an opportunity to flourish in a less trammelled way. And we can see that in certain parts of the design economy, the need for qualifications, the length of time those qualifications take and the cost of getting them narrows the field of who is in there ploughing the same old furrows. 

What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in design? 

To ensure design is seen as a career choice for many more people in schools by showing different role models, promote more paid internships to show a much wider range of people what sort of jobs they could get, not be so obsessed by asking for degree level qualifications for all jobs, promote more widely what design is, in all of its facets 

Final message

We need the design industry to focus on the gift, and not the box it comes in. What I mean by that is for all of us as industry leaders to make a concerted effort to address the diversity issue together. We have a long way to go to bring about a positive change that impacts not only the current talent involved in design but also the future talent coming through. One of our biggest challenges today is the imbalance that exists between the male and female members of our talented workforce. One hundred years on from the Representation of People Act, which first recognised some women’s right to vote, we are still nowhere near the pay and gender equalities that we should all enjoy. Imagine what we could achieve if we unlocked the potential of the entire nation, and supported all those with talent to come to the fore. Let’s focus on the gift, not the packaging it comes in!

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