Why Are There So Few Women in Design Leadership?

The uphill climb past entrenched bias makes many women just give up

Jessica Richards
Published in
5 min readSep 20, 2019


Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The data:

Only 33 of the companies in the Fortune 500 list have CEOs who are women.

The same applies to six of the companies in the FTSE 100.

Women don’t get to the top of companies very often, even in 2019.

We may have a better balance in the design industry than in the wider tech sector. Several teams I’ve worked on had a 50/50 ratio of male and female designers. But at senior levels, only 11% of design leaders are women. So we have the same old problem of not making it to the top. What’s happening?

My theory is simple: We get tired.

Here’s why…

Gender pay gap

It still exists. Currently, 78% of companies report a pay gap in favor of men. It starts early, often with negotiations on starting salary in the first job after university.

We’re taught to expect less, negotiate cautiously, and be grateful.

The fact that women earn less is reinforced by recruitment practices. A female designer I know applied for a role advertised at a specific salary range. She was hired, but offered a salary that was lower than the original range. None of the male designers I know have ever encountered this scenario. It knocks confidence, to say the least.

I’ve worked with a number of recruiters when looking for jobs. We’d usually agree on the salary range I would consider. But some asked what my current salary was, which wasn’t relevant, since I’d already indicated my desired range, and they should know anyway based on my experience. One recruiter, in particular, kept pestering me for specifics until I told him my salary. He proceeded to suggest I take jobs with only a marginal increase, using the rationale “it’s more than you currently get!” Never mind that I was changing jobs infrequently and a new job might be the biggest opportunity for a substantial raise in years.

This sort of lowballing happens all the time. We’re taught to expect less, negotiate cautiously, and be grateful. And it makes us…



Jessica Richards
Writer for

Product & UX Consultant. Founder of Creative Product Consulting. Feminist. World traveller. Empathy & cats.