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I am a creative director. I am female. I am rare.

Until recently, I was part of a 3% club. That was the number of female creative directors at U.S. agencies in 2012. The number is now a whopping 11%. (Let’s celebrate, ladies!) Logically, these numbers don’t make a bit of sense, considering graphic design students are 55-85% female in the U.S.

So why aren’t there more female creative directors?

It’s hard to say exactly. There is not a lack of research. You’ll find plenty of articles out there. But honestly, the explanations don’t resonate with me. I think it’s hard to capture a reason. I think it’s the whole experience of working as a woman in an industry that is dominated by men in management level positions and also how vendors play into it. You have to hear that story, the daily experiences, the nuances, to really understand. So that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to share the experiences I’ve had over the last 30 years.

My story.

First, a little background about me. I studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati. My college offered a co-op program (a series of required, paid internships), so at 20 I started working in the design industry.

The first experience was in the south at a large corporation. I was one of only two females in my building that were not secretaries. I don’t remember ever talking to the other woman, she was a designer but in another department. I do remember being called “honey” by the men in the office, and also being asked to “dress like I’d dress to go to church.” Something didn’t feel quite right with these experiences but I chalked it up to southern hospitality. (As a side note, I was also told that “I would be pretty if I had long hair.”) But as a young woman, these experiences did not build confidence that I was a valued designer in the organization. The focus seemed to be about how I looked.

I moved and everything stayed the same.

Next I worked on the east coast. At this studio, the principals were both men, and there were both a male and female CD (the company had multiple locations, and I believe that I worked with the only female CD). There were a handful of designers, and they were all women except for one guy. I learned quickly that there were two dominant personalities within this group. They were both highly talented designers, some of the best I’ve worked with, and they both spoke their minds. The first was the guy, and he was labeled a “leader.” The second was a woman, and she was labeled a “bitch.” I learned this from my coworkers, almost immediately. My takeaway here at the tender age of 21 was that, as a woman, speaking up was not received as a good thing.

And again…

In 1989, I graduated at the top of my class, and was hired by a large design studio in the Midwest. The studio was owned by men, one of which was a CD. There was a second CD, also a male, and a third was hired on later. The art directors and designers were almost all female. I started out as a designer and moved up to an art director. I won awards and my work was published. I was very successful as a designer and my coworkers respected me and enjoyed working with me.

But it all ended quite abruptly. One day I mustered up the courage to talk to management about some inappropriate sexual behavior from a CD that had been going on for quite some time. But, very much to my surprise, the (all male) management wouldn’t address it. Instead, they became hostile toward me, and accused me of lying. At this point, between the behavior of the CD and the response from management, I decided to leave. It was a hard decision for me to make, I worked with many talented people and good clients, and I was doing great work. What did I learn here? It’s hard to say exactly, but it was clear that the actions of the male CD were more protected than the female staff on the receiving end. And I’m not sure, to this day, how to summarize that.

I moved on to another studio and accepted my first position as a CD. This studio was also owned by a man (see a pattern?) and the copywriter/CD was a man as well (see another pattern?). I was brought in as the design CD. All of the designers were men, and generally, my position was not taken seriously. A few would not take my direction and the owner didn’t/wouldn’t address it. I was in a boy’s club, and I wasn’t a boy. I did not partake in their activities, like launching a ham out the window onto the parking ramp next door. They all thought it was funny. I didn’t. What I learned here: working in a boy’s club is not a good environment for a woman to succeed.

Sprinkled into these years are events like the print rep who refused to take my feedback seriously, compensation that was not aligned with male counterparts, and a whole bunch of “honeys.” All events that I believe were based on my gender.

A one-woman band.

I left the agency world in my mid-30s. A girl can only take so much. I started my own business. I was the CD…and the AD, the AE, the office manager… and finally I was respected by all! As I look back at myself and a handful of female designers that also started their own studios, I realize now that this is one of the few ways that a women can become a successful CD.

My life now.

And then, in 2005, I was presented with another opportunity.

I was offered and accepted the position of CD at HB Design. What made me decide to jump back into the agency world and join the 3%? Well let me tell you.

I love love love design, and I was excited to be more immersed in it.

I’m fortunate, very fortunate. I have parents, family, and friends that are wildly supportive of my career, my advancement, and my talents, which has given me the drive to push forward. In my world, that trumps the words of some misogynic men.

And finally, my employer. When I interviewed with Noma, I could see that she truly believed in me as a design professional. Period. And today, she supports me, she lets me know my contributions are valued and that my direction is solid.

Looking back as I write this, it’s amazing to me that I stuck with it, that I reentered the agency world, and that I was confident that I could succeed in a leadership role. My career history is not filled with support for advancement or mentorship to grow from company leaders. Instead, I was praised as a good designer and peppered with messages to look pretty, to do what I was told, and not speak up. But here I am, working as a CD.

What I’ve learned.

In the 30 years that I have worked in design, I have seen a positive change in the way that women are treated in the agency world. I believe that many of my earlier experiences wouldn’t happen today, and if they did, they would be handled differently, taken more seriously. But there are still inequalities; there is still inappropriate behavior from my male counterparts, clients, and vendors. In fact, it happened just yesterday.

The gender gap is a hot topic right now, and rightly so. It continues to negatively affect women today, in 2016. It is an important conversation, and one that many don’t fully understand or are not willing to address. I believe that creating conversation around it and inspiring people to talk about it will help us all understand where and how it continues to live, and may give us all tools to help eliminate it.

Please share your stories, and also share my story to keep this important conversation going.

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