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Supporting Gender Equality in Design Leadership

I have been meaning to share this for some time now, and International Women’s Day was the perfect nudge for me to just get to it!

In a nutshell, we have started a Design Leadership Lean In Circle at Uscreates back in September of last year. What is a Lean In Circle you ask?

“Lean In Circles are small groups who meet regularly to learn and grow together, and they’re changing lives. Women are asking for more, stepping outside their comfort zones, and leaning in.”

The movement was started by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg following the success of her book Lean In, which challenges and encourages women to lead in their careers, and men to support them to do that. A few of us at Uscreates have read the book, got angry about the gender gap numbers, got inspired by some of the stories shared, felt motivated by some of the advice, and disagreed with some of the other advice. Now I know that Sheryl, her book, and the movement have received their fair share of criticism – probably most notably here. But debating the strengths and shortcoming of the book and the movement is not quite the topic of this blog – although I do quite enjoy these sorts of debates. The reality is that it’s the 21st century, the gender gap in (design) leadership is still there, and we all need to do something about this, and as a design business, we certainly do too. For example last year Uscreates, alongside the Point People and the RSA, hosted an event called Her(story) which brought together women pioneers in service design to tell their story of how they essentially created a service design industry from scratch. 

Industry: 70% of design students are female but only 40% of professional designers are female Pay: 47 years after the Equal Pay Act, women are still 18% behind men on pay Leadership: Only 23% of board seats in the UK are held by women. Design leadership: In design businesses, only 3% of board seats are held by women. Design leadership: Only 11% of design business leaders are female.

The success of Sandberg’s book inspired her to start a movement called  ‘Lean In Circles’. These circles are essentially small groups of people, predominantly women, that meet regularly to learn and grow together with the help of free education materials, expert advice, discussion guides, and more. They are designed to help women ask for more in their careers, step out of their comfort zone and of course ‘lean in’. Therefore, a Design Leadership Lean In Circle gives us a simple, no fuss way to apply our energies and passions to get stuff done. But because we understand systems at Uscreates, we know that the stuff that needs to get done needs to happen at the level of:

So as we got together at Uscreates to shape what we wanted to do, why we wanted to do it, and who we needed to involve, our thinking evolved into Lean In Ripple Circles for Design Leadership to address the dimensions of the challenge at different levels of the system: the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle, and the Open Circle. Here’s a quick sketch of our early thinking. We know these are ambitions ideas, and we’re not quite there yet, but here is where we are up to, what we plan on doing next, and what we dream of doing one day.

Uscreates sketch Lean In Circle for Design Leadership
Uscreates’ sketching out Lean In Circle for Design Leadership

What we are doing now; the Design Leadership Inner Circle

This circle is for us – all the people of Uscreates, internalising the revolution. The gender gap is less of an issue here. We are a predominantly women-led business, and happen to have mostly women in our great team. We (across the gender spectrum) want to support ourselves and one another to achieve our fullest potential. A few of us have been meeting once a month over lunch, to share our individual goals and support one another to get that one step closer to achieving them. Different team members have different goals such as: doing a TED talk, being more confident in meetings, balancing work with work, balancing work with life, getting better at saying ‘yes’, taking a career shift. It’s been wonderful coming together and leveraging the assets of the circle to offer one another tips, link each other up with things to look at or people to meet to help us all get to where we hope to be.

What we will be doing next; the Design Leadership Outer Circle

This circle is for us – all the people of Uscreates – and our friends. Friends who have similar goals to some members of our team so we can work together to get there. Or friends who have achieved these goals in the past, we want to learn about your journeys, what the challenges were and what kept you going. This will take the shape of an informal get together around a breakfast or perhaps some after work drinks. We’ll lay out our goals to discuss, challenge and inspire one another, and open the right doors to take that next step. If you’re interested or have achieved any of the goals we shared up there in the Inner Circle, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch ( and we’ll let you know when the first Outer Circle is taking place!

What we dream of doing; the Design Leadership Open Circle

This circle is for everyone in the design industry, externalising the revolution. We want to shake and disrupt. We’ll start this with hacks every now and then, bringing together systemic players – movements, designers and design leaders, employers, educators, recruiters, and policy makers. Each hack will focus on a systemic challenge – closing the pay gap, supporting men to be able to lean into their families, equal parental leave pay, supporting women to find good mentors, and so on. There are so many wonderful people and movements doing so much already in this space, and we have SO much respect for them: Kerning the Gap, Ada’s List, Hidden Women of Design, and #upfront to name only a few. We have spoken to some of them who were excited by this, and we want to speak to more. We want to make this happen as a force – not as Uscreates. So do get in touch ( if you want to help make this a reality!

Stay tuned. We will share learning and progress as we embark on this exciting and purpose-driven journey.

This blog was written by Dr. Joanna Choukeir

Dr Joanna Choukeir Design Director

As Design Director at Uscreates, Joanna’s role is to develop design talent and embed people-centred design across health and wellbeing campaigns, products, services, systems and policies. Joanna is a renowned researcher, speaker and lecturer on social design with 13 years’ experience gained in the UK and internationally across multiple sectors. She has worked with clients such as Nesta, NHS England, Policy Lab, local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and charities, to help them achieve transformational and sustainable change through design. Joanna has also completed a PhD in design for social integration at the University of the Arts London.