Visible Women

story / Rosie Goes Rogue / September 28, 2020

In hindsight, I am horrified at my first job. I was so naïve. I worked so hard to get through University and land a job in advertising, but it was a fight to get the good briefs. It felt like I had stepped into Mad Men. Men had all the senior management and creative roles and the women were client facing and in support staff roles. Often the men had drinks without me and once I needed to kiss creepy colleagues on the cheek to gain entrance into work events. Middle age privileged white men were over confident in their ability to market to demographics outside of their own realm of experience. I thought it was fun and exhilarating at the time, but looking back I think the culture of advertising agencies was quite bizarre.

As a kid, I was obsessed with those colouring pages in Saturday paper and I loved to draw. In school I made newspapers for everyone on my dot matrix printer. My dad was a draftsman, but I never had that line drawing technical expertise, I wanted to be freer in my expression. By year 10 I saw Graphic Design in the VTAC guide, I was instantly sold and off I went to University.

The idea on the invisibility of Women in Graphic Design took me six months to land on. The whole point of a PhD is to fill a gap in our knowledge. Historical data has always been interesting to me. When I studied graphic design, classrooms were a 50:50 gender balance but the current cohort is a majority of women. Yet there weren’t any women to see back then, they weren’t in textbooks and there were no visible women to aspire to. I know had the experience and connections to attack this problem.

The systematic sexist results weren’t that surprising to those of us in industry. Both men and women with lived experiences knew what the results would be. I wanted to explore the statistics, to bring these to interactive exhibitions and create resources for coursework and print.

Providing statistics as hard evidence to the men, is where the shock landed.  Especially surrounding awards and judging, we found that only 25% of graphic design award winners on a National platform, were women. Everyone has their biases and may not realise this reality, but having it in writing, it couldn’t be ignored.

I created my own hall of fame for the network of women in Australian graphic design, celebrating their achievements and contributions to the industry. I surveyed the industry across Australia, asking for a shortlist of women who have made a significant impact to the graphics landscape. With a list of 25 names to interview, profile and celebrate I created an accessible interactive website – Affemation.

Women in design are all about helping each other up. I couldn’t tell you how many women I have called up convinced to take on one of my students for work experience or have raised their hand to help out when they can. I have had a lot more female mentoring in academia, the generation above me really paved the way, as cliché as that sounds, they really did the hard yards.

COVID online teaching has been a struggle for many who have had to change their content and style. I am privileged to have taught online previously, so I am a rare example of COVID making life easier. My children are old enough to self-learn online and my work has changed to be more accessible from home. I am, however, a minority in that experience.  In academia, many people in sessional work have been the first to lose their income. Some design practices have significant equipment requirements, which have also affected their ability to sustainably run their businesses at this time. You would imagine the online client interface and technical requirements can be remote, but there are budgetary cutbacks to contend with.

Empathy in advertisers and designers is the current focus of my research. Collaborative, inclusive teams are vital to shaping our society and through micro case studies, we kept coming back to period products. We know men have been writing advertising since the beginning and while communication design will never kill anyone with output, it can foster bad stereotypes and harmful norms. My research project will review period product ads from the 1900’s through to today and track women’s responses along the way. I hope to create another interactive exhibition.

I would tell my younger self to find her passion and follow it. I would encourage her to keep on her path regardless of the strange hurdles along the way and to find women to be her cheerleaders. Seek out resources like WoMentor, Creative Women’s Circle and maintain your relationships along the way, the industry is tiny and you never know where the next role will come from.

I was brought up in a religious household; ‘God helps those who help themselves’ was a favourite saying. Don’t expect things to fall in your lap, you need to go out and work for it, words to live by.


We spoke to Jane as the next in Rosie’s series, Rosie Goes Rogue, where she explores female leaders in fields other than the built environment, which have also been traditionally male dominated. Speaking with Jane via Zoom, visions of Mad Men era advertising and marketing firms were hard to shake as Jane spoke about her start in the field. Big personalities and big egos, unashamedly male and happy in their macho clique. But Jane has shown that hard facts are a force that is difficult to fight and by depicting the biases in the industry statistically, change can be initiated and discussions on gender diversity bought to the fore. Jane has been tenacious in her approach to pushing for change and it is clear that she will continue to contribute to a strong dialogue against unconscious (and conscious) bias in advertising. We need more women like Jane to push the facts to the centre-front and shine the spotlight on them. We wish her the best of luck and all three of us cannot wait to read about her research into period advertising. Hopefully we can all say goodbye to the blue dye! R, J & D xx