Inspiring future female leaders

By Rebecca Kirby, Designer at Corlette.

As an ambitious woman trying to make my way in the world and progress in my career, I know I’m not alone in finding this task quite overwhelming. But why do many young women lack the confidence to push themselves to their full potential?

Perhaps it’s an inability to imagine themselves in top leadership positions? Historically, the stereotype for business leaders has been male. This stereotype has become so deeply ingrained that when we see the many inspirational female business leaders that we have, it seems that much more impressive because of their gender. In Australia today, a woman runs only 11 of the ASX 200. Forty of those companies don’t have a single woman on their executive leadership team. Shockingly, there are more CEOs named Andrew amongst the top companies than there are women. Between the double standards of an assertive female leader being perceived negatively (as shown in the Heidi vs. Howard study*), the well-publicized debate on the gender pay gap, and the difficult decision to put your hard-earned career on hold to start a family, it’s not surprising that we might see it as an unrealistic goal to make it to the top.

However, Corlette has been breaking that mold now for forty years. Although the company has a strong gender balance in its male to female staff ratio, women hold the top leadership positions. For a young female designer, I believe that being exposed to more women in leadership will help us to get past the confidence barrier many of us may struggle with.

Erin Corlette started the business in 1979 by taking advantage of the opportunities available to her. “I was freelancing after my second child was born, and was asked by my major client if I would set up a Design Studio, to work closely with them. I had never thought seriously about establishing my own business, but I was certainly excited about it, as well as challenged.” 

It was significantly more unusual in the late 1970s for a woman starting her own design business, but Erin “didn’t think too much about it”. With a well-recognised client base that trusted and respected her, it was the perfect opportunity to utilise what she had learnt from a supportive and encouraging manager. “My first job was with a Director who felt that as a designer you could, and should be able to design anything. This stayed with me always. If you love what you do, work hard, always look for the opportunities to do better and encourage others to do the same.”

Camille Corlette, Global Creative Director at Corlette, and Erin’s daughter, has always had an inspiring female role model in Erin. Having a mother in a successful leadership position meant that she was exposed to advice, encouragement and expertise from a young age. One piece of advice Erin gave, which I strongly support, coming from the UK to work in Australia, is to travel and work overseas to broaden your inspirations and experiences. “When I first started at Corlette, both Erin and I had planned that I couldn’t stay there; I had to go and explore to know that a) I wanted to be in it, and b) to gain international experience. So that’s when I went to London, followed by Los Angeles and New York.” Engaging with new people, with different ideas and ways of working, influences and inspires you in ways that may not be possible if you haven’t taken the opportunity to travel. “After working in London, I came back and worked for an advertising agency that was very design-led. I worked incredibly hard, and gained their respect by showing creativity, commitment and strong leadership skills. I relocated and opened their LA office which was an amazing experience. I later moved to New York for several years with a large agency before returning to Corlette.”

This ideology of travel and working within different cultures remains a strong part of the company today, with offices in Shanghai, Singapore, and London, as well as Sydney. Head of Signage Design, Natasha Bartoshefski, is “really inspired by the places in which we work, different cultures, and also some amazing architects and consultants.” Exposure to different people and places can have a profound effect on the way you develop as a designer and ultimately move up in your career. Natasha believes that having an inspiring mentor and learning as much as you can from them is an important aspect of development. “I spent a long time just being a ‘sponge’ at presentations and seeing how my mentors would conduct themselves in meetings and in creative discussions. My advice to a young designer would be firstly to engage as much as you can in the world around you, notice what others are doing, be inspired, ask questions, look at how things are made. Be aware of who you think is doing great things and do what you can to work alongside them, enthusiasm will get you a long way.”

With exposure to different cultures and working environments, women trying to engage in a leadership position will undoubtedly come across more negative attitudes and gender bias, but Natasha sees a positive aspect to this. “Occasionally when you go to give a presentation in another country and the board room is completely full of men in suits, who don’t know anything about your background or experience, they may make a judgement about you based on a quick assumption of the way you look. However, I think this can still be a benefit – it’s nice to pleasantly surprise a client and reassure them you know what you are doing within the first 5 or 10 minutes of a presentation.”



In my experience, graphic design is definitely one of the more gender-balanced sectors amongst the design industry, compared to professions such as architecture. However, when I was a student in 2010, the UK’s Design Council published findings that 70% of design students were female, but only 40% of design professionals were women, and even less in high profile positions.

Kirsty Newell, Head of Graphic Design at Corlette, believes that some attributes traditionally assigned to women are greatly beneficial to the design process, regardless of gender. “Effective design is about connecting with your audience. Innate female sensibilities can give an edge in articulating an emotional response. In a design studio environment where tight deadlines and fragile creative egos are all in the balance, being empathetic is a huge asset, particularly in a leadership position.”

Women and men in leadership are far more alike than they are different. The traits and skill set required to reach a managerial position are the same whatever gender you are. However, unconscious bias is entrenched in us and forms a roadblock for many young women, from those around them and from themselves. Clare Bailey, CEO at Corlette, would like to see more women at all levels looking out for each other to help support women in their careers. “Lack of inclusion holds women back and, together, we can change that. I have learned to recognise the power of other women supporting, and empathising, with each other. Women I have worked with, clients, colleagues, and collaborators, who have supported me, mentored me, or taken the time to give me a lift, they really make all the difference.”

As well as having a strong support network in your career, it is important to play to your strengths. Clare, who began her career as a junior designer, realised early on that exploring other areas of the industry could help fulfil her full potential. “I recognised a few things early on, as a junior designer. I would never be as technically proficient at design software as I needed to be. And I can’t sit at a computer all day, I need to be out talking with people, with clients. Of course, good designers do that too, but not a lot of junior designers get to. So, I moved into project management and strategy and realised this suited me much more. Working with smart clients and helping to realise a vision is very rewarding”. 

Sharing the stories and relatable paths of successful women in business and leadership roles, in whatever industry, should be a more common occurrence. Support each other through experiences that are a lot newer to us than our male counterparts, who have been born into a world where leadership roles have been expected of them for many years. Women need to have confidence, to do what they have a passion for. You need to be focussed, work hard and have plenty of drive and energy to do what it is you are excited about doing. It’s the old saying of ‘If you can do it, so can I.’” – Erin Corlette


Celebrating International Women’s Day 2019

Pictured: Seated: Natasha Bartoshefski, Head of Signage Design and Erin Corlette, Executive Creative Director. Rear L-R: Kirsty Newell, Head of Graphic Design, Rebecca Kirby, Designer, Camille Corlette, Global Creative Director, and Clare Bailey, Chief Executive Officer.

* Women & the Leadership Labyrinth – Howard vs Heidi


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