'Where do the ladies go?': Uncomfortable Conversations
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series spotlights the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Frog Design Executive Creative Director Halle Kho. She joined Frog in 2017 and before that spent time client-side at Barnes & Noble, working as a creative director on its Nook devices. Kho has also held stints at Tribal Worldwide, RadicalMedia, and Tiger and Rat Design Co.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into design?
I started more along an academic route and then landed in fine arts and worked for about 10 years doing some jobs in animation. I was a self painter. Then, as time went on, I really wanted to focus on graphic design.
I became self-taught and did a lot of marketing work for the company I was working for at the time. Eventually I put together a portfolio and came to New York and started landing jobs at agencies. I also had a partner who was a developer in the late ‘90s and we built websites together, before that was a thing. It was an interesting way into this industry.
Having been both on the brand marketing and agency side, what were some of the differences in working?
The biggest difference is in the hours. Agencies are all about burn hot and burnout. It’s a different lifestyle. When I took the job at Barnes & Noble Nook, it allowed me to have more sanity in my life and do what I wanted to do. The problem with that was it wasn’t always challenging. With agency work, you’re always doing different things so you’re using different parts of your brain. Client side, it can be monotonous so if you choose to go that route, you have to be ready for that.
So, is there enough female leadership in the design world?
Uhm no [laughs]. It’s interesting because all the design teams have a lot of female designers. But when you go further and further into leadership, there’s more men. Where do the ladies go? What happens to them? One of the things that has come up since the pandemic is the responsibility that parents have, specifically moms. There are not a lot of moms at Frog; there are a lot of dads. But it’s not just Frog. It’s agency life. Working at agencies and consultancies, it’s hard on your schedule and you have to think about what you want to do for your career and family.
Are you a mother?
I am. I have two kids.
How do you manage the work-life balance?
It’s tough. One of the things I’ve been lucky with is we’re not a company that expects everyone to show up at 9 a.m. and stay there until 9 p.m. There’s a lot of flexibility. There is an understanding around being a parent.
But I also think an important thing to note is you have to give up your social life to manage your work and home life. Social life happens at the water cooler. Normally, when I’m not sitting beside my kids all day, I’m just running home to spend time with them.
How has the pandemic been for you?
In one sense, it’s wonderful to spend so much more time with my kids. My older son will work beside me, which is nice, but at the same time it’s kind of impossible. They need teachers. I’m not just juggling my own meetings and work but juggling taking care of my kids and making sure they are logging into their Zoom meetings on time.
What was it like for you not to see other women, and specifically mothers, in leadership roles?
In some ways, I don’t know how we can do it all but it’s hard not having a more balanced leadership. It signals to me that it’s not important for men to share in that. It’s hurtful. Agencies are still an all-boys club. I haven’t experienced anything different. I’m 46 years old and I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still go to meetings where people are using terminology like ‘hey guys’ that should be outdated. There’s an impression that agencies are working toward getting more women into leadership but you can’t actually get there. But, in my experience unfortunately, working for the few women who were VPs was not awesome either. They were not supportive of other women and were more focused on breaking down other women.
Can you share examples of those experiences working for other women?
There was one thing that happened maybe 10 years ago. I was freelancing and I was about to come onboard full-time, and the VP of creative who was a woman told me she wouldn’t hire me as a creative director because I had a child and I should focus on being a good mother. She then hired a male creative director who was two years younger than me and had two young kids and paid him a lot more than what I was paid. At the time I was thrown and didn’t say anything. I just kept going because I didn’t know what to do about it. I ended up becoming friends with the creative director and told him about it and he was horrified. He recommended me for a different position but it was horrible to be treated like that by another woman. I don’t know if that’s what’s still going on. I’m doing everything in my power to never behave like that. In my opinion, people who are moms are more time efficient. They are more dedicated. They are making the conscious choice to be there. They are being role models for their children.
So what do you want to see from agencies to improve the working situation for moms?
Frog has been great but they are not necessarily setting the example yet. The way to get there, in my opinion, is definitely talking about it. We need to boost women up but also make more space for men to do other jobs too. You have all these male leads in the studio; give them better parental leave. We have to make it equal across the board for men to be able to take off to do half the work in parenting. I didn’t plan to have a family. I always though I’d choose my design career and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly [to start a family].
Do you see the industry changing?
I hope so and I do. The millennial women coming in are strong, positive, optimistic and they are also already concerned with work-life balance. If they can continue to do the amazing job they are already doing and are able to talk about that journey, change is completely possible. If they start to fade away like we did then not so much.
What can the design industry do to make it a more inclusive place for all people?
We were so focused on gender equality, which I don’t think is there yet, and this last year has been a complete upheaval within the industry where we’re really starting to look at who we are hiring, how we are hiring and how we are treating people of color. We don’t do a super good job of that. The design industry is really hard work and there’s tons of pressure. More than many other places, you’re scrambling all the time as a designer. As an art director or creative director, you are focused on doing the work more than focused on the humans around you. It’s totally normal in this industry to be pulling all-nighters all the time. It’s normal to work on PTO or not to take PTO at all. It’s part of the reason we haven’t looked at our staff and the treatment of individuals. We need to start caring.