Carmela Dagnello

26th October 2021

Carmela Dagnello, UK Ambassador for Women in Lighting and Senior Lighting Designer at WSP, recently carried out a survey examining gender equality in the lighting industry. Here, she tells us more about the findings.

When the Women in Lighting initiative was first formed in 2019, its primary aims were to provide a platform for women to network and share stories, to raise the profile of female designers and encourage women to achieve more in the industry.

In a relatively short space of time, the project has taken the lighting world by storm and has done incredible things to showcase the amazing work of women in the industry. However, while it has helped to create more equality in terms of female representation on awards panels, conference line-ups, and so on, some issues remain surrounding implicit inequalities within the workplace.

To that end, Carmela Dagnello, UK ambassador for Women in Lighting and Senior Lighting Designer at WSP, has undertaken a research project looking into gender equality in the lighting industry in terms of the pay gap, diversity in leadership roles, sexism and harassment.

Since entering the world of lighting design seven years ago, Dagnello has been an active member within the lighting community, although it wasn’t until she applied for her Master’s at Hochschule Wismar in 2014 that she realised that lighting design was a career she wanted to pursue.

“In Italy, I studied industrial design, my aim in a previous life was to be a product designer,” she said. “When I was at university [Politecnico di Bari], I got a job in a lighting showroom, mainly selling pieces from Italian and international decorative lighting brands.

“When I was working in the showroom, I always really liked how the light was coming out of the products. But I never thought about architectural lighting, because I was not aware of what architectural lighting was until I decided to move out of the country, and I applied for a DAAD scholarship to complete a Master’s in Germany.”

Dagnello studied Architectural Lighting Design at Hochschule Wismar, where she learned about the multifaceted aspects of light and lighting design. “Since I was interested in lighting products, I wanted to understand more what was behind the product. Not the production itself, but how the designers were thinking about how to create certain effects of lighting. It was my first experience of holistic lighting design, and this is how I became interested in the psychology, science, the architecture, the art – so many different aspects of lighting that I never considered before,” she continued.

“Both during my studies in industrial design and later on, I went to Salone del Mobile in Milan so many times, looking at products and wondering why they were so useful or beautiful – what’s behind them? What is the key that makes this product beautiful? I’m now basically translating these questions into lighting design, always thinking ‘how can the lighting work within this space? How can we make this space beautiful?’”

During her studies in Wismar, Dagnello met professor and fellow WIL ambassador Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska (“I love her, her integrity and dedication to the profession have always inspired me.”), who advised her to spend her second-year internship in London. “I never imagined in my life that I would come to London. I didn’t know what London was or what I would find, I never had this London dream,” she said. “I followed her recommendation and started to apply for internships. I was accepted to Atelier Ten and stayed with them for a year. It was mind-blowing.

“I was struggling for so many years in Italy to find what I wanted to do, but the moment I put myself into lighting, I found the light at the end of the tunnel. I finally, for the first time in my life, did what I felt was right for me.”

Following her internship with Atelier Ten, Dagnello worked for a couple of manufacturers, before joining WSP in 2018. “At a certain point, I found WSP, and I didn’t know much about them, but I knew that they were engineers working on lighting projects such as London Bridge Station. I met with Sacha Abizadeh [UK Creative Lighting Associate Director at WSP] for the interview, and he showed me a variety of projects that he has done, and I was inspired by these huge infrastructure projects as something that would really challenge me.“We don’t have any limitations in the kind of projects that we accept here, so it means that your mind can be challenged all the time, thinking about different spaces, different users, different ways you can apply lighting.”

Dagnello added that working as part of a larger engineering firm has helped her broaden her knowledge and skillset, not just from a lighting design perspective, but in other fields as well. “It’s not only the scope and the size of the project, but also the interdisciplinary collaboration that we have here, which I think is really important for lighting designers,” she said. “You don’t need to be an expert of ventilation, mechanical or structural engineering, but you can make other people’s knowledge your own and use it to integrate better, to innovate, to do something different, something new.”

Alongside her work with WSP, through which she is currently working on several high-profile projects including the HS2 Old Oak Common station and “an unconventional office space that combines human centric and biophilic lighting, transforming at night into a real nightclub”, Dagnello has been actively involved in the Women in Lighting project for the past two years, eventually becoming the UK ambassador earlier this year – a role that came very easily to her.

“I remember I went to a WIL event in February last year and I said to Katia [Kolovea] ‘I want to do something, tell me what I can do’. But then Covid happened; I was still participating and following the activities, but I was still not sure how I could contribute to it.

“Then one day, Katia said to me ‘you told me you wanted to do something – do you want to become the ambassador?’. I took a bit of time to reflect about it, if it was maybe too heavy, but I spoke to Sharon [Stammers] and she was really supportive and encouraging. So I took my time, and after a while I thought ‘if I become UK ambassador for Women in Lighting, I really want to do something that is good for women’. I still didn’t know what I could do, but I thought it doesn’t matter how much time it took, I was going to put in the effort and figure it out, so I accepted.”

As is the case for every ambassador around the world, one of Dagnello’s main responsibilities is to serve as a point of contact to local designers and help to foster a sense of community. However, the size of the UK market means that this duty is slightly different for her.

“In places like Brazil, Mexico and Italy, they are very active. Giorgia Brusemini, the Italian ambassador, is amazing. She has created a real community, organising Brilliant+, a shared moment where women can learn and share something together. In Italy, consultants work mainly by themselves, they own their own studio or they’re architects that work as lighting designers as well. Women in Lighting there has fostered a sense of mutual aid, for example – if someone has a problem, or needs some resources to deliver a project, they can call each other.

“Here in the UK, the background is different, everything is bigger. Consultancies for instance already have larger groups of people and the level of competition is high. So I wondered what I could do to bring some benefits to the UK lighting community.” 

Taking inspiration from the United Nation Global Solidarity movement for Gender Equality, HeForShe, Dagnello set up the survey examining gender equality within the lighting industry. Her goal was to dive a little deeper into less visible issues such as gender equality, biases, and some of the everyday issues that women face, both in the industry and society as a whole.

She explained: “Here, in the lighting industry issues are not related to figures – in general you see the numbers of men and women in offices are quite balanced. I wanted to do something that looks a bit deeper behind the numbers.

“I wanted to investigate if there were actually other issues going on, for example the gender pay gap, differences in leadership roles, sexism and harassment.”

The survey, which had nearly 150 respondents, asked a series of quantitative questions relating to participants’ personal information and professional experience; it also gave respondents the space to anonymously share stories on instances of gender inequality that they have either witnessed or experienced themselves. It is here that Dagnello found the most eye-opening data.

“What we could see was that people have this drive to talk about their experiences. Through the survey, we’ve given people the chance to liberate themselves of what they’ve probably only told to relatives or friends, never in public. Having the survey be completely anonymous, we’ve given them the chance to finally get these things out.”

Alongside the individual stories, some of the most alarming data came in the discrepancies in perceived equality between male and female respondents. For instance, 94% of male participants perceived a higher grade of equality in the workplace, compared to only 59% of women, while 88% of men also thought that every gender gets equal opportunities, compared to 50% of women.

“On one hand, we can say that lighting is a good industry because there is a good balance between men and women, especially in design consultancies. It’s a little different when you look into manufacturers and engineering, which are both still more male-dominated. At WSP, the lighting team is quite upstream; there are 11 of us, of which seven are women, some in leadership roles.”

The stories were particularly illuminating when it came to the issues of sexism and harassment, with many participants sharing their own shocking experiences of discrimination, both in the workplace and on-site. While in some respects this is not new information, Dagnello believes that by giving participants the chance to get their stories out in the open, it will help to encourage more dialogue and lead to more actionable change going forward.

“I also saw through the survey that many women are having problems reaching the higher levels – maybe because sometimes their companies don’t have the right policies or the right mentality and they’re not aware of how to fight for that.”

There is also another aspect to consider within the data. Dagnello explained: “When I was working on this, I watched so many TED Talks about female empowerment. Women don’t realise a lot of the time that they put themselves in the shadow without knowing it, because in the past we have been in the shadows for so long that it has become natural to us: don’t say anything, don’t speak up, don’t be loud. I would love to try to educate women to recognise certain behaviours in ourselves and try to overcome that, because I think women should not be afraid of getting the same opportunities and receiving the same respect as anyone else. I don’t see why this is not happening.”

As such, Dagnello is hoping that the survey will help to increase men’s awareness of the gender inequality that exists within the workplace. “Women sometimes don’t recognise some forms of harassment, like being talked over or mansplaining. But men, even more, don’t recognise them. And this is the other side of the coin, because if we need to fight for equality, we need to fight together. We need men. We need to raise awareness. If you are aware of something, you can fight it. If you’re not aware, you can’t.

“But recognising the issues is the first step towards taking actions. With this survey, I wanted to put everything on paper so that people can say ‘OK, we’ve got a problem now, I didn’t know that there was a problem. What do we do next?’ I hope that this would inspire someone.”

As for her own experiences, Dagnello believes that she “has been lucky” in that she hasn’t had any personal experience of harassment or discrimination for being a woman, but she has seen it happen to other people.

“I think what made me undertake this survey is because I saw other people being hurt by these behaviours, and I think I have a sense of justice that I wanted to try and regulate things, I wanted people to speak up. Even if you speak up with friends, with partners, tell them the things that happened to you, otherwise nothing is happening, nothing is changing.”

Looking forward, Dagnello hopes that this survey will act as a catalyst to raise awareness on gender equality and “how we can empower ourselves in different aspects of our life”. She also hopes to follow up with some “empowering sessions with women” so that they recognise inequality when they see it and know how to call it out. By providing these opportunities for women to share their stories, she is hopeful that it will have a lasting effect going forward. 

“Sometimes people don’t know what to do when subject to gender inequalities. They don’t know how to speak out, and not everyone is so strong that they can do so by themselves,” she said. “I think that human beings learn by example, but if you’ve never seen someone else do something, you don’t know where to start, and it’s hard to be the first person. You need to be strong and have lots of courage to be able to do that.

“Maybe if we provide the tools to women, to learn to change little things, we don’t need to have a revolution of the whole world, but we will be able to live a little better.”

The full survey is available to view on the Women in Lighting website.