Industrial Design (ID) can be defined as a user-centric profession, one that studies the needs of the individuals and aims at fulfilling them, through the manufacturing and development of products that will make their life easier. Even though we, as users, only see the end result of the products, services, and devices we use, the process of designing is far more complex. Every product, from beginning to end of its making cycle goes through the validation of various industrial designers and their teams, judges of its functionality, features, and physical appearance.
Nowadays, despite industrial design education being more accessible, and having a wide range of training options, many resources affirm that the field is rather dominated by males, a questionable statement considering the fact that 63% of students who are pursuing their studies in art and design are females.
The Gender Breakdown
Living in 2021, and even with the constant calls for gender equality and pay equity, the field of industrial design has been considered subject to sexism. Despite their contributions and achievements, women do not always get the recognition they deserve, overshadowed, their seats at the table being taken by their male peers and coworkers.
In her open letter “Industrial Design: Why Is It Still a Man’s World?”, industrial designer Ti Chang highlights clearly the inequality, harassment, and bullying she has faced in the workplace, for being the only woman on the manufacturing floor. Chang deliberately affirms that being a woman in the industrial design field is in fact very rare, and the encounters she had made with other female peers in the domain confirmed the same situation she has been put through. Many articles and studies were to break down the gender imparity in the field in question.
For instance, Churchill’s Council of Industrial Design, now referred to as the Design Council reported that the professions of product and industrial design in the United Kingdom are dominated by men at a rate of 95%, while in the United States, the percentages break down to an 81% male-dominance to a 19% female presence.
These statistics make a lot of questions arise, for it makes us wonder if this imbalance is the result of the lack of qualified women who are enrolling to study and work in the field, or actually the image that the industrial design field is trying to maintain—a man’s world.
A Male-Dominated Workplace
It all starts at the studio.
Taking a look at the average numbers of men and women who enroll yearly in the academic programs of industrial design, and studying their behavior as well as the pace at which they are evolving and transferring to the real world, was the cue for Kellie Walters, research assistant to Professor Betsy Barnhart to analyze in greater depth the inconsistency in question.
Observing thoroughly the progression of the design studio class, Walters notes how most of the female students would be relatively quiet, and often cut off by their male peers when they would try to speak. Aside from the hesitation and admitting to not being taken seriously or even heard at all, some of the girls would stay late in the studio, to work in a more comfortable and less judgmental setting.
These unhealthy means of communication are, according to Walters, driven by the feeling of powerlessness that the female students would feel in comparison to their male classmates. Professor Betsy Barnhart proceeded to interview male and female senior students in the industrial design field and came around the same set of conclusions. Females indeed feel more comfortable working in their own space, even so at home, for they consider it as a safe environment away from the judgment and disrespect they face at the studio.
In conclusion, these various statements unpack the environment at the studio and may explain the reason why once out in the real world, women would rather transfer to the field of research or more quiet and submissive domains.
A Field of Inclusivity
As previously stated, while designing products and services, the user should be the center of focus. Advocating for human needs is a must, and these products should be inclusive, satisfying the needs of men, women, kids, individuals with special needs, etc. The main problem is therefore the following: if the industrial design field is made up of 95% of men, how can products be equally designed for women to use, without their accountability and touch of sensibility throughout the design and manufacturing process?
The male gender will therefore naturally share their experience and translate it into products that may not fit the other genders’ needs or take them into consideration. For instance, seatbelts were not designed for people with breasts, which explains the funny and uncomfortable way women tend to make use of it. The car in general has been manufactured adapting to the default body prototype, the male body.
Likewise, backpacking gear and power tools have been designed thoughtlessly of the way women may use them. This oversight and inattention harm women directly or indirectly, thus it is very important for women to integrate into the field and be treated as equally as their male coworkers, for the benefits they bring to the table is a big part of the success of products and businesses.
A Chance for Change
As a woman, being fully invested in the workspace is a demanding commitment, for it requires a good sense of balance between managing one’s home, family, and job. The field, not always being as friendly to women, makes it even harder to adapt. However, it is important to remember that industrial design, like any career related to the arts and designs range, is a visual profession. This puts women moreover at an advantage, for if someone is good, it will be a visible and non-negotiable statement, helping each individual who works hard to stay in the game regardless of the gender inequalities our generation still faces up until today.
On another hand, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, many remote jobs opportunities have risen, helping women in the field manager in a much easier way the work they are conducting.
Listening to the voices of women is a duty the design industry has to carry upfront. The goal remains to turn the workspace from an intimidating and uncomfortable space to an inclusive and safe one, where men and women are both encouraged to work with the same rights and duties.
Bolt, L. (2020, March 31). Women Make Up Over Half the Design Industry—So Why Are There So Few at the Top? Retrieved from Eye on Design: https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/women-make-up-more-than-half-of-the-design-industry-but-how-do-they-get-to-the-top/
Chang, T. (2021, January 7). Industrial Design: Why Is It Still a Man’s World? Retrieved from Core77: https://www.core77.com/posts/103849/Industrial-Design-Why-Is-It-Still-a-Mans-World
Stewart, L. (2020, November 6). Why Women Should Consider a Career in ID. Retrieved from Women in Industrial Design: https://womenidchi.com/blog/2020/11/14/why-women-id
Walters, K. (2018, December 11). Design Defined: The Lack of Women in Industrial Design. Retrieved from INDUSTRIAL DESIGNERS SOCIETY OF AMERICA: https://www.idsa.org/news/innovation/lack-women-industrial-design