Industrial design: why is it still a man’s world?
Within hours of my first day working as an industrial designer, I was shocked to find that there was no women’s toilet. I was the first woman in a team of 12 men to design bikes. I laughed at it at first because it was too absurd. That week, they converted an unused closet, which became my bathroom. Although this happened in 2004, this kind of injustice and inattention to women is still pervasive. Throughout my career, I have often found myself the only woman in a fabrication shop, the symbolic woman in a room full of men. I was often spoken to, not taken seriously, sexually harassed, advised not to continue in the path of industrial design and to become more of a researcher. While visiting a manufacturer, I even had a business meeting in Italy where the supplier even refused to speak to me directly and only spoke to my male product manager.
In 2020, I still hear the same type of stories from young women finding themselves the only woman in a male dominated workplace. At first I thought that my experience was just a fluke, that things have surely improved over the past 16 years. But I quickly learned that being a woman in industrial design is a rarity, so rare that I couldn’t help but be wary of what exactly was going on.
Then a few weeks ago I ran into a Design Council Report 2018 on the state of design in the UK which confirmed my suspicions. The Design Council reported that in the UK product and industrial design are 95% male-dominated occupations, although 63% of students studying art and design are female; Unfortunately, the report does not divide fields of study into specific categories, but it seems unlikely that 95% of industrial design students are men. From my experience and the experiences of many women I have spoken to, the classroom experience was almost 50/50. Most women, including myself, didn’t think the gender disparity would be such a problem because it seemed balanced until we stepped into the real world.
Closer to us, in the United States, Core77 Salary Guide collected data from 10,307 working industrial designers and found that 81% are men, while 19% are women. These numbers look better than the dismal UK statistics, but they are still pretty dismal. So what happens to all female ID graduates?
I was so shocked by these statistics that I created an Instagram carousel that was practically a transcription of the Design Council’s findings on gender disparity in design. A few days later on December 9, 2020, I posted this on my personal Instagram account. Comments and messages poured in from women and male allies sharing their stories. Three days after my initial post on Saturday morning, unbeknownst to me, Yanko Design (with nearly 1 million followers) reshared my post and the dialogue exploded. On Saturday morning, my phone exploded with comments and likes – and of course, nastiness followed. Both on my post and on Yanko’s sharing of my post, countless men argued that the stats were wrong and added the comment below, which ironically supports the underlying problem:
“Men are natural problem solvers and women are not.”
“They work fewer hours on average and won’t make the sacrifices (like 70-hour work weeks) that are necessary to achieve leadership positions.”
“Women can’t take the pressure, it was common to see a girl cry”
“Women don’t have to sacrifice as much as men.”
“That doesn’t take into account the overtime men put in, the likelihood of moving out, having an unpleasant temper, all of this darkens, but a spurious and ignorant statistic.”
“I could take care of 10 kids and it would hardly begin to resemble the effort I put into having a successful design career.”
As appalling as these statistics are, the misogyny that emerged in the 1.3K comments after Yanko Design reposted them was more shocking. This post has since received over 17,000 likes, demonstrating that these shocking statistics have clearly touched a sore point in the industrial design industry. For many women like me who have worked in this industry for years, we are not surprised, as they definitely reflect our lived experiences. We had suspected it for a long time, but we had never seen such concrete statistics before.
Why are there no women in industrial design? Some argue, as they do when they talk about the lack of women in engineering, that there just aren’t many women who even sign up to study, so fewer women are even applying for jobs. jobs. In fact, I wish it did because it would be an easier problem to solve. The Design Council report shows that women make up 63% of the arts and design student population (in the UK). The gender breakdown of the top 5 design schools in the United States also reflects this gender balance in the school. The availability of qualified women applying for industrial design jobs is not the problem: the industry is a boys’ club, and it desperately wants to stay that way.
Most people don’t realize it, but industrial design is a mouthful of etiquette for a profession that efficiently creates all the things we use every day: coffee makers, furniture, baby toys, tech products and PPE – literally anything you can touch and smell was designed by someone (or a team). Well-designed products make it easier for us to move through our lives … that is, unless you are a woman.
Most people assume that the products we use in our physical world are created for all genders. Because the products we buy are (usually) non-gendered, we naturally assume that we as women have been taken into account in the design of these items. After all, we are 50% of the population, right?
This is unfortunately not true. When the products we use on a daily basis are designed by teams made up of 95% men, how can we capture the female experience? When there are hardly any actors in the creative process, women’s experiences in physical spaces are ignored. And as women, we go through life putting up with micro-aggressions and trouble with products or poor ergonomics that don’t work the way they’re supposed to. But it’s not just that these products are annoying: poorly designed products sometimes hurt and kill women. As we are seeing during the pandemic, PPE like helmets, goggles or face masks do not fit properly when designed for men. For years, we’ve known that seat belts aren’t as effective for women, hiking gear doesn’t conform to women’s bodies, and power tools are ergonomically designed only for men.
In college, designers learn the virtue of universal design to meet the needs of most people with the same design. Universal Design encourages the creation of objects that are as inclusive as possible. But when 95% of designers are men, they naturally bring their own experiences to the table, and rightly so, and that translates into products that never even consider other genres or experiences. This gender disparity has led to the exclusive use of male crash test dummies for three decades for safety testing. It wasn’t until 2011 that the female crash test dummy was even introduced, according to the book by Caroline Criado-Perez. Invisible women.
Have you ever wondered why your girlfriend, mom or wife is wearing their seat belt in such a fun way? Seat belts were not designed for people with breasts. Seat belts, by design, are uncomfortable for most women, and like the rest of the car, they were designed with the default human in mind: a male body. Because seat belts were designed for men, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash than men, 71% more likely to be moderately injured, and 17% more likely to be seriously injured. die, writes Criado-Perez. This is not just a startling statistic: it is an irresponsible conception guided by systemic and unethical hiring practices.
Traditionally dominated men oil and gas industries and Waste Management industries have a better representation of women in the workforce than industrial design, whether in the UK or the US. The oil and gas workforce is 22% women. In waste management, you are more likely to find a female manager (21.6%) than a female industrial designer in a design firm or business (19% in the US, 5% in the UK) .
These data show that other male-dominated industries take diversity more seriously than our own design industry. Please step up. There is a long history of women being driven out of certain industries – if we are to see a fairer and more equitable world, how can we expect to do so when the people who design our everyday products ignore 50% of the world? population? We need to do better as an industry. The talent is there. The women are educated. Women make thoughtful, innovative and brilliant industrial designers. Next time I’m in a building with industrial designers, I want to see more women, more diversity, and damn it – a bathroom that’s not a broom closet.