Industrial Design: Why Is It Still a Man’s World?

In this open letter, designer Ti Chang asks the important question: where are all the women in industrial design?

By Ti Chang – January 7

A few hours into my first day at work as an industrial designer, I was shocked to discover there was no women’s restroom. I was the first woman on a team with 12 men, designing bicycles. I laughed it off at first because it felt 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 on a manufacturing floor, the token female in a room full of men. I have often been talked over, not taken seriously, sexually harassed, advised to not continue down the industrial design path and instead become a researcher. During a manufacturer visit, I’ve even had a business meeting in Italy where the supplier refused to even speak directly to me and would only address my male product manager.

In 2020, I still hear the same type of stories from young women who find themselves the only woman in a male-dominated workplace. I had initially thought my experience was just a fluke, that surely things have gotten better in the last 16 years. But I quickly learned that being a woman in industrial design is a rarity, so rare that I couldn’t help being suspicious of what exactly was going on.

Then, a few weeks ago, I came across a 2018 report by Design Council on the state of design in the UK that confirmed my suspicions. Design Council reported that in the UK, product and industrial design are male-dominated professions at 95%, even though 63% of students studying art & design there are women; unfortunately, the report doesn’t break down the fields of study into specific categories, but it seems unlikely that 95% of industrial design-specific students would be male. In my experience, and the experiences of many women I have spoken to, the classroom experience was nearly 50/50. Most women, including myself, didn’t think gender disparity would be such a problem because it seemed balanced until we got out into the real world.

Closer to home, in the United States, Core77’s Salary Guide gathered data from 10,307 working industrial designers and found that 81% are male, while 19% are female. Those numbers look better than the UK’s dismal statistics —but they’re still quite dismal. So what is happening to all of the women ID grads?

I was so shocked by these statistics that I created a carousel on Instagram which was practically a transcription of Design Council’s findings on gender disparity in design. A few days later, on Dec 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 original post on Saturday morning, unbeknownst to me, Yanko Design (with nearly 1 million followers) reshared my post and the dialogue exploded. Saturday morning, my phone blew up with comments and likes— and of course, the nastiness followed. Both on my post and Yanko’s reshare of my post, countless men argued that the statistics are false and added the below commentary, which ironically supports the underlying issue:

“Men are natural problem solvers and women aren’t.”

“They work less hours on average and won’t make sacrifices (such as 70hr work weeks) which are necessary in order to reach leading 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 do.”

“It doesn’t account for the extra hours males put in, likelihood of moving location, having a disagreeable temperament, all of which gets clouded but a disingenuous and ignorant statistic.”

“I could take care of 10 children and it would barely start 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 were more shocking. This post has since received 17K+ likes, demonstrating that these shocking stats clearly struck a nerve in the industrial design industry. For many women like myself who have been in this industry for years, we are not surprised, because they definitely reflect our lived experiences. We had long suspected this, but we had never seen such concrete stats until now.

Why aren’t there women in industrial design?

Some argue, like they do when talking about the lack of women in engineering, that there just aren’t that many women even enrolling to study, resulting in fewer women even applying to jobs. I actually wish that were the case because it would be a simpler problem to solve. Design Council’s report shows that women are 63% of the population studying arts & design (in the UK). The gender breakdown of the top 5 design schools in the US also reflect this gender balance in school. The availability of qualified women applying for industrial design jobs isn’t the issue: the industry is a boy’s club, and it desperately wants to stay that way.

Most people don’t realize it, but industrial design is a mouthful-of-a-label for a profession that effectively creates all of the everyday things we use: coffee makers, furniture, baby toys, tech products, and PPE — literally anything you can touch and feel has been designed by someone (or a team). Well-designed products enable us to move about our lives easier… 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) not gendered, we naturally assume that we as women have been accounted for in the design of those objects. After all, we are 50% of the population, right?

This is unfortunately false. When the everyday products we use are designed by teams that are 95% male, how can the female experience be accounted for? When there are barely any stakeholders in the creation process, women’s experiences in physical spaces are ignored. And as women, we go through life putting up with microaggressions and annoyances with products or poor ergonomics that don’t work how they’re supposed to. But it’s not just that these products are annoying: poorly designed products actually hurt and sometimes kill women. As we are seeing during the pandemic, PPE like helmets, goggles, or face masks don’t fit properly when they are designed for men. For years, we’ve known that seat belts aren’t as effective for women, backpacking gear doesn’t conform to women’s bodies, and power tools are ergonomically designed solely for men’s use.

In college, designers are taught the virtue of Universal Design to accommodate most peoples’ needs with the same design. Universal Design promotes making objects as inclusive as possible. But when 95% of the designers are male they naturally bring their own experiences to the table, rightfully so, and it translates to products never even accounting for the other gender(s) or experiences. This gender disparity led to three decades of male crash test dummies being exclusively used for safety testing. It wasn’t until 2011 that the female crash test dummy was even introduced, according to Caroline Criado-Perez’s book Invisible Women.

Ever wonder why your girlfriend, mom, or wife wears their seat belt funny? Seatbelts weren’t designed for people with breasts. Seatbelts, by design, are uncomfortable for most women, and like the rest of the car, it was designed with the default human in mind: a male body. Because seatbelts were designed for men, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash than a man, 71% more likely to be moderately injured, and 17% more likely to die, writes Criado-Perez. It’s not just an astounding statistic: it’s irresponsible design guided by systemic, unethical hiring practices.

The traditionally male-dominated oil and gas industries and waste management industries have better representation of women in the workforce than industrial design does, whether in the UK or the US. The oil and gas workforce comprises 22% women. In waste management, you’re more likely to find a female manager (21.6%) than you are a female industrial designer at a design firm or corporation (19% in the US, 5% in the UK).

This data shows that other male-dominated industries are taking diversity more seriously than our own design industry. Please step up. There’s a long history of women being pushed out of certain industries — if we want to see a more just and equitable world, how can we expect to do that when the people designing our everyday products are ignoring 50% of the population? We have to do better as an industry. The talent is there. Women are educated. Women make thoughtful, innovative, brilliant industrial designers. The next time I’m in a building with industrial designers, I want to see more women, more diversity, and dammit — a bathroom that isn’t a broom closet.

Article at CORE77