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Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?

How do we encourage more females to become industrial designers?

How do we encourage more females to become industrial designers?


When I catch wind of a design conference my fingers go scurrying across the keyboard towards the URL. But I don't go clicking on the glamorous location (usually a hotel ballroom) or the glitzy parties (usually at a hotel bar). I go directly to the speaker lineup. I count the number of female speakers. I count the number of male speakers. And then I do some math.

That math is, admittedly, getting better. The dearth of women speakers at design and tech conferences has been well-documented and well-debated. The upcoming TEDxWomen, for example, can be read as proactive commentary on TED's male-heavy lineups. With vigilant attention to the issue, organizers of conferences are making efforts to seek out not only gender and racial diversity, but simply new, fresh voices, as opposed to the same old standbys.

But when I first clicked over to the site for this week's Industrial Designers Society of America's international conference, which kicked off Wednesday in Portland, my heart sank again. There was a grand total of seven women out of 35 total speakers (two more have since been added). And here's the kicker: The theme was DIY, a category that, thanks to the craft and maker culture, could be said to be predominantly female. My eyes fluttered in disbelief as I searched the headshots for female faces.

But as I dug deeper into the issue, there was another figure that dismayed me even more: As of early this week, the IDSA conference estimates that only 100 of 550 registered attendees are women. It gets worse as you zoom out: This is an industry where females are estimated to make up about 10-15 percent, not any kind of official stat, but one that seemed right according to many of the designers I spoke with.

"I'd love to see more than ten percent women, I really would," says Michelle Berryman of the Atlanta firm Echo Visualization, a past-president of IDSA who was inducted as a fellow of the organization last night. While there aren't many statistics on women in design, Berryman spent her tenure doing research by surveying membership rosters and talking to her peers to help bring more women into leadership positions. "We've done quite a bit of outreach to make sure it's not just a bunch of 45-year-old white guys," says Berryman, noting that three of IDSA's presidents have been women. Earlier this year, Linda Tischler noted over at Fast Company (where I'm also a contributor) that an unusually diverse jury would be judging IDSA's annual IDEA awards, whose winners were honored this week at the conference. Proactive indeed, but not the norm.

I could write a whole series of articles on the ways that women are faring in—and in some instances, dominating over—various areas of the design industry (and check out this story in The Atlantic that says women now make up a majority of the workforce). But seeing as architecture and graphic design fields seem, anecdotally, to be closing the gender gap, and especially as this is discipline of design where so much great humanitarian work is done, the gender disparity in industrial design is dismaying.

"I think it's a product design thing," says Yvonne Lin of Smart Design, who said she's "not surprised" at the low numbers of women. She thinks something happens after female designers leave school, where she says she's noticed the number of women being much higher, maybe even 50 percent. "Somewhere between design school and working in the industry they get lost," she says. "They go into things like research because women are interested in people. Not just this 'product as icon,' but how they use it, live with it, the whole experience." Many women also disappear into the craft or DIY industries, she says, where they'll continue working with their hands but not really identify with product-oriented or manufactured design as their discipline.

Gary Hustwit's 2009 film Objectified featured far more male designers than female ones

An encouraging sign is the changing industrial design industry itself, which is taking a more holistic view of products that includes everyone from ethnographers to experience designers. It's evolving in a way that might be more appealing to women, says Karen Reuther, recently at Nike and now at Ziba Design, who has been working in the industry since 1979. "I'm seeing a less traditional approach to industrial design, with textiles, color, methods of making—a richness to it that that I think gives new opportunity for entries into design, including women." She hopes to make the field more visible and accessible to all people, not just women, who can see their multifaceted talents embraced by a company that won't force them into traditional roles. "Diversity is good for business," she says. "It's important for people to see the face of industrial design for what it is and what it is going forward. It's not the traditional way I studied 30 years ago."

Women are also increasingly exposed to female industrial designers who are moving beyond artifact-making, into community- and experienced-based efforts. Take someone like Valerie Casey, who worked at industrial design powerhouses like frog and IDEO before founding the Designers Accord, or Emily Pilloton, who used product design expertise to launch the non-profit Project H. Women are also reinventing fields like service design, where designers like Hilary Cottam are proving that there are groundbreaking ways to make a difference using their traditional skills.

But the brightest future for the recruitment of women in industrial design is actually coming from the top down—as clients demand it. At Smart Design, Lin is a member of the The Femme Den, a group of women designers who tap into different projects and offer insight on products for both men and women. But they've been drumming up interest since companies realize that it pays to market to and design for women: females make consumer product purchasing decisions more often than their male components. Lin uses her Femme Den role to show the value of having women in the design process. "I feel I have a responsibility to help people realize that men and women judge design differently," she says. "Women bring this different perspective that might reflect who is actually using the product, compared to who is buying it."


Members of the Femme Den, a collective of female industrial designers at Smart Design

One of the coordinators for this year's IDSA conference was Julia Carpenter, who is the marketing director for Ziba Design, the Portland-based firm that acted as this year's host. She walked me through the curation process as a team of up to 24 people solicited presentation ideas from the community through the conference website and on Facebook and Twitter. She remembers a meeting where they had to pare down a list of 100 potential speakers. Once headshots started to hit the table, they realized the imbalance right away, she says. "We said, we need more women and more diversity." They actively recruited more female speakers, including two prominent women for the keynote speaking positions: Grace Bonney, founder of the blog design*sponge, and Vanessa Bertozzi, director of communication and education for Etsy. (Great speakers both, but not industrial designers.)

But perhaps more interesting—and disheartening—is this fact: Of the dozens of proposals that came in for the community sessions and panel discussions, only 5% were from women.

Soon after they posted the first speaker list, someone made a comment on Twitter in reply to IDSA about the lack of females. Carpenter braced herself for inevitable criticism, she remembers. "But then," she says, "they wrote something to the effect of, 'Come on ladies, step up.'"

There's some truth to that Tweet. We can't demand diversity in our conferences, in our companies, in our disciplines, unless that small minority is also the strongest voice helping to promote and encourage that diversity.


GM's "Damsels of Design" brought the colors and finishes of fashion to the automobile industry

"Unless women write their own history, sometimes a lot of this documentation doesn't happen," says Nancy Perkins, who has been an industrial designer since 1974. She points to a resource she created for the Association of Women in Industrial Design about her great aunt Anna Keichline, who was the first female registered as an architect in Pennsylvania in 1920, held patents, and was also famous due to the fact that she, gasp, fixed her own car! Books and museum shows, like a recent one which profiled GM's "damsel designers" who worked for the automaker in the '50s and '60s, help expose different audiences to the discipline, including the all-important audience of young women.

But in this age, women can't wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum show. Being visible means speaking at conferences and talking to students, yes, but also finding other ways to show what it's like to be working as a woman in design, every day. Using social media to share the innerworkings of daily studio life is key—can you imagine what delectable gems design pioneer Ray Eames would have delivered on Twitter? Creating a rich narrative, illustrated with videos, photos, blog posts, essays, is something I don't see nearly enough from women in the field. Their numbers may be small, but it's the responsibility of that 10% to tell at least 50% of the story.

Top image, the famous Playboy photo of leading industrial designers in 1961

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