Has Higher Education Failed the Female Industrial Designer?

It appears men and women start out in pursuit of an industrial design degree about evenly, but only 19% of industrial designers are women. So, in four short years, what could possibly be happening to nearly half the female industrial design students to make them simply disappear?
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March 22, 2022

If you want to know why there are markedly fewer women than men in industrial design, there is a laundry list of valid reasons to choose from:  

Less valid--even cruel ones--include:

"Men are natural problem solvers, and women aren't."
"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."

These quotes were directly pulled from Instagram comments in response to Ti Chang's article, "Industrial Design: Why Is It Still a Man's World?" article. These were also some of the "nicer" ones. They illustrate that part of the gender representation problem in industrial design is still preconceived notions of women, bordering on misogyny. However, just like there is more nuance to Racism than race, a lowercase "s" likely applies to sexism in industrial design. We know a lot of men in industrial design, few to none would we categorize as blatantly or secretly sexist. More likely, it is a male-dominated field, recently opened up to women, now clunking down a path towards heterogeneity. A path strewn with stumbling blocks, which is why it does more good to examine the blocks rather than the men along the way. One of these blocks, on the surface, presents as "opposing communication styles" in the classroom and studio. Yet, at its heart is a power dynamic entrenched in industrial design education and one that needs to change. 

The Education of the Female Industrial Designer

Ferreting out the exact number of women to men in industrial design education is explicitly hard. But, it appears men and women start out in pursuit of an industrial design degree about evenly; for our purposes, we will call it 50%. Finding the number of women actually working in industrial design is much easier--it's 19%. So, in four short years, what could possibly happen to nearly half the female industrial design students to make them simply disappear? Nobody seems to know, and given the low numbers of studies on the matter, not too many people care. 

"There are a total of three academically published documents on the topic of women in industrial design – two from the 1980s and one in 2017. This most recent publication by McMahon and Kiernan is the closest to discussing what specific barriers to access women are facing, but there is no discourse for industrial design past the discussion that very few women are practicing industrial designers." Kelly Walters: HEGEMONY IN INDUSTRIAL DESIGN: A STUDY OF GENDERED COMMUNICATION STYLES

Lost in Translation: The Female Industrial Designer

It is probably easier to chalk-up poor female representation to the notion of a boy's club: women are just not getting hired at the same rate as men, which is true. But, such a steep decline in the numbers in such a short amount of time points to something more. Something lost in translation between the day these bright-eyed, intelligent women walk through the door of their first industrial design class eager to break into the industry and the day 31% of them abruptly leave it. Our reasons from the beginning could certainly account for some of the attrition. But, as it turns out, "lost in translation" is a great way to describe the emerging evidence that "female" and "male" communication styles in the classroom could play a massive role in the dropout rate of women in industrial design. 

Power Dynamics and Communication in Industrial Design Education

Masculine and Feminine Communication Styles in Industrial Design

Communication styles are gendered: masculine, feminine. While not all men have masculine communication styles and not all women have feminine communication styles, a lifetime of gender-specific archetypes, more often than not, influences an individual's style to correspond with their sex. Masculine communicators control conversations, direct topics, interrupt to be heard. They also take up more space with their bodies by virtue of how they sit, stand or annex more space around them. The converse, "feminine" communication style is much like you would guess: making oneself smaller, taking less often, backing down when interrupted, standing further apart in groups. How these communication power dynamics play out in industrial design education may give us clues as to why female industrial designers have an attrition rate of around 40% from the first day of college to the first day on the job. 

Women in Industrial Design Have a Perception Problem

Kellie Walters, the author of the paper from the quote above, observed behaviorism among female industrial design students that will probably feel painfully familiar to any woman (perhaps all women)who have been shushed, interrupted, or man-splained to. Women in workgroups with masculine communicator-style leaders, be they male or female, were shown to sink away from tables, speak less and retreat further after being interrupted. Other studies corroborate this retreat-type behavior of women when faced with an imbalance of power due to an imbalance in communications style. In these scenarios, women tend to respond by adopting a preference for working alone, at home, or at odd hours to avoid the power imbalance in the studio. This, in turn, often leads to their male counterparts perceiving them as lazy, moody, intellectually inferior, or lacking problem-solving chops. And why women are frequently assigned softer gender-stereotypical tasks (i.e., note-taking and research) in design school group projects and internships.

From the Harvard Business Review:

"While some [women] initially described working in teams positively, many more reported negative experiences. For example, when working with male classmates, they often spoke of being relegated to doing routine managerial and secretarial jobs and being excluded from the "real" engineering work." 

The Choices Female Industrial Designers are Forced to Make

With such slanted power dynamics, it is no wonder women leave the field in droves: before and after graduation. Or why those female industrial designers who do graduate choose to leave or go into less technical, "more feminine" corners of the discipline: home goods, user research, and marketing. Maybe they're seeking spaces with communication languages more like their own. Perhaps they're tired of "fighting the good fight." Probably they've simply had enough: nobody likes to feel powerless, dismissed, and ignored. Whatever their reasons, it's not hard to see why in four short years, women in industrial design tend to "Turn on, tune in, drop out." 

It's Not a Boy's Club; It's a Failure to Communicate

The industrial design and engineering disciplines have been hard nuts for women to crack, as evident by their low representation rates. While there are still pronounced echos of sexism to blame, calling it a boy's club in a traditional sense is probably wrong. But what is evident is--something in the design studios and classrooms needs to change on an institutional level. This something should be an adaptation of communication styles, at the highest level down, to accommodate a growing tide of women entering the field. 

Female Product Designers: Diversity Wins the Day

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Diversity and Women in Industrial Design

While some may feel inclined to burden women to adapt their communication style, this is a specious line of thinking-- especially in light of additional observations made by Walters and almost all communications style research. A balance between the two communication styles is far and away the most productive, harmonious, and potent path to innovation. Once again, diversity wins the day. In Walters' case specifically, the groups with more feminine or even androgynous communication styles proved to be more collaborative. They considered all ideas, held inclusive discussions, worked through problems together, and were more innovative because they gave every group member a seat and a voice at the table--and, really, that's all women want.

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