My name is Jo. I am a female industrial designer and in April this year I co-founded a design/tech studio called Morrama with Rob Bye. We partner with start-ups to help them develop their concepts into awesome product propositions.
The design and tech industry is a male dominated world. The male/female ratio in top design consultancies in London is around 85:15 in Industrial Design and only slightly better in UX and User Research. At my previous workplace I was the only female designer in a team of 24 and was often pulled onto projects by one of the four male directors “because we need a woman on the team”. Currently the network of freelancers we work with are all male. Out of the 20 start-ups that we work with, only one of them is managed by a woman. And I often go weeks without interacting with another female at work.
The human race is split 53:50 male to female. Women interact with products, navigate apps, operate machines, strap tech to their wrists and use services as frequently as men do. However when the majority of these products are designed by teams of men, how can they properly meet the needs of women?
Last year the launch of Apple Health was met by thousands of outraged females after they overlooked a blatant female health app requirement; being able to track reproductive cycles. Tim Cook himself admitted that more needed to be done to balance the gender inequality in tech (the ratio at Apple currently sits at 70:30), by why is there still such an imbalance? These are my thoughts:
“When the majority of these products are designed by teams of men, how can they properly meet the needs of women? “
I still remember the day, aged 16, I was sat down by my headmistress and questioned on my decision to “waste my potential” with my Art & Design course choices.
Of the 204,788 students who received a Design & Technology GCSE this year, 60% were male – a 4% increase from 2012. These percentages are reflected throughout college level education and into University. Although the ratios are not as skewed as we are seeing in the industry, the fact that the gender gap is increasing at this early stage is worrying.
Psychology, Art & Design and Sociology subjects see the highest percentage of females and Maths and Biology are also among the most popular choices. The way I see it: Creativity + an interest in human behaviour + logical problem solving = perfect combination for a career in design. Yet schools are somehow failing to explain the real potential of Design & Technology to girls early enough. More needs to be done to move away from the ‘woodwork’ stereotype of old and bring in module titles such as design for behaviour change, service design and design for disability. Perhaps the proposed changes to the Design & Technology GCSE to be introduced in 2017 in the UK will do something to change this, but until students can be inspired by teachers/lecturers/guest speakers who have experience in the industry themselves, I fear little will change.
In my opinion this is the crux of the issue. Ask me to name a ‘famous’ industrial designer and I could list a dozen without thinking… all male. My design heroes: Naoto Fukasawa, Kenneth Grange, Norman Foster… all male. Of the recent design events that I’ve attended; over 80% of the speakers, judges, partners, and award winners… male. There are very few female designers, and even fewer known superstars in the industry. Of these, even less are known by individuals outside of the industry. Even if the education system is producing 2 budding male designers to every 1 female, it seems it will be a long time before this is reflected in high profile positions and public platforms.
This needs to change. If girls — young students or recent graduates — don’t have female rolemodels to inspire them, how can they begin to imagine the potential of their own future in the industry?
“Ask me to name a ‘famous’ industrial designer and I could list a dozen without thinking… all male”
Men and women approach problems from different perspectives and it is therefore valuable to have both in any design team. However as professionals, there is absolutely no difference between us. In fact, speaking to Rob, he is of the opinion that women in this industry (at least the women he’s worked with, which is many more than I have) are “more driven and hard working than most men”.
If this is the case however, why aren’t more women taking those chances that would get them noticed?
Destroying the male/female stereotype
I inherited a strong sense of self-belief from my mother who never let the male dominated medical world stop her from leading organisations, chairing panels and eventually setting up her own business in medical education. For her, justifying every decision to a room full of men meant she always had to have her argument prepared and appearing vulnerable or any less capable was never an option. Today I believe opinions of women in the workplace are changing (personally I’ve not felt judged because of my gender; but then I work for myself!). Nevertheless I feel women are still fighting the ghosts of the stereotypes that our mothers had to deal with.
And as a result women take less risks. If you are fighting hard to prove your place in a male industry, then you can’t afford failure, so you can’t afford risk. But hard work can only get you so far. It is the people that take the risks that see the biggest rewards, and in design; it is the men that are taking those chances.
“I feel women are still fighting the ghosts of the stereotypes that our mothers had to deal with.”
I’ve worked with Rob for over two years now. We are complete opposites, and that’s why it works, but there’s one thing we have in common: whenever I’ve felt worried, stressed, out of my depth, tired, frustrated – starting your own company involved all of these and more – I can guarantee Rob feels exactly the same. Having someone to talk to about your worries is a really great thing, and if you talk to someone of the opposite sex you’ll realise that often our worries are all the same.
Despite the odds, there are females taking their first steps into the design industry every year. Whether it’s ID, Interaction, PDE, UI, UX, Design Research or any other speciality, I urge the women in these industries to keep on going. Take the opportunities to move on up in the industry, speak at that event, write and promote your blog, go for that award, or even start your own venture, but most importantly expand your network to ensure that the industry hears more female voices. And also, if you can, take a moment to visit your local school and fill the minds of the next generation with vast opportunities open to both boys and girls in this industry.
In short female designers need to become inspirational rolemodels for young girls by taking risks and reaching new heights in their own career, and men need to realise how working with a female designer brings a valuable and important perspective – not better, not worse – to any team. Because men are not better designers than women, they simply have a well-trodden and well-lit path to follow.
NOTE: I have deliberately not mentioned the ‘P word’ despite it being the reason why, in many industries, a woman’s career plateaus around their early 30’s. It’s a fact that small design teams that cannot afford to pay for an employees maternity leave would avoid hiring a woman who seems a ‘likely suspect’ for family expansion. Unfortunately this is unlikely to change any time soon. Being the director of a company doesn’t change the financial situation, but perhaps offers a little more control over the process. However I don’t have first hand experience in this area, so am reluctant to comment further. All I know is that it didn’t stop my mother, and I wouldn’t let it stop me.