Women in Industrial Design

Question: Why are there so few women working as an industrial designer? ( females make up just 20% of the field, stated in FastCo. article Forget “Shrink It and Pink It”: the Femme Den Unleashed) Are there any studies/surveys conducted that seek reasons as to why this is the case?

Prior to landing a full-time ID position, I did notice a off-set number between men and women in my previous internships/freelancing jobs. Didn’t think much of it. During college, Femme Den from Smart Design presented at our school of successful case studies they’ve conducted with various companies. Again, I didn’t really give it much thought then. My graduating class of '09 were a good mix of men and women… Fast forward 3.5 years, I’m already seeing about a 30% drop in number of women working as an industrial designer within my graduating class. Many left to pursue fashion, graphic, marketing, crafts…etc.

I am discouraged that this is just the reality, and would like to get your thoughts on why this might be the case so that I myself can better prep to possess all facet of skills in the future. I had some theories of my own,…so feel free to tag along as well.

-Lack of mechanical engineering experience or understanding
-Lack of interest in how things work, how things are manufactured
-lack of historical support of female role in ID?
-Physical strength not meeting up to men? (handling tools and machinery)
-Maternity leave?
-Doesn’t take design seriously enough? ( poor quality of portfolio?)

I’m also curious…
If you are a hiring manager, what kind of differences did you notice in portfolio between men and women?
What kind of characteristics/skills did women lack that were comparable to men?

Thanks in advance for your input.
And please, omit any negative comments! :slight_smile:

I’ve wondered the same thing, especially because many corporations and firms would love to hire female industrial designers, self included. I’m not sure we will be able to go beyond speculation here, but I’d love to have an open dialog and hear from women in design, both professional and students. Over the years I’ve had an opportunity to work with some fantastic designers who are women at Nike, Converse and at frog. In fact, when I left Converse, the majority of my team were female designers. When I’m hiring, on first pass, I only look at the work. In design, at the end of the day, only the work matters.

An example of one of the very good women in design I got to work with at frog:


I’m a student, so I haven’t worked in the industry yet, but in general, women earn less than men. This still holds true when comparing similar education/experience . It’s perfectly okay to complain that women aren’t equally paid/treated/respected – in many circumstances, they’re not.

I am curious to see what will happen with the class of students I’m currently with. Our body is about 2/3 male, 1/3 female, though the average ranking and output of the women is, from what I’ve seen, higher than the men.

From what I’ve seen as a student, I will give my own input on the reasons you suggested, however:

-Lack of mechanical engineering experience or understanding
This could be possible, but the same exists for the men as well. Along with that, at least 1/3 of the women in this class started in engineering majors, and switched (due to unhappiness/disinterest in the material for some, and inability to grasp subject matter for others). Many men in the class came from engineering backgrounds as well, and many switched for the same varied reasons.

-Lack of interest in how things work, how things are manufactured
Possibly. From what I’ve seen (and again, this is all anecdotal, and I am in an educational setting, not in the “real world”), a higher percentage of the women come from artistic backgrounds than do the men. I am fairly early on in curriculum, as well, so we haven’t covered as much material in terms of manufacturing.
Then again, I don’t doubt that if this is the case with women, it will be the case with the men as well.

-lack of historical support of female role in ID?
Ah, now this is one I think is highly likely.
While we do have some women we see in history, we don’t have many. When it comes to highly recognizable figures, they’re all Pauls and Raymonds and Charleses and Henrys. There are better known contemporary designers who are women, but many of them aren’t mentioned in lower level courses. To be honest, all of the ones I know about are from my own research (then again, all of these students should be doing research on their own).

-Physical strength not meeting up to men? (handling tools and machinery)
This one I especially doubt. From seeing work done in our shops, all of the women are very excited to use tools and machinery. Sure, it is daunting at first (and I admit, it took me time to get over my fear of the bandsaw), but it is also rewarding, and from my conversations with other women in my class, we all enjoy working with tools and machinery in the shop.

-Maternity leave?
This is possible, but this is something that needs to be corrected (at least in the US) on a higher level. We do not have guaranteed maternity leave, and honestly, it is unfair for us.

-Doesn’t take design seriously enough? ( poor quality of portfolio?)
Like I mentioned in the beginning, the women have a higher quality of output on average when compared to the men in my class. I see more men in my class with cavalier attitudes towards design, and loads of “well i know a guy who knows a guy who will get me a job after school” from them, as well. However, that attitude is not limited to gender – I heave heard women say similar things as well.

But again, I am a student, and I am interested to see how the women in my class turn out. I have high hopes for them.

My prior work experience is not in a design field, but I have, overall, seen women (and myself) treated less respectfully and with more carelessness than the men were. Men around me, even those with much less experience, had their career and training goals treated with seriousness, while the requests for training from other women and myself were met with excuses and symbolic pats on the head (which is why I left my work to go back to school).

Young women who haven’t worked before (except for part-time or summer jobs) may feel quite discouraged if they get into a position and then experience discrimination like that. And, it is discouraging and it’s unfair. Is it enough to give up and leave? For some, maybe. I would guess that those who get positions working for a manufacturing company rather than a design firm might be more likely to experience that, but again I do not have any experience in that.

Thank you for your well thought out response Sara. I’ve sent this to a few women in design I’ve worked with in the past. Perhaps they will be able to share their point of view as well.

The historical perspective seems like it would not only be limited to design due to women entering the workforce really after WW2. There are a few stellar role models though like Eileen Grey:


Her E1027 table is still in production today and is one of the key pieces in the Bauhaus lexicon. Ray Eames continues to get more and more of her due as well as time goes on.

A little historical digging turned up this group of female of designers at GM in the 50’s. Kind of like there version of the Femme Den. The terminology is rat pack dated, but interesting to see some thought behind this even 60 years ago.


I think it has a lot to do with how long it takes for changes in culture to become part of the mainstream consciousness. It wasn’t that long ago when gender norms were much more regid when all men were expected to play sports, be the breadwinner, and do “manly” things while women were in charge to housekeeping, being pretty, and taking care of the kids.

Although the definition of gender roles has greatly expanded, the perception of the traditional man and woman are still around and some of their effects can still be felt.

Although we say women can do anything men can do, we haven’t necessarily raised them that way. It is still the norm to expose boys to sports, power tools, and cars just as it is typical that women get exposed to cooking and playing with dolls.

I’m not saying that modern society explicitly defines what men and women can and/or can’t do but that women haven’t really been conditioned to consider all the possible careers available to them like men have.

Men are taught AND shown that they can be all sorts of things. You see it in TV, movies and other forms of media. I think you’d agree that female engineers, sports coaches, etc aren’t as heavily represented. If that’s the case then I can’t say I’m surprised by the smaller number of female designers in our industry.

I feel the solution starts with good parenting. As the first and last person your child sees in the day, you should create an environment that truly encourages kids to chase their interests, not predetermined societal norms.

My experience of ID education is that it is a real ‘sausage fest’- and by that I mean not just a lot more males than females in the classes, but some classes did become like locker-rooms, behaviour that was really ‘blokey’ and ‘laddish’. The flip side to this was that the women who did study tended to do really well because they wanted to be there and really put in the effort, plus had personalitiies where they didn’t put up with any sort of crap, or maybe they were used to those environments (had brothers maybe).

It’s better for research and problem solving to have a diverse and pluralistic group as possible, and I learnt more (especially those “I’d never thought of it that way” moments) from people with different points of view. JOHARI, you don’t know what you dont know.

Every year the local state branch of the D.I.A. holds a meet ‘n’ greet night between students and practioners, for ID, graphics, architecture and interiors. All the male ID students jaws hit the floor when they see all the women studying everything but ID. Interiors in particular seems to be the opposite of ID in makeup- they mostly seem to be very glamourous and good looking women.

My class at the University of Cincinnati must have been an anomaly with 50% women! Five years later I’d say 90% (of 20-ish) of us are still gainfully employed as “industrial designers” or in the greater product design world and the others are still doing something creative… but maybe left to be moms (also respectable, still seemingly our duty) or pursue other interests.

My .02…

“The Man” is still a tall, white dude that hires designers based on his “ideal designer”. This profile created in majority to history and gender roles - ultimately one of a male designer.

This stat is alarming and makes me think there’s a bigger conversation about diversity in the workplace that needs to be mentioned.

If you are in hiring power. Think beyond yourself, your skill set, your company’s current skill set and process and take chances.

This new designer may not like cars, may not use Adobe products or a 3D modeling software, have no previous professional experience or a conventional process…

But, they will either convince someone to give them a shot or they will figure it out alone. They will be tastemakers and visionaries. And they will inspire your bored, conventional designers surfing design blogs for years to come.

You want them on your team. And you don’t want them to become bored and uninspired.

Lastly, I know there are interesting things going on in high schools (i.e. http://www.pensole.com/) but it sounds like we need to do more. We all have that quintessential, in the nick of time, perhaps one degree too late story of when we first learned about ID. I would hope for improvement!?

Are you saying that there’s a slew of people (women?) out there without design education or experience that would still be more beneficial to the design process than a design graduate or professional (man or woman)? Where would these people come from? Unless you are talking about hiring people from related fields, i.e. fashion, textiles, interior, pottery, architecture etc…?

We had a bit of this at my previous placement, a design consultancy - most of the CMF team had a background in textiles, we had a fashionista bridging CMF and research, we had more women than men doing graphics, and we also had automotive, interior and of course industrial designers. Saying that though, there wasn’t a single woman dedicated to ID…

My course has about 30% women, it will be interesting to see what they end up doing once we graduate.

I’d be curious what the percentage of women that are in other facets of Design.

For example, User Experience Design and Interaction Design. Even Graphic and/or Brand Development within companies tend to be, from my observation, more balanced based on gender.

I would lean more towards what the mindset tends to be for Industrial Design vs. other niches under the umbrella of Design.

Industrial Design is much closer to engineering on the spectrum of design. I tend to find, that industrial design is closer to the quantitative side as opposed to, say, UX which tends to be more qualitative.

Using traditional gender assessment qualities as a guiding factor in this discussion, logic guides me to seeing this as making sense. ID will, in my opinion, not see a gender balance of better than 60/40 with 70/30 or less being more to what my gut tells me as being accurate.

This has nothing to do with a woman’s capability, but more to do with pure natural interest in what tasks are part of the ID process. I would posit that design roles that are more qualitative in nature will draw more women to it.

Something else to consider is that I believe were on the cusp of a significant cultural change. “The Man” is about to peter out. I tend to believe that my generation (I was born in '71) is exhausted by the boys club nature of the Baby Boomer and previous generations. This applies not only to gender issues, but racial, and other social faux pas of our previous generations.

As to why there are not a lot of women in ID, I won’t even hazard a guess. But I suspect it is a similar reason as to why there are not a lot of women in engineering. And a quick google search on that shows several papers willing to give an explanation.

As to why I am not hiring women, that one is simple. I just filled 3 positions of varying experience. Of the well over 100 resumes/portfolios I received, I’d say 10-15 were women. Of the 20ish people I interviewed, 2 were women. The odds are literally 1 in 10 a woman would be the best candidate.

Although our current department mix is better than that. It is currently approximately 30% women. Other departments are different. Accounting only has 1 man with about a dozen women. Marketing is about 50/50. Our factory floor is 60-70% women. Inside sales again about 50/50 but outside sales is mostly men.

Interesting question though. I hope my ramblings were useful.

This is actually a subject I have been thinking about quite recently concerning several of my previous co-ops . I have had the opportunity to work at two really great companies, and the first had absolutely no women in the design department (except for myself and the other female coop) while the second was split more 1/3 women to men.

I can say right out that while places were filled with awesome, really nice people, the atmosphere at each was completely different. While I was treated equally at both I felt much more comfortable at the second, due to the fact that I didnt feel as much the need to prove my abilities, and just generally didnt need to worry so much about gender norms. An example of this is if I baked cookies to bring to work. At the first coop I would worry that doing this would insert me into a gender stereotype and I wouldn’t be taken as seriously. At the second, It didn’t worry as much because it wasn’t something “the girl” did, it was just something that I did.

Again I will emphasize that nothing about the people I was working with was instigating these thoughts. They were all amazing people and I was treated perfectly fairly. I’m not even sure why it felt like a big deal at the time. I guess I’m just saying that maybe part of the reason women gravitate towards different fields later in their careers is because they simply want to be around more women in the workplace. And so it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

Like the UC grad above my current class is split about 50/50. But going into the workplace it is much more likely that the percentage will shift to become more male heavy. But I do really think that in about 10 years it will even out. Haha I myself intend to hang on ID for as long as possible.

Oh! Also thanks for posting those links Yo, they’re wicked cool :slight_smile:


I’ve had the opportunity to go to a fantastic, however, corporate minded undergrad (the University of Cincinnati), try 6 different companies/consultancies for internships, 2 years at a full time position before heading to a fine arts based design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art for two years where individual research, studio practice and personal point of view was held above all corporate agendas… and since graduating nearly to years ago, I’ve been at a large corporation near Portland.

From my years of experience in school and out, I’ve found that the majority of traditional design firms and corporations hire the same exact industrial designer over and over. They are hiring the same portfolio over and over. Same skill set, background, etc.

My experience abroad (I worked for a famous dutch designer for a summer) was quite different than my US experience. The studio was majority women and I’d venture to say that as incredibly talented as these women are, they would not be hired by traditional US based firms or corporations because they don’t have “that” portfolio.

(Also, if you’re working in Europe, why would you ever give up months of PTO and maternity leave for a couple weeks?)

At grad school, I was surrounded by extremely intelligent and inspiring individuals doing amazing work but like the women mentioned above, these colleagues will probably never get corporate type jobs because they are better building models by hand and not in 3D or sketching. They might be hired as shop hands but never the designers they have trained and worked to become. Their portfolios don’t include the quintessential post it note page, bold sketches or renderings where even the most mundane chair looks shiny enough to eat. And their work is beautiful in a different way, it’s mentioned in books, magazines, blogs… I would love to see what these designers, given an opportunity, would contribute to the corporate design world (firms/consultancies included).

It is after all Cincinnati’s enrollment model that "if you are smart enough to get into the program, you are capable of learning anything (no portfolio required) and I think that firms and corporations could be a little more open minded when looking at candidates.

@yo, thank you for your words. It’s definitely enlightening to hear corporations and firm would love to hire female designers, yourself included :sunglasses: . Browsing through Amina’s work well exemplifies her persistence in the field…something I really admire as a trait of character. Her work expands with so much variety and design interest. thanks for sending the link and also for sending this thread to your network of women in design. Looking forward to their thoughts!

@sarahsitz, Thanks for your thorough reply. It sounds like you’re enrolled in a Master’s program, judging by the fact that your classmates are from diverse backgrounds and yourself having another work experience. Very much enjoyed your reply!

@shuphrk88, I agree with your point of view that most girls may not have been exposed to activities and interests that boys had a chance to while growing up. It is still part of a social norm that influences ID in a certain way, and it will take few more decades to start seeing a big shift. Thanks for your input, I appreciate it.

@sanjyoo9, Ha! Funny how some things won’t seem to change. I was originally planned to major in Interior Design at Pratt but all that shifted when it was noted 90% of students were female sparkling from head to toe on a daily basis . It did seem like (then) Interior Design students were opposing mirrored reflection of ID students. I did have an older brother growing up and didn’t mind at all of locker room-esque ID shops, so perhaps that smeared a bit of influence…

@onepaisley, Wow, great to hear 90% graduating classmates from your school are still employed as IDers. I had some thoughts on this "tall, white, (maybe even good looking with a bit of charm) stereotyped male designer applicants…they certainly exist, and there are a good dominant number of them in the field. Charm and looks of an individual goes only so far in ID since most resumes are first filtered by software knowledge/skills/experience without a direct network contact… Thanks for the link to pensole! I didn’t know such program existed.

@jon_winebrenner, I do observe greater number of female UX designers working in the field, but it would be interesting to see what the actual number comes down to in other design fields as well. Perhaps Core77 can conduct such a survey. You’re right on the point about ID being closer to quantitative opposed to qualitative…although, some ID companies are heavily dependent on research and they rely on their industrial designers to conduct studies. Interesting view regarding Baby Boomers population and previous generations… On a side note, your presentation @NW IDSA Conference inspired me to(quote) “create the dots in design, with the ability to connect disparate piece in new creative ways”

@iab, thanks for your comment. I’ll do some research on papers that relate to engineering field…Wow, 1 in 10 women are only considered for the position?? That just made my jaw drop to the floor… your ramblings are more than helpful :slight_smile: Thank you for your input. I’m only inspired to work harder to be considered as the top 1% candidate among men & women applying to a prospective company.

@Holixx, I’m leaning heavily towards your comment about surrounding yourself with women is preferred in a workplace. I was the only female designer for two years until another female joined our team. I noticed now I no longer make frequent stops by the marketing group (all girls team) to chat about weekend plans and causally review restaurants and talk hair. It does relieve a bit of burden to not be the only one who doesn’t get all the Star Wars movie reference jokes…:wink:

Just thought I’d share an interesting contrast of article & an review on amazon.com

on FastCompany:
“Good products balance the needs of men and women for the benefit of both. They’re not male products masquerading as unisex or — worse — hiding under a coat of pink paint. They don’t alienate anyone with overt claims of being women-focused or women- friendly. They just are.”
[source: Forget “Shrink It and Pink It”: the Femme Den Unleashed]

on Amazon.com

A coworker of mine brought cupcakes to work in this carrier which she found in brown and it was just too cute to pass up, especially when I found it in PINK! ”
GardenofEdens | 1 reviewer made a similar statement

During my studies we were 15 male, 15 Female. Level of work def not leaning one way or the other. Some very fresh insights were shared to both sides of the genders. All in all a great environment.

As i now work work with athletic clothing, i am a minority by 1/5, in the design dept. Albeit, im the only one from an ID background. Several colleagues have spoken up, wanting more males in the product dept. I’d like that as well, but for selfish reasons.

There’s a 50/50 split among the industrial designers at my company (but there’s only four of us and they just hired us two women this year, so we may not be a good sample).

I think it’s mostly personality, and ID people have more of a tough “manly” personality than other design fields. From what I’ve experienced in school and in the real world, successful female industrial designers seem to be more of the “tomboy” type who aren’t afraid to get dirty in a machine shop making prototypes who have a tough outer shell holding their ground defending their design decisions and remaining composed and open to criticism when their designs get torn to shreds in critiques. This type is a minority of women in general, and then you take a fraction of that minority that decides to go into ID and that’s why there are fewer women in ID, in my opinion.

I was going to go further in my original reply to comment on this. The grey area of this discussion is that Industrial Design becoming a remix. I am seeing ID firms taking on more strategy design processes as well as UX firms taking on more ID processes. The “traditional” ID firm is kinda going the way of the Dodo. Someone with an ID degree can become a model maker, CAD jockey, render monkey, brand strategist, UX Designer, entrepreneur, … the list is pretty endless. It speaks a bit to the Boomer comment also, in that good work is what will be the discussion in the future, not gender or race or [insert bias here].

Cool. I am glad it spoke to you in some manner.