How the IDSA Women's Section Was Formed

by Nancy Perkins, FIDSA | Co-Founder, IDSA Women’s Section

Jan 25 2021 - 10:54am


In the 1970s and 80s, I was frequently contacted by women students who were seeking information about women in the industrial design profession; they were writing essays for a school project. I would copy magazine articles I had saved and sent them on, hoping the information would be encouraging. In 1989, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the Women’s Section of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  Not only was it inspiring but it proved beneficial as a network. Being a similarly structured trade association, I thought that IDSA could model the AIA’s concept. 

Sharyn Thompson, FIDSA and I served as IDSA Board members at the same time in the late 80s and early 90s, she as the Northeast District VP and I as Midwest District VP and Secretary/Treasurer. We exchanged ideas and experiences; we learned the decision process of how speakers were chosen for the IDSA annual conferences. However, it was obvious to us that major improvement should be sought for the roster of conference speakers. Rarely did we see any women on those programs and that needed to change. 


Establishing IDSA's first Special Interest Section

Review of the parameters of IDSA’s Bylaws showed that Sharyn and I could establish a ‘Section’ and schedule time at the annual conference for meetings and presentations, thereby showcasing the careers of women in IDSA during the conference. Our first meeting was held in 1992 at the annual conference in San Francisco. I emceed the program for our speakers: Betty Baugh, FIDSAEllen Manderfield, IDSA, Liz Powell, IDSA, RitaSue Siegel, FIDSALeslie Speer, IDSA, and Sharyn, who were all IDSA members and leaders of the society’s programs. Sharyn and I believed it was critical that IDSA volunteer leaders be given first priority to discuss their careers. Career presentations continued for the next three years, and in doing so, established a greater recognition of the career achievements of women. The Section also offered to make it possible for women to be well represented on all IDSA programs. We continued to refer speaker recommendations to conference organizers.

Most all of the women members of IDSA were enthusiastic about the concept of a Women’s Section, although not all women agreed. Some men were supportive and saw it as benefiting recruitment of women for employment opportunities. Any negativity about the Section concept was emphatically dismissed by Sharyn. The need was obvious to us and the endorsement of everyone else was ‘taken under advisement’ only.

In the late 1990s the Section’s name was changed to the Gender and Cultural Diversity Section, the rationale being that there would be greater synergy between various members and could increase participation.

Excerpt of October 1992 issue of Design Perspectives announcing the first meeting of IDSA's Women in Design Special Interest Section.

Returning to its original purpose

Jill Hunt, IDSA (then co-chair of the section) conducted a survey in the mid-2000s, the overwhelming view of the members polled indicated that the name and focus should be revised to reflect our original mission: to elevate and promote the visibility of women in the industrial design profession. The poll concluded that issues unique to women in the workplace needed a continuing forum for discussion. Clearly, we would benefit from specific programming focused on our professional interests. A Career Storytelling panel discussion was organized by Jill and Marianne Grisdale, FIDSA in 2010. 

In 2013, Ti Chang, IDSA volunteered to co-chair the section with me. She organized meet-ups and shows in the San Francisco area that have propelled growth of the Section to a new level by having more frequent local community events. With this template of success, the potential for establishing Women in Design chapters in all areas of the country is an opportunity for continued visibility and exploration of subjects unique to women in our profession and from our point of view. That freedom to develop programming would benefit all.   

During our first meeting in 1992, Sharyn remarked that when she began her career a Women’s Section meeting could have been staged in an elevator since there were so few of us. Today, a dynamic critical mass has been achieved, as evidenced at our most recent Women in Design Events and Deep Dives (2017 recap, 2018 recap2019 recap, 2020 recap). Thanks to the efforts of the many volunteers and participants, a difference has been made. We are only looking ahead—and forward—to the design of our own unique future.

- Nancy Perkins, FIDSA

Women in Design Show 2014
San Francisco, CA

Women + Design Summit 2017
San Diego, CA

Women in Design Happy Hour 2017
San Francisco, CA

Women & Design 2018
Chicago, IL (Organized by IDSA Chicago Chapter)

Women in Design Deep Dive 2019
San Francisco, CA

Women in Design Deep Dive 2020
Virtual Event

Looking ahead

For much of 2020, IDSA has been working quietly behind the scenes to adapt its organization framework to enable the creation and long-term support of localized Women in Design Chapters in cities across the United States. These groups will operate much like IDSA's Professional Chapters and will provide valuable programming to support womxn designers in local communities. All this is aimed at fostering positive gender equity within our profession and towards building a more robust platform to celebrate the tremendous impact womxn industrial designers have within our businesses and society at large. More information on this exciting Women in Design Chapter program will be announced soon. 


Remembering Sharyn Thompson, FIDSA (1945- 1995)
Co-Founder, IDSA Women’s Section


Sharyn’s leadership in the industrial design profession spanned both the professional and educational spheres, and it left an indelible impression on anyone who had the good fortune to work with her and learn from her. As Director of the School of Art & Design at the University of Bridgeport, CT, her alma mater, Sharyn’s students benefited from her dedication to design excellence. Her organization of student collaborations and competitions with GE Plastics and Black & Decker also won IDEA recognition. 

As a corporate and consultant designer, Sharyn’s ideas were produced, including: a patented surgical stapler for Acme United, award-winning office products for Hunt Boston, Ethan Allen home accessories, and test equipment for Acqui Data, as well as major and small appliances, aircraft interiors,  industrial and telecommunications equipment. For The Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped, her creation of Braille flash cards assisted blind children in learning their music scales.   

But Sharyn’s single, constant motivator was ensuring that there were more opportunities for women in the profession of industrial design. She strove to make it a welcoming place for them so that they could enjoy their work as much as she enjoyed hers.  And she saw this as her personal responsibility. Thus, in 1992, she and Nancy Perkins, FIDSA collaborated in establishing the Women’s Section of IDSA with the purpose of creating greater visibility for women in the industrial design profession.

Countless people were influenced and inspired by Sharyn and IDSA’s Women’s Section are a result of that responsibility in action.

In 1995, shortly before her death, Sharyn received IDSA’s highest award, Fellowship, because “she earned the special affection and respect of the membership through distinguished service to the Society and to the profession as a whole." Her life exemplified the full meaning of that award.