Design Defined: The Lack of Women in Industrial Design

A Study on Comfort and Discomfort in the Studio

Dec 11 2018 - 3:24pm


It should be no surprise that the field of industrial design is male dominated—but just how male dominated is it really? How many women and men are in industrial design academic programs? Are female graduates moving into industry at the same rate as their male peers?

Currently, this data doesn’t exist. While for decades architecture and engineering have been formally documenting and discussing the lack of women in their industries, industrial design is trailing behind with no official student group for female design students, no mentorship program for female designers and no statistical data on how many women are in the profession. 

Searching for Answers

This is where Assistant Professor Betsy Barnhart began three years ago, wanting to start a mentorship program for women in industrial design—a sort of “Girl’s Garage” where female students would learn the skills of industrial design from women in practice. When trying to apply for funding and grants, she lacked enough hard data to prove the need for funding. As her undergraduate research assistant during the past three years, I assisted Professor Barnhart and led my own research to assess the current status of women in industrial design education.

As an independent study over the course of my senior year at Iowa State University and under Barnhart’s guidance, I wanted to unpack the environment and culture of the industrial design studio and the effect it has on women. I noticed how few of my female peers were staying late in the studio, making comments during critiques and diving into group discussions. When I would ask my male peers why they thought this was the case, they said it was out of lack of interest, laziness or a preference for styling, fashion, CMF or research—but not industrial design. I was immediately skeptical because when I asked my female peers the same question, they talked about being uncomfortable in the studio, hesitating to speak up and not feeling heard when they did. 


Power Dynamics

Power influences communication; the ability to control the topics, direct conversations and interrupt are innately tied to whether individuals in the group are equal to, dominant over or deferential to others. Discourse on gendered nonverbal communication defines “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors to identify these power dynamics in conversations. Specifically, proxemics, territoriality and kinesics describe the power relationship between individuals and whether someone is comfortable or uncomfortable in an environment. Proxemics is the spatial distance between people, territoriality refers to how much space people claim around them, and kinesics, body motion communication, studies how a person responds to who they are talking to. 

Masculine communication in proxemics exerts power by claiming people’s personal space, such as drawing near someone or invading someone’s space, while the feminine takes the subordinate position by giving space between people, such as moving further away from others. In territoriality, masculine communication is exhibited by claiming more of the space around you, such as crossing your legs or placing your bag on the seat next to you on the bus; the feminine subordinate position is evident by occupying as little space as possible. 

Whereas proxemics and territoriality look at the power dynamics in a group, kinesics is concerned with whether someone is comfortable speaking in a group and who is dominant in a conversation and predicts how these dynamics will play out over a period of time. Confident and comfortable kinesics, such as an upright posture and sitting or standing close to those you are speaking to, is masculine. When feminine kinesics are exhibited, the speaker sits or stands at a distance from those they are speaking to with their hands and arms held inward, and possibly exhibits a hunched over insecure posture and may touch their face with their hands.

It should be noted that these definitions are not tied to the sex of the person, but rather describe the power dynamics in people’s interactions. Feminine characteristics are not innately subordinate, nor are masculine behaviors always dominant. The definitions are meant to help define how gendered dynamics are present in our everyday interactions.

These gendered nonverbal behaviors were used to study the atmosphere of the industrial design studio. During a four-hour design challenge, 54 students sophomores, juniors and seniors—19 female, 35 male—divided themselves into groups to brainstorm, sketch, prototype and render together. Each group was observed for five minutes on their gendered nonverbal communication behaviors, the performed gender of the person being observed, what individuals had agency in their groups, the overall gendered communication of the entire group and whether the group was collaborating or not.

The findings demonstrated that groups who were masculine in their communication were problematic for the women in those groups. Out of 12 groups, eight were male dominant and communicated in overtly masculine ways. Consistently, the group leader exhibited masculine proxemics, territoriality and kinesics. These groups were not collaborating, but were working competitively. Group members discussed concepts and vetted them, then the group leader disseminated tasks (deciding who would sketch what idea, who would be prototyping, etc.). Two of these groups had female leaders who took on even stronger forms of masculine communication by standing, pointing and puffing their chests when speaking. The other women in the groups with female leaders exhibited highly feminine forms of communication and, over time, sunk further away from the table and spoke up less. When the women did speak up, they physically asserted themselves back into the group to add to the conversation, and as they were interrupted they would sink back down.

Four of the groups were female dominant and communicated androgynously—or even skewed toward feminine communication styles. These groups were more collaborative. During brainstorming, they wrote down all ideas and organized them together. When sketching, they helped each other with skills and forms they struggled with and worked off each other’s concepts. These groups didn’t necessarily have a group leader, but instead discussed and worked through their design problem together. All group members—whether male or female—were active at the table, participated in the conversation and held agency in the group discussion.

As a part of this study, Barnhart then interviewed six female and six male senior industrial design students to better understand their experiences in the studio. In general, Barnhart found that women preferred to work from home where they felt comfortable and did not experience judgment from others. “People think you’re lazy if they don’t see you working in studio, but I’m not comfortable sketching here,” said one female student. Female students reported that in groups they are afraid of asking questions because they feel that they are rarely heard or fear sounding stupid. On the other hand, male students said that if they don’t see someone coming into studio late at night, they will not help them. It was clear that these women were not disinterested or lazy, but preferred to work in different environments out of either discomfort or a struggle to be taken seriously. 


Toward a Heterogeneous Industry

Although this is one study of a small group over a relatively short period of time with a very specific student base, it begins to document the effect that a male-dominant industrial design atmosphere has on women. If women are fundamentally uncomfortable in current educational industrial design environments, how can we expect them to confidently move into professional practice? The more research we conduct, the more complex we find the problem and the solutions to be. 

We have learned that we need to approach the lack of women in professional practice with an empathetic and critical eye, rather than making assumptions about why industrial design lacks diversity. Instead of asking why there are few minorities in the studio, why minorities aren’t advocating for themselves or why minorities aren’t working hard enough, we should be asking why industrial design is so homogeneous.


—Kellie Walters, IDSA, CMF Designer, Newell Brands and Betsy Barnhart, Director of the Institute of Sports and Entertainment Design, University of Kansas; and