Image: National Institute of Standards and Technology: Public Domain

Industrial design is mostly a male world. When I say “mostly”, the UK data says that 95% of industrial designers are men. In the US, the proportion might be 81%. Yet the gender mix on art and design courses tends to tip female. The designer Ti Chang, who started a discussion on this on Instagram, with dismayingly misogynistic results, decided to take the issue up on the design site Core 77

Why aren’t there women in industrial design? Some argue, like they do when talking about the lack of women in engineering, that there just aren’t that many women even enrolling to study, resulting in fewer women even applying to jobs. I actually wish that were the case because it would be a simpler problem to solve. Design Council’s report shows that women are 63% of the population studying arts & design (in the UK). The gender breakdown of the top 5 design schools in the US also reflect this gender balance in school. The availability of qualified women applying for industrial design jobs isn’t the issue: the industry is a boy’s club, and it desperately wants to stay that way. 

The result is poorer products that don’t take women into account—the subject of Caroline Criado-Perez’ award-winning book Invisible Women. This is true of seat-belts, rucksacks, PPE equipment, you name it. And strikingly, some historically male-dominated industries—oil and gas, waste management—have a better gender mix than does industrial design.


The question is what to do about it. In a recent newsletter, Laetitia Vitaud, who writes about work, explained that over the years she had changed her mind on quotas as a strategy for improving gender outcomes at work. She used to be against it, now she’s in favour. Here are some extracts from her arguments for quotas. The emphasis is in the original text:

  1. There is no meritocracy in corporations and politics. If only there were half as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men in power! In fact, studies show quotas actually increase the competence of politicians and executives by leading to the displacement of mediocre men… 
  2. The universalist argument may be philosophically tenable, but “universality” has historically always be defined by men…. I believe our definition of what it means to be human will be enriched (and more universal!) if we can hear more diverse human voices. We could also review our definition of power and leadership while we’re at it.
  3. They may seem demeaning at the beginning, but very soon it’s quite obvious quotas don’t lead to more mediocrity. As all examples and studies show they actually lead to more competence.

Killing women

The notion that gendered design kills women comes from Caroline Criado-Perez’ book, in her US seatbelt-related data. Women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash, and 17% more likely to die. Given that 75% of “risky drivers” are male, it’s quite a skew.

But I was struck to see this stat rolled out in a column in Forbes, the conservative US business site, as being something that Peter Buttigieg, the incoming US Transportation Secretary, might like to have a shot at fixing.

Female crash dummies

The columnist, Steve Tengler, goes into quite a lot of detail on the problems. The variables are known, but research hasn’t yet identified what the solution is. But it might be a simple issue of what gets measured gets delivered:

[S]ystem requirements and certification criteria do not require female crash dummies be tested in the driver’s seat. That’s right. 51% of licensed drivers are seemingly ignored by crash certifications. “There is a gender inequity there that probably should be addressed,” states Barney Loehnis, the Chief Marketing Officer at Humanetics Group. “It’s not just a marginal difference in safety. It’s statistically significant.”

Yes, it probably should. Auto safety tends to be driven by regulation, which is where Pete Buttigieg comes in. But consumers, civil society organisations, even shareholders, could also just embarrass the auto companies into making change by making some noise about it. The article talks about a “#MeToo movement in auto safety design”. When Forbes gets on your case about gender issues—time is definitely up.

A version of this post first appeared in my (free) Substack newsletter.