‘The Pretty Stuff’: Gender bias and the future of design knowledge in the South African industrial design context



Product & Industrial Design


  • design knowledge, local vs global, gender bias, diversity


In the era of the fourth industrial revolution that proposes an increasingly automated future, designers need not lose focus on the discipline’s important role in social design and innovation. Such an undertaking becomes difficult when the discipline of design itself has inbuilt biases and inequalities. Gender bias is one such prejudice that design educators and researchers need to become more aware of and engage with, not only to prepare our students for the workplace but also to begin to change the patriarchal dominance of the design industry and hence the equity of the discipline itself.

Current issues of gender disparity in design industries and academia have been studied and clearly articulated in the Global North. For example, in a recent study by the British Design Council, the United Kingdom's (UK) design workforce comprised of a 78:22 gender split (male to female), with Industrial Design showing the greatest disparity with a 95:5 gender split (Design Council 2018). In comparison to the 53:47 gender split of the wider UK workforce, this inequity is alarming, especially considering that 63% of all UK Art and Design graduates are female (Design Council 2018). Furthermore, various studies report a significant lack of female role models in leadership positions. This raises the question, ‘Where have all the women gone?’.
One of the authors is a young female academic, who, during South Africa's Women's Month in 2018, was inspired by these global statistics to conduct a small-scale study within a South African academic institution to investigate and reflect on the participation and experiences of female graduates in the local Industrial Design industry. Gender-based data of departmental enrolment and throughput over the past 20 years were analysed, and 10 female Industrial Design graduates were interviewed regarding their experiences in industry. Findings indicated significant gender biases and inequity within the local Industrial Design discipline, echoing global statistics.
Female student enrolment has increased from 9% in 1997 to 36% in 2018. The exit-level graduate gender split has evened out from 97:3 in 1997 to 55:45 (male to female) in 2017. This indicates that more and more women are slowly entering industry. However, feedback from women in industry highlighted sexual harassment, misogyny, condescension and significant pay gaps as some of the many challenges faced when entering the long-established patriarchal Industrial Design industry. Stereotypical expectations of women's role in creating ‘the pretty stuff’ hinders their ability to access experiential knowledge. This stunts their growth in the field, resulting in many women leaving the ‘boy’s club’ and pursuing opportunities in more female-dominated disciplines; ultimately perpetuating the patriarchy of Industrial Design.
It is therefore important to invest in gender diversity in design academia and to understand, engage with and tackle such issues locally. This includes preparing our students for the current realities of industry and empowering them with the necessary knowledge and skills to implement change by fostering innovation, and ultimately enabling them to break out of the confines of a long-established patriarchal industry.

Keywords: design knowledge, local vs global, gender bias, 4IR, innovation, diversity


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