Raise your Hand or Fall Behind: Pressures on Female Students in Industrial Design Education

University Industrial Design (ID) education presents one of several challenges to female* students by its heavy reliance on individual initiative as a means for success in the major and field. To help secure opportunities in industrial design, design students have to do so much more than turn in assignments to complete their projects — success requires a continued development of skills, appeals for additional critiques, and networking, just to name a few. In this male-dominated industry, these necessities present a challenge to female designers who lack resources to support individual initiative in design.

As a female design student, I come from an upper-level industrial design undergraduate class of a 5:1 men to womxn ratio. Since I started the program, I found difficulty in taking individual initiative amongst a male-majority class, and especially to male professors. I felt hesitant asking for extra critiques and explanations of the lesson, and I felt out of place voicing my opinions at formal critiques. I won’t forget to mention that, at the beginning of my education, I never found myself naturally talented at any particular skill in ID. Taking initiative to improve the quality of my work and reach out for help was something that I forced upon myself because I knew that I had to get better.

While I do understand that individual initiative is something that helped to better myself in ID, I will say that I am dissatisfied with how unhappy I was in that environment — and unhappy at how unfairly it treats female ID students.

It took me some time to understand how those hesitations and insecurities were associated with my identity as a womxn. When I would raise my hand at formal critiques to offer a point of view, I felt insecure because of who I was, and what people’s reactions were of me, because I presented that strong critique as a female designer. In contrast, it subconsciously felt more appropriate for a male student to have given a critique of that nature, or to appeal to a professor on a design decision, etc.

These trends have been observed amongst genders in the STEM discipline as well, but I believe that this is particularly a systemic issue in design education because there are no “invisible” means to success. Female students can’t hide what their sketches or models look like through a discreetly submitted test or essay. Everything we do is public and is judged by mere observation.

For female ID students, I wouldn’t say that the solution is to do as I did: to forcibly push myself to “put myself out there” to succeed. I believe that the beginning of a solution is to find support from female and ally mentors, professors, classmates, and alumni. A culture of support is essential to breaking down the stigma and showing female representation of initiative in design education.

*inclusive of those identifying as female or others