It's a man's world

Graduate shows revealed a host of talented female designers, yet the industry is still male dominated. So where are all the women? Jason Arber investigates.

In my column last month I discussed in my usual glib fashion, student shows and the importance of work experience. I also muttered darkly about the discrepancy between the number of females on design courses and the number of females gainfully employed in design agencies, a subject I thought worthy of further consideration.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for this phenomenon including, but not limited to, alien abductions and men posing as women throughout their studies. Having considered the various merits of these scenarios, I decided to throw a couple more into the mix. Some women may decide to raise a family and remove themselves from the job market entirely, but I'm sure that only counts for a small percentage of cases.

Perhaps women experience some kind of institutional sexism, where male designers are chosen over females at the interview stage? And if they do make it past the interview, are they then filtered off into areas deemed more female-friendly - project management, for example?

It's an important question. We like to think that we live in a world of equal opportunities, but in creative industries across the board, with the exception of fashion-related businesses, women are getting a tough deal. To give you an extreme example, Maggie Toy wrote in Women in Contemporary Architecture that in the years between 1909 and 1989, "the percentage of architects in Britain who were women was the same - a shocking nine per cent! Since 1996, there has been a fractional improvement (estimates range from 10 to 11 per cent), but the number remains appallingly low."

Anecdotal experience also bares this out for other areas of design. Tracy Robinson from Duskyward studied Fine Art at Loyola Marymount University in California where there was a high female-to-male ratio. She says that in her experience she's often been the only female designer employed in design studios. "I've really only experienced a male dominated industry," she says.

But why should this be? "I do think companies tend not to hire as many female designers because they don't believe they are as versatile as men," Robinson adds. "I think there is a stigma attached to girl designers - I've been looked over for projects because they were considered too masculine for me."

Battle of the sexes
When I first looked at this issue several years ago, I took a large sampling of female designers and compared their work with male designers to see if there was a difference. The politically correct part of my brain wanted to see no differences at all, but it became clear that men and women do design differently. There is some overlap, however, and some - Jemma Hostetler, for example - design in an arguably "masculine" way.

So are women being overlooked simply because their designs don't fit the needs of clients, or do art directors (typically men) feel that women's artwork doesn't match up with some notional idea of what design should be?

I've raised more questions than I've answered, but that's because the answers still elude me. I'd be interested to hear from Computer Arts readers, and if I come to a conclusion I'll touch on this topic again.

In the meantime, there are plenty of web resources for female designers, notably DONTYOUSTOP, The Association of Women Industrial Designers, Netdiver and Soapbox Girls. Take a look and see what you think€¦