Jo Barnard: Improving female presence is key to success for design and engineering industries

 

 

Throughout my career, I have experienced my fair share of male bias. I have walked into a meeting as a design and engineering consultant and been asked: “When is the engineer getting here?”; I have been addressed as “Mr” in emails because I am the founder of an industrial design and innovation agency; and I have had male clients opt for a kiss on the cheek at meetings when a handshake was more appropriate.

 

As a designer with over five years’ professional experience consulting and leading on projects for global brands, these are just a few examples of a male-dominated industry that just hasn’t adapted to the presence of women within design and engineering careers. A recent report from the Design Council stated that just 5% of the UK engineering workforce are women, and while that may seem slightly shocking – it doesn’t surprise me one bit.

 

I have never worked with a female within an engineering, factory or manufacturing environment in the UK, and it is worrying to see such a large divide still present in an industry that has an equal responsibility serving both men and women with the products that are central to their daily needs.

 

Design is traditionally a male-dominated space and has been for many years – that is no secret. Those that entered the industry 30 or 40 years ago are now the leaders, which for many women could be intimidating and so it is important that we grow the female half from the very first steps we take in our careers. Starting with education.

 

Design is to this day not officially considered part of what we know as the core “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing). From the earliest levels of education, we often see design-focused subjects labelled as “Woodwork”, “Design & Technology”, “Textiles”; and what this does is send a blurred message to young students. Young women often see a male-dominated class environment and are put off immediately, with much of the teaching focused around the ‘making’ and the ‘doing’, and not the actual thinking that goes into product design. In order to help young women understand the real ins and outs of product design, this must be embedded into the modern day teaching processes – the planning, the emotional considerations, and show that it’s not just about constructing something. Technological innovations have helped this evolution, aiding the learning processes by removing much of the manual work and freeing students up to think proactively and creatively about the process, the ‘why’s’ and ‘what-for’s’ and not just the end result.

 

Despite this, we have witnessed a steady growth of female students in STEM subjects, last measured at 35% in 2019 by STEM Women, there still remains a 10% drop off of female students who actually finish their courses. When I was at university studying product design, I was invited to a networking event focused on bringing more women into STEM subjects. But when I arrived I was immediately told: “You shouldn’t be here. You do product design, not engineering.” In actual fact, my job is a blend of both, working with the design teams and liaising with engineers and manufacturers on a day-to-day basis. So, bringing design into the big four sectors is key to making women feel at home in the industry.

 

Designers serve a population that is 50-50 in gender, so it also makes sense to have a female input into products that are specifically for women. Why would you have a team of men design a female health product, such as a bra or a vibrator, without a woman’s input? Seatbelts are also more dangerous to a woman by comparison to a man, while air conditioning units are not designed to suit a woman’s core body temperatures.

 

Women are arguably more suited to the emotional responsibility and qualitative approach that powers the job at hand too. Sustainability, plastic-free, usability. These are all elements that were previously not at the top of every designer’s list of must-haves, but are now paramount to the process and suit a woman’s mind-set.

 

The UK design and engineering workforce is in dire need of change. Much of our manufacturing contracts are being outsourced to Asian countries, where the workforce is closer to 33% female, representing a clear sign that a sector can thrive – and is – with a stronger female input to the design and engineering processes. With this in mind, there is a clear need to change and evolve in order to help the industry continue to flourish and grow into one where gender divide is no longer the big talking point, and the job at hand of product design is.

 

 

By Jo Barnard, Founder of Morrama

 

 

 

Resources: 

 

STEM Women – https://www.stemwomen.co.uk/blog/2019/09/women-in-stem-percentages-of-women-in-stem-statistics

 

Design Council – https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/international-women-s-day-women-design

 

 

 

 




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