Due to the interest generated the last time we explored the topic, we’re taking another look at women and design. In particular, we thought it worthwhile to reflect on the presence – or absence? – of women in industrial design.

Cathy Lockhart, lecturer at Sydney University of Technology’s (UTS) School of Design, knows a thing or two about women in design. She recently submitted her PhD thesis, Where are the women? Women industrial designers from university to workplace, and has been researching the topic for over six years.

After years attending the Australian Design Awards, she realized that despite an increasing number of females graduating from the industrial design programme at UTS, there were few women at the awards, and even fewer as part of the design teams receiving recognition.

“But I know, I know I’m graduating all these women, so what are they doing? Where are they? Why aren’t they on the stage?” She decided to look into what was happening.

In-depth interviews with 19 young female industrial designers form the basis of her thesis and have led to a number of talks and publications including two papers, both co-authored with Evonne Miller, titled Studying Industrial Design: Exploring the experience of female students and Women’s experience of industrial design education: What worked, what didn’tand where to in the future.

Not only did she look into what was happening after graduation, and how effectively the industrial design programmes were preparing these women, she also found out more about what got them to study industrial design in the first place: “I interviewed 19 graduates, and from talking to them it was interesting to find that a lot of their parents were also in the three-dimensional related areas. They’ve got fathers or mothers that are either architects or builders – they’re growing up being encouraged to play in this area.”


I think men and women do have different direction, and different points of interest. That's an advantage. I think that's a great opportunity.

It’s undeniable that huge progress has been made to attract women to the profession. Many of them clear the first hurdle – getting the degree – with flying colours. “Some years there are almost equal numbers of female graduates,” says Cathy.

Efforts have also been made, at least in some parts, to remove what could be perceived as gender bias within the programmes. For example, assignment briefs have changed.

“One of the things in the course now is that our briefs are a lot more open and encourage diversity,” says Cathy.

This allows students to explore concepts based on their interests. Whereas once upon a time they might have been asked to redesign a car jack, now the briefs offer more freedom. Along with innovative methodologies, it’s opening the courses up more, and as a result, opening them up more to women.

“It allows the opportunity to find a place within the discipline, understanding that not everyone is going to go into the hard-end engineering side. Because, actually, the diversity in our graduates is so wide, and not everyone is in tangible stuff anymore.

“I think men and women do have different direction, and different points of interest. That’s an advantage. I think that’s a great opportunity.”

So if things have dramatically improved in the classroom, it’s what’s happening after that has most people puzzled. Why are women not more widely represented in the profession?

Presenting work by UTS students and alumnae, the Where are the women? exhibition showcased a range of products, from industrial design soft goods, to electronics, homeware and conceptual work.

“Millennials are having to be more entrepreneurial, and the women are designing, but they’re actually doing it for themselves. So they might work for someone else for a couple of years and then they’re setting up their own businesses.

“They’re doing things differently, and it’s just not in that peer-reviewed environment. It doesn’t get that public recognition in the same way, and doesn’t necessarily have the backing of a design awards, and the media coverage that goes with it,” Cathy explains.

It sounds very empowering, the idea that women are doing things their own way, and that they have greater control over the kind of design they want to be a part of. Cathy offers a perfect example of this type of control, telling the story of two friends who met in the programme and who ended up starting their own company.

“When they graduated they started working in competing consultancies, but they then started designing something on the side, which they then started selling at markets. Over time, that business grew to a size that they both stepped out of their other full-time work and were working for themselves.

“It was a four-day-a-week business, so on the fifth day they would do field trips, or they would do excursions and go to manufacturers. They were both single when they first started but by the end they’d both had children. They had created this business in a way that suited them and the kinds of lifestyles they wanted to lead.”

Still, a lack of visibility has a downside. Cathy concedes that there aren’t as many women creating a profile in the public space, leading to relatively fewer role models. “The question is how do we best find them and acknowledge them,” she says. “And I think that’s something at a professional level and at an association level that we probably need to be looking at.”

When it comes to showcasing female talent, Cathy has not been idle. She curated an exhibit at UTS in 2014 titled Where are the Women?, which ran for three weeks at a downtown Sydney art gallery.

“In a field still largely dominated by males, you need to be confident and learn to speak up for yourself and your ideas. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions and constructively argue your point of view. As a woman, you bring a unique and valuable perspective to design that I believe greatly improves design outcomes for all future users.”
-Dorte Bell, Director at Scintilla Design and Where are the women? exhibitor

Other efforts in the Australian design world include Parlour, an organization whose foremost objective is to “promote gender equity in architecture”. Cathy explains that in Australia at least, the situation is similar to that of industrial design in that there are similar numbers of women graduating, but the end result is not quite the same.

“There are the issues around having children and stepping in and out of the profession, and the profession being mostly set up by men and so they’re not open to the diversity that women can bring. The women are often primary carers of children or ageing parents and so they can’t necessarily work those very long hours.

“In industrial design a lot of those women decide to start their own business so they can shape it to suit themselves. In architecture it’s a little bit harder to do that. It appears that they often end up in the lower positions and not in management or overseeing large projects. They’re not, once again, getting a public profile.”

“There still are barriers, so it’s about confidence,” says Cathy. “And part of that is to see other role models.”

It seems that if we want to see more female industrial designers in the public eye, the answer is to keep nurturing young talent, and finding new and innovative ways to recognize it and bring it into the spotlight.


About Cathy Lockhart
Cathy Lockhart is an industrial design academic with a background as a professional industrial designer. In her professional career, she was design director of a consultancy that designed and manufactured retail merchandising systems.

Her research explores the implications of the shift in the gender mix of the student population in industrial design education toward a notable increase in women graduates. In particular she is interested in students’ educational experience and transition into the profession.

Cathy has taken leadership roles at the UTS School of Design through her academic course management positions. She has held roles as Coordinator of Design 1, Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies unit and Course Director of Industrial Design. In these, she steered reaccreditations and a refocus of courses to address the global readiness of graduates.