Critical design futures: Challenging the gender data gap through pedagogy



Design Education Strategy


  • 4IR, critical design, design education, design futures, gender


As we enter the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) faced with potential ethical and security risks, ensuring sustainable and inclusive innovation within the design industries will be essential. However, this proves unlikely when the design industry itself has inherent biases and inequalities.

Historically, student enrolments in design institutions reflect notions of gender socialization whereby women are connoted to the decorative and aesthetic and men to technology and invention. As a result, women are underrepresented in fields such as industrial design, digital design, and architecture and men are underrepresented in the fields of fashion, textile, and jewellery design. Gender inequity within design disciplines at a professional level, not only perpetuates gender stereotypes but creates a gender data gap whereby the products and services we create are designed according to male data, resulting in markets that are underdeveloped concerning the specific needs of users.

While student enrolment gender ratios (in some disciplines) seem to show significant levelling out over the past 20 years, the same transformation does not reflect in the design industry. A study conducted by The British Design Council in 2018 identified that although 63% of all UK Art and Design graduates are female, the UK design workforce reflects a 78:22 male to female gender split, in comparison to the 53:47 gender split of the wider UK workforce. While some studies looking into the gender gaps within design industries exist, further research is required to develop an understanding of why a large percentage of female graduates are leaking out of the pipeline that carries them from university to industry. In light of these points mentioned, a research project unpacking issues of gender in design was initiated.

Funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, the Unequal Stories research project between two universities in the United Kingdom and South Africa is a three-year cross-national comparative study that aims to investigate gender equality, diversity, and representation in the design disciplines in higher education and industry. This pilot project investigates gender in design across the two countries through developing a website to collect qualitative and quantitative evidence for those studying and working in design, as well as creating a pedagogic intervention in the form of a student project toolkit.

Driven by 4IR, this project was facilitated by digital technologies such as an interactive website, asynchronous lecture videos, and online teaching and learning methodologies. Guided by ethnographic research methodologies and critical design thinking, specifically speculative design and Afrofuturism, students were invited to deepen their understanding of gender equality and critically respond to their findings using the research and design conventions provided in the Unequal Stories Toolkit. These critical design outcomes were then shared and showcased via an online gallery ultimately enabling discussion on design and gender inequality in the design disciplines from a cross-national perspective.

The authors, two young female South African academics from contrasting disciplines of Industrial and Fashion design, each conducted this project in their respective departments. This paper unpacks and describes the pedagogic intervention that was applied in the development of the Unequal Stories Toolkit project for students, and reflects on the project outcomes in both contexts, and subsequently aligns to the conference focus on design education, Afrika, and 4IR.

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DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers. Our next conference is a hybrid event. See above for details.

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