Women in Industrial Design: A Conversation with Clare Duffy

Over the last year, we’ve been talking with women in the industrial design space to hear about their experiences navigating an industry where they’ve long been underrepresented. This month we sat down with Clare Duffy, an Industrial Designer III at Peloton based in Seattle, WA. Clare is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and has spent the last decade navigating the ID space at both the corporate and consultancy level. In the interview, Clare spoke about the hurdles facing women in design by design, and shared her advice to other young designers beginning their careers.

As we approach the end of our year-long research endeavor on the gender gap in industrial design, we are preparing to share the full series of interviews and our takeaways in book form with the community. We are looking forward to creating a meaningful piece that shines the spotlight on the incredibly talented women featured in it, and how the industry can better support and create more opportunities for others. Stay tuned for more information!

The hurdles facing women in design, by design.

The examination of unconscious bias as it relates to gender and race inequities in the workplace is complex and nuanced. The technology and environments human beings create outpaces evolution, leaving us with a predisposition to gravitate towards things we understand and can relate to. While this tendency once contributed to our success as a species, it no longer serves us in the same way and must be something we consciously acknowledge and overcome.

Being a woman (especially a woman of color) in a male dominated field means there’s an additional biological degree of separation in others’ ability to relate to or empathize with you. Until very recently, it’s been the expectation that women should figure out how to overcome these barriers themselves, rather than a willingness to reevaluate, rebuild, or dismantle processes and behaviors that still contribute to the gender wage gap and lack of women in leadership positions.

Inequities exist before we even enter industrial design spaces. They exist by design. Though oppression may or may not have been the intended result of various systems, laws, structures, or processes, they were designed by someone at some point in time. Which is a bummer because it makes it feel all that more oppressive. But what’s great is that all these things can be redesigned, by us, which is encouraging.

How designers can impact gender culture.

There’s a fantastic organization called Creative Reaction Lab that does a great job of identifying blind spots that keep designers from creating more equitable environments for everyone. They published an “Equity Field Guide” that is an invaluable resource to use when beginning a project or making a business decision. It guides the reader to ensure they begin preliminary design activities with all affected people in mind, turning over every rock to minimize unintended consequences.

Creative Reaction Lab takes IBM’s definition of design, “Design is the intention behind an outcome.” and reworks it as, “Design is the intentional and unintentional impact behind an outcome.” We all know design is about so much more than just intention. We are responsible for not only communicating what we hope to happen, but how what we create affects people in the real world as well.

That means holding ourselves and the people around us accountable. If you are in a situation where someone uses wording that’s not inclusive or progressive, figure out a good way to have a productive conversation about it. Rather than calling people out in a public environment — which I’ve learned the hard way, isn’t always the best way to have people listen to you! — take a moment to figure out a way to communicate without condescension, problem-solving together rather than pointing out a flaw. People often don’t intend to disrupt your peace, or to oppress others. Centuries of unknowingly participating in oppressive systems have taught us that certain wording or language is okay. Recently, it seems what is appropriate is changing on a year-to-year basis. That’s great! Just like designers, society is iterating, learning, reevaluating, and growing faster than ever.

While it is good to know what makes everyone feel safe and comfortable, it can be difficult to keep up with the pace of progress. There are times something comes out of my mouth and I’ll realize it’s an outdated term or way to express an idea. Every environment is different, and rather than sitting silently after a faux pas, hold yourself accountable saying, Excuse me, that doesn’t represent the person I want to be. I will be better in the future” or “I apologize, a better way to express that would have been xyz.” Correcting yourself and responding to feedback with grace creates an example for other people to be comfortable doing the same in a way that’s low pressure. It’s okay to be wrong and to make mistakes. That’s how you grow.

Ideas for promoting change in the workplace.

When I entered the design workforce, certain experiences revealed how much room for improvement there is in making product development more inclusive for women and people of color. I felt a certain obligation, but also an awkwardness, to speak out about implementing change. It’s hard not to worry that vocalizing the importance of including women in decision making and in leadership will be perceived as self-serving when you’re the only woman on a team.

Unless you went to business school, you likely didn’t learn the most appropriate or productive way to vocalize a negative sentiment in the workplace. I sure didn’t. And it’s common for individuals in technical roles to be promoted to manager positions with little to no leadership training before the transition. When the people listening are being served by the systems and culture you’re pushing to evolve, it can feel like your suggestions are falling on deaf ears. When gaps in interpersonal skills and communication at the first level of management meet minority employees advocating for meaningful change, it can ruffle feathers. That’s where I’ve observed friction that seems to prevent women from progressing.

Studies have shown that men are promoted when they appear capable of filling the role above the one they occupy. Despite earning an average of 7.5% higher performance ratings than their male counterparts, women are 14% less likely to be promoted as their potential is often underestimated by managers. Women are being held to a higher standard and not being allowed to advance until they are actively performing the duties of the role above them, and sometimes not even then. The creative process is not tangible so it’s easy to move goal posts in the face of an excellent performance review saying things like, “She just isn’t ‘ready’ for the next level.” The workplace will change when everyone is given the same benefit of the doubt when thriving in their current position and communicating the desire to take on more.

Moves for activating early career advancement.

Don’t feel pressured to pigeonhole yourself. In art school I majored in Industrial Design after realizing I wanted to do something that felt meaningful and could help people, but there wasn’t anything specific I felt I needed to say to the world through art. Industrial design provided an opportunity to explore different industries and disciplines that can help people in more ways than I could have imagined. When beginning your design career, feeling pressure to define the trajectory of your career is normal. Some people know where they want to focus early on, like shoes or cars, and there’s nothing more powerful than passion. If you aren’t sure though, rather than building a portfolio geared toward a specific industry, focus on developing the skills you really enjoy so you can apply that knowledge anywhere.

Have open conversations with your managers about the gaps in your skill set. Conversations with your manager about career progression can be intimidating. If you feel stuck, try asking, “How can I better contribute?” Don’t be afraid to ask questions or receive constructive criticism. Even though the feedback might be hard to hear, it may lead to a larger conversation about the best way to develop those areas, so you become a better designer and an asset to your team. Actively including your manager in your growth will help them become invested in you as an employee.

I recently heard an interview with Alisa Cohn about her book From Startup to Grown-up. While it is geared more toward people a little later in their careers, she includes helpful scripts for difficult conversations, including one about how to talk with your manager about progressing your career. Just reading how she uses language to confidently navigate uncomfortable topics, can help you also feel empowered to take control of your career.

Find a strong female leader to connect with and learn from. I’ve loved seeing the emphasis on the importance of mentorship from the women Sprout has interviewed previously. Mentors have made a huge impact on my career as well. At a point in my career where I felt stuck, I found myself admiring the work of an electrical engineering manager who was working on a project with me at the time, Tasnim Morbiwala. In situations where there was observable tension during larger team discussions she maintained a positive, growth-oriented mindset, perfectly exhibiting the type of team member I wanted to be professionally.

So I asked her to be my mentor! I’m so grateful she’s made the time. Having different disciplines allows us to step back from the technicalities of our work and have more conceptual discussions that contribute to growth applicable to many situations outside of a singular challenge. As a result, our professional and personal bond has a richness that I never anticipated. All of that to say, being a designer does not mean your mentor has to be a designer too.

Stay open to opportunities. After being at a company for a year or two, you should start taking calls with recruiters about open positions. It’s good to know what salaries are being offered elsewhere. Even if you’ve only been sitting in your chair for a year or two, that’s a year or two of learning and honing your skills — economic variables that aren’t reflected in your current paycheck. Post-pandemic, there seems to be more conversation around the importance of inclusion, hopefully meaning more opportunities for women in design. If you are in a spot where you feel unappreciated, or the team culture doesn’t sit quite right with you, you’re under no obligation to stay. If you leave, your career will likely progress because of it.

A book that recently opened my mind.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is a phenomenal book. I feel specialization is often put on a pedestal when, both in industrial design and in life, having many tools to solve a problem is often better than just one. Range helped me figure out how to leverage the array of skills I’ve collected over the course of my career. Being able to speak about how you draw on seemingly unrelated experiences to inform your decisions is really valuable. While it’s not specifically about women in design, women are often seen as having different skill sets than men. This book helped me learn how to speak to the importance of those skills, which now are becoming universally recognized as paramount in leadership positions.

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