Designing an equal gender balance  

Pilotfish’s Berlin office is a unique space in the industrial design and engineering world. When you walk off the cobblestones into the office, you’re greeted by an 80 per cent female workforce. 

But this doesn’t reflect the wider sector. When Pilotfish industrial designer Maiya Jensen was studying at California College of the Arts, there was a fairly even gender balance in students, but not in faculty. And once she entered the industry, she was surprised to enter a job with a similar 50:50 ratio of female to male workers, because she knew the statistics showed men make up to 95% of the workforce in some countries.  

This male-dominated sector is unconsciously reflected in design, which impacts the way women experience the world.  

It’s well documented how unconscious bias has impacted design – seatbelts that keep men safe but women are 73% more likely to be seriously injured, offices spaces that are notoriously too cold for women because they were designed for male bodies, and countless other examples. 

The question as to why the gender disparity jumps so significantly when students enter the workforce is not easy to answer – is there inherent unconscious bias in the hiring processes? Do women gravitate towards different fields of design? Is the classic image of industrial design not appealing to female creatives? Are there not enough female leaders in the industry? 
 
Pilotfish mechanical engineer and project manager Maeva Schaller says there seems to be a change growing, but there is still a long way to go and education to inspire young women was vital to helping them pursue careers in engineering and industrial design.   

“When I worked on a project with teenagers, I had kids who were 16-years-old saying ‘maths is not for me, it’s for boys.’ This was in 2017! Maybe it was their teachers making them feel this way, or maybe it was taught in the wrong way. I managed to get so many girls to get more into physics and maths back then – it was super inspiring. I think that’s what is lacking, is if you don’t inspire at that age then they’re lost.”  

While it’s changing, and technology itself is helping women find inspiration through digital connections, men also need to step up to create actual change. 

Simon Dybeck joined the Pilotfish Amsterdam office this year to work on his master’s thesis project targeting this issue. He wanted to challenge unconscious bias, and how that impacts design.   

“It scared me how biased everything is. [Gender equity in design] feels like it’s way behind and there are not many people working on it, even though it’s trending quite a bit.”  

Simon is working with a smart home device that considers the needs and desires of women, and addresses the existing issues in the technology that exclude women. As smart home adoption has been slow, with usability as one of the main issues, taking a fresh perspective on smart home interaction can be a benefit for everyone. 

“There’s an idea that it’s only bought, used by men and marketed towards men. [The devices] may feature female voices, but the voice control doesn’t work as well for women because it’s designed for a male voice register. It’s about all these cool features you can tinker with, but what I’ve found is that women want something that is quick, easy and convenient.” 
 
Researching the impact of gender bias in design, and hearing from the experiences of the women around him, Simon pushed him to not just think about women as potential customers, but also about his place within being able to create change.   

“You can’t understand someone else’s lived experience, whether it be gender, or racial, but I feel like I should at least try. We need to have some more courage to do it, no matter how you see yourself.”