admired: women in technology, women in design activism

Today is Ada Lovelace day and I’m reporting to you from Iceland, where I’ve come to give a talk on “Clothing and Conscience” at the Nordic Fashion biennale and to talk about design activism at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

I have signed on to a pledge, through pledge bank, to write a blog post about admirable women working in technological fields. The actual pledge read like this:

‘I, Suw Charman-Anderson, will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.’

Pledge bank itself is an interesting new way of enabling “collective action” and Suw was successful; she got about 1500 people to sign on. At the pledgebank page for Ada Lovelace Day, Suw explains that its purpose is to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Further, she gives a brief background on Ada:

“Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.”

Not content to write about just one woman, today I’m going to briefly profile three women that I’ve learned about through my research on design activism.

Landscape Architect Julie Bargmann

I first learned about Bargmann in an article in Metropolis (“Industrial Strength” by Melissa Milgrom, May 2003). Bargmann’s milieu is degraded and often dangerous, abandoned industrial sites such as old mines, dumps and superfund sites. Bargmann finds beauty in these old sites but also in the process by which they can be healed. The process is partly technical — how to remove toxins — but it is also partly cultural.

It is the cultural element that most remediation processes leave out and it is the real benefit this woman in technology offers. She can clean up the site, but notes that these old sites must again serve their communities and that involves a way of acknowledging the sites’ industrial pasts. She says, “this process is a culturally significant act, which is completely foreign to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].”

Space Architect Constance Adams

An article in I.D. magazine (“Look Homeward, Adams” by Jessie Scanlon) was my introduction to Adams, who, after years of designing life sustaining technologies for astronauts in outer space, became frustrated at how we squandered life sustaining resources on earth. The frustration ultimately led her to create a new project, Water for Two Worlds. The goal is “to deliver water without pipes, and sanitation without sewers.” Ultimately these are closed loop systems, without waste, and they’re the focus of much NASA work.

The first step in the project is to look across space technologies for viable earth-based systems, as those are identified, Adams will step in as architect and put a human context on the technologies in question. She says, “I’ll be looking at the specific community needs, locally available materials nearby manufacturers…and making sure the every system is easy to use in an everyday fashion.”

Industrial Designer Natalie Jeremijenko

I learned about Jeremijenko’s work in an article also in I.D. magazine (“The Long and Winding Road” by Jess Ashlock, December 2006). Back in the late 1990s at Yale She initiated the course, How Stuff is Made, in which industrial design students have to produce a comprehensive visual essay on how a particular consumer product is manufactured, including not only its technological components, but also its social, political and environmental implications. She developed the course because she was troubled by the fact that most designers learn little or nothing about the real world processes through which everyday items are made.

The project has been very compelling for the students as well as other educators. The format has been adopted by a number of design and engineering schools, and has resulted in a public wiki that visualizes a variety of manufacturing processes.

Jeremijenko currently directs the Environmental Health Clinic at NYU’s School for the Culture, Education and Human Development.

Women in Design Activism

My research is suggesting that women tend to be design activists in a slightly higher proportion than their representation in design professions. So far I find that about 28% of design activist projects have women as either the lead or a significant partner, whereas various studies put women at about 15% of professionally practicing product designers and architects. For example, of the Industrial Designers Society of America’s 3,300 members, only 9% are women. Estimates of women in architecture range from about 12 – 15%.

There are of course many possible reasons for women’s higher representation in design activism. One possibility is that socially or environmentally responsible clients tend to be progressive and thus discriminate less against female designers. I read recently that supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, despite sterling credentials, went into public law because no private firms would hire her. We hope that times have changed since the 1950s, but gender discrimination has not been eliminated.

On the other hand, research shows that women routinely earn less than men for similar jobs, and further that women typically undervalue themselves and are less likely to ask for as much as a man will. Perhaps women, either knowingly or unknowingly, are charging less than men and therefore are more affordable to typically low budget “good causes.”

Another possibility is that public and nonprofit clients may be more tolerant of flexible working and other arrangements that accommodate the fact that many women who manage design studios also manage households. Is it also possible that the de facto role that woman still fill as primary family carers, even when they work full time, makes women more sensitive to social and environmental causes? Or does the fact that many of us professional women/mothers choose to go “part time” leave us with leeway to pursue causes more easily than we would as sole “breadwinners”?

Whatever the answers, suffice it to say that women have a strong and growing role not only in design, but also in design activism.

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