Tech and finance are frequently cited as the most notorious culprits, but virtually every industry suffers from gender inequality. Design is no exception. A recent poll from O'Reilly found that women in the design industry earned $14,000 less on average than their male counterparts, and the U.S. Census found that female architects earned about 20% less than male architects. To combat the problem, Malmö, Sweden–based Terese Alstin established No Sir, an e-commerce platform built to promote the work of female designers.
Design has a nasty history of overshadowing the work of women. For example, Ray Eames was often overshadowed by her husband and Eames Office co-founder Charles; furniture designers Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray didn't receive the recognition they deserved during their careers. Architect Denise Scott Brown was infamously snubbed for her industry's top award, the Pritzker Prize, when her partner—and husband—Robert Venturi won 25 years ago (though she's finally getting some of the credit she's due).
No Sir, which Alstin founded last year, is an attempt to expose the work of emerging and established contemporary female designers. The site features jewelry, furniture, housewares, stationary, and textiles. Alstin curates the products on the site and sometimes works with the designers to secure manufacturers.
An industrial designer by training, Alstin cofounded the bike helmet company Hövding with her business partner Anna Haupt in 2005. Together they built a successful brand, but after 10 years, they both decided to embark on new projects. After seeing the challenges women face in business first-hand, Alstin decided to dedicate her career helping female designers achieve success. Below she tells Co.Design about the pervasive boys-club mentality that's so ingrained in the industry, what's at the root of the problem, and what has to happen for things to change.
How did No Sir come about?
There were a couple of different driving factors. I wanted to combine my interest and education in design with the ability to work with other creative people who are also building their own companies and making an imprint by creating things. It inspires me. The reason to focus on female designers came from my own experience of how tough it can be to make it as a female entrepreneur in a very male-dominated business. Female designers struggle to get the attention and recognition that they deserve. Throughout my career I’ve constantly been reminded about the fact that I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry.
What's contributed to the unequal gender dynamics?
Most leading positions are held by men, and they benefit from supporting each other and avoiding the discussion about gender inequality in the business. In a subjective field like design, denial of a female designer’s professional expertise or talent is an easy way to reinforce gender discrimination. A successful product designed by a woman may be regarded a lucky shot rather than drawn from talent.
The inequality also becomes obvious when you take a look at the gender split of the designers employed by the big international design companies, which is very unbalanced. The same goes for juries of design awards. Women are underrepresented both as designers and as voices in discussions about the field. While opinionated men are often referred to as prominent 'thinkers' or even 'geniuses,' outspoken women are often labelled 'difficult' or 'radical feminists.'
Why do you think female designers are underrepresented in the design field today? On your site you mentioned 'laziness, old habits, prejudice and systematic exclusion.'
Design schools have more female students than male, but sadly this doesn’t translate into careers. The number of professionally active female designers is much lower. Female designers struggle because they don’t share the same business opportunities as their male colleagues. Many give up along the way and switch to another career. In addition to my own experience, I’ve heard endless stories from friends and colleagues about what they go through in their daily work life. I know female designers who use email addresses with male names and bring male colleagues to business meetings as they’ve found that the response is completely different when approaching a company as a man instead of a woman. Some women team up with a male partner, but many female-male duos are struggling with the female designer being perceived as assistant to her partner, and their collaborative work being attributed to the male designer solely. It happens both intentionally and unintentionally, of course. The problems of inequality might not even be noticed by a person who belongs to the privileged group of people. But once you’ve become aware of the discrepancy, it’s hard not to see it everywhere.
How could the design industry become more inclusive?
By raising awareness about inequality in the design business, decision makers can be forced to recognize the problems. Everyone has a responsibility to actively work for a more equal industry.
Where does a female-only marketplace like No Sir fit into the overall picture?
I really want to show women that there is a lot to gain by collaborating and helping each other out. In a male-dominated industry, it’s common that women isolate themselves from each other and become competitive. They fight each other because the career opportunities for women are so rare. But I believe that women being united is important in the pursuit of more equality in the business. Together we can become more powerful and have more influence.
How did you select the designers on the site?
I choose designers with a unique point of view and a signature style that really speaks to me. I’m typically drawn to bold colors, contrasts and graphics, and innovative production methods. I love working with emerging young talents because they are fierce and curious and they are not afraid to experiment and push boundaries. A lot of the objects come from small-scale production, some are even handmade, which makes every piece unique.
Which are your favorite pieces on No Sir?
I’ve selected all the products because they stand out to me and I always go with my gut feeling, so every piece is special to me. To mention a few:
The Zick Zack side tables by Olga Bielawska are the first products that I’ve helped get into production and they are now manufactured in Malmö, Sweden. I definitely have the ambition to do more collaborations like this, because I love being able to help realize great products that haven’t made it into production and having the ability to influence what products become available to consumers.
The colorful Kaleidoscope Explosion pillows by the multi-talented artist Lacy Barry is a great energy boost. The intricate pattern comes off beautifully on large cushions.
Something that will soon be available is a new textile collection by Coop DPS, the new collaboration between Nathalie Du Pasquier and George Sowden, two of the founding members of Memphis Milano. It’s amazing and a bit surreal that one of my longtime idols—Nathalie Du Pasquier—will be part of the No Sir brand.
Do you worry at all that creating a separate platform serves to further alienate women?
No I don’t. We have to face the fact that there is great inequality in the industry, take responsibility for it, and try to make every effort to change the situation instead of being passive. I believe that the argument of "design should be about great design and not about gender" and the concern of further alienating women is misused to avoid the discussion about gender inequality in the business. Maybe we should ask ourselves who benefits most from avoiding this discussion? Patriarchal structures depend on a strong male community and women being isolated from each other. I’m convinced that women collaborating and supporting each other is a very important factor in the pursuit of a more equal industry and society.
Visit No-Sir.com to see the full roster of products and designers.