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  • Writer's picturefedericagildamarrella

Million Males Away. A conversation about patriarchy and design.

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

A woman in a Breuer club chair, wearing an Oskar Schlemmer mask, circa 1926.

Depatriarchise Design is a practice-led research platform that examines the complicity of design in the reproduction of oppressive systems, focusing predominantly on patriarchy, using intersectional feminist analysis. The platform is currently run by Berlin-based design journalist Anja Neidhardt and Basel-based industrial designer Maya Ober who is the founder of this disruptive digital project. During my research process for the final graduation project -which I named Million Males Away- I had the great possibility to talk with them and try to figure out the social mechanism connected to current patriarchal standards behind the design system. Through the lens of their conscious and critical eyes, I listened to the stories of their experiences and to what it means to be perceived within the social construct of femininity when it comes to design practice. We also talked about other different themes like gendered spaces and safety for women in the man-made environment, the oligarchic and oppressive trend of “archistar” and “designstar”, the correlation and intersection between different repressive patterns connected to the feminisation of craft activities, the value of female labour. Let’s take a look down here! Approaching the subject of gender equality as a graduation theme I realised that the motivation in conducting this research was pretty much connected to my personal experience as a white European woman. This is why I developed a personal interest in this topic. I’m wondering which was your motivation to approach gender and intersectionality issues and if your personal experiences as women and designers influenced your vocation in creating the platform “Depatriarchise Design”.

[Maya] I think that maybe for each of us was a little bit different. Talking about my experience, I’m an industrial designer and at some point during my career I noticed how much industrial design and its community are completely disconnected from political issues. The only political issue that has been  present within design discourse is the question of sustainability and environment, or maybe a little bit of interest in so called social design but I would say that it is still treated in a superficial and very westernised- colonial way. My interest raised mostly not through design issues but rather through political activism o different nature in which I have been  involved. I felt at some point the need to translate my political activism into my design practice since I noticed the huge dissonance between these two parts of my life. Being woman and experiencing the reality through a female body influenced the perception of me as a designer people perceive me firstly through the lens of my female body, the gender stereotypes affect how I am being understood, I am never just a designer, neutral, I am always female designer or woman designer. This is the reality of all women practitioners. This influences the way clients or collaborators relate to us  or speak to use, together with their expectations and their questioning about our competences as female industrial designers. Sometimes subcontractors or clients were claiming that I don’t know how to handle technical issues or that my technical solutions are not appropriate. They would never question the same solutions when they were presented by my male colleagues.

The motivation behind depatriarchise design was also originated by a lot of frustration: during design education, you have been taught that everyone has the same chances and you live in this capitalistic illusion that if you work hard everything is gonna be ok. But the reality is different.

[Anja] And as for me, I studied communication design but I always worked as a journalist. During my work, I saw that there are some topics which I’m interested in but that are not represented at all in magazines or publications, so when I discovered the platform that Maya had created I was really happy to pitch topics I like and I could write about them. This is why we started to collaborate.

Referring to what Maya was saying, do you perceive that there is less trust in women when it comes to design issues? Do you feel a different approach toward yourself because people perceive you as women?

[Maya] Yes! Especially because industrial design is being perceived as a very technical field.

Or at least this is what they want to think about industrial design, even though all the technological components are only a tool and I believe that the most complex part is bringing concepts more than merely providing technical solutions. But unfortunately, the conceptual and critical approach  are not taught enough in design education. But yes! Obviously, as women our professional abilities are being perceived together through the construct of femininity and what it means. And this construct is very oppressive: because of this construct, we are supposedly not capable of doing technical tasks or in general performing in this field. It happened to me million times that my competences were questioned for no reason. Once, I was supervising a construction site of an urban project  that I designed with my colleagues and even though I did all the plans and I knew exactly where everything should be located I had this huge discussion with the construction workers and the engineer who was supervising the construction from the part of the contractor. Because the put one element 100 m further than indicated on the plan. So basically they read the construction plans wrongly, nevertheless felt entitled to argue with me and tried to prove me wrong.

Eventually —even though they had four qualified female industrial designers and architects in front of them— they would direct the technical question to the only male collaborator which was a typographer and he obviously didn't have any idea about that. From my experience, this kind of things happen all the time. There is also a big affair on how we are expected to be organic and providing colourful solutions and how we are not expected to be good with everything that is technological.

[Anja] This happens also in journalism. When I started to work and to conduct interviews I could sense that the interviewees did not expect a young female journalist. But as soon as I started talking about what I did and what I studied and what my qualifications are there was more respect and a different attitude towards me.

I think that this kind of different approach towards women with any kind of power happens especially because people have to deal with the fact that first, these persons with power are women and second they possess this kind of authority, which are two characteristics quite paradoxical or at least unusual when put together within a patriarchal system. I’m wondering where the consideration of technical aspects to be more masculine than feminine comes from in the way that it is eventually reflected for real in the practical life. I remember when visiting with the academy some industrial engineering company like Festo that the manager would have told us how huge is the minority of women working in the sector compared to men. [Maya] I think that this is very much related to the social construct of femininity and how we understand femininity. Sherry B. Ortner in her  article “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” discusses in a very clear way that because of the social construct of femininity and how female body is being perceived —and especially how we perceive reproduction— we are automatically bounded to the domesticity and to the domestic area. And as a consequence, we are excluded from the public, from the participation in the political life, from making decisions, from deciding about curricula etcetera. If women are perceived as belonging to nature, than technology is the opposite of nature: technology means bending nature and this act is just allowed for men . Men can build aeroplanes and they can make people fly even though it's theoretically against the gravity . So I believe that this construct of femininity it’s deeply rooted in our society: women are not expected or encouraged to act “against” nature and the process of socialisation reinforces this concept, this attachment to “nature”, to household etc. Women feel often more insecure working with the machines  or working with computers, but this is just another result of socialisation. Another reason is that women are socialised in the way that they shouldn't be taking a lot of placequiet. We are taught not to be vocal and not to take attention, we are taught to be quiet and not to ask question, not even to question things, and I think that this is very visible.

Regarding this issue I was reading an article from the design critic Cheryl Buckley “Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design” in which she explains how women —even though participating in the design discourse in different roles as critic, designers or objects of product advertising— have been always automatically excluded and ignored from the historiography. If you open any kind of book about design history you can just found male designers. All the design stars and the design titans are males, and if women are present they are perceived as an exception. I noticed that there is always a lot of denial every time I start to talk about this and the typical reaction is something like: “Things are changing, there are also famous female designers like Hella Jongerius”. And every time I hear this kind of sentence I feel that this is a sort of confirmation that she is really just an exception as I was trying to state at the beginning of my conversation. [Maya] The problem is that female designers are still perceived as exceptions to the norm. So Hella Jongerius, Patricia Urquiola, Zaha Hadid, India Mahdavi are not referred to as designers and architects, their gender is always underlined, as if they were some kind of strange, unusual beings within the normative, white-male design scene. They are always perceived through their otherness, in this case their gender. The same processes we can observe looking at design history. Therefore, we should talk about the foundations of design, we should talk about what discourses define good design, what does it mean good design, how we perceive it and how we deconstruct it.

[Anja] If we would all base our discussions  on topics or on ways of working instead of personalities then the discourse of design history and theory would be completely different. Of course names still play a role in this game but the focus would be on more important things..

Maybe a solution to this kind of oppressive pattern could be conceive the design practise as a sort of community in which everybody collaborate and everybody is involved especially from a social perspective rather than a place in which just a oligarchy of few personalities are starring and are playing a part at the expenses of others.

[Maya] Yes, definitely.

Did you ever think about the consideration of craft techniques to be more “feminine” as linked to patriarchal patterns and to the sexual division of labour? In which way craft and industrial design techniques can cooperate as an activist tool to address a debate on patriarchal society? [Maya] I think craft became during the time a tool of activism and I think that the fact we don’t regard craft as design is also very oppressive. Why we have the category of craft and the category of design? Who decided about this division? I think that when we talk about craft there are three oppressive systems which intersect . One is obviously patriarchy, then capitalism, and at the end colonialism. All the artefacts produced by women in the domestic area were not regarded as design because they did not participate in the free market economy , they were not for sale, they were not massive produced or commercialised but just created for a value of usage. Furthermore, when we discuss design we discuss it mostly from the Western perspective, so everything that happen in the global North is design and everything that happen in the global South is regarded as craft. And if the South part of craft is regarded as design is because the Europeans brought it there. This is a very colonialist relationship. It has also to do on how we perceive education, so that if you don't have a formal design education then you can just do craft, you can’t be a designer.

[Anja] It also has to do with the fact that all reproductive labour and the work that is done in the household is, until today, not regarded as “real” work. Even the creation of pots or knitting are not perceived as design, but as crafts. If they would happen outside of the home, let’s say in a factory, people would be more likely to label them (industrial) design. The amount of physical and mental work conducted in the household is huge and still quite invisible. Moving on, given that within patriarchal system the acts of building and controlling space have been male prerogatives, how this observation is reflected into our physical and environmental experiences?

[Anja] Yes totally. There is a publication by the female collective Matrix called “Women and the man-made environment” in which they describe how architecture and urban design use norms and standards that are very much linked to the male perspective and to male bodies. So women are always perceived as “the other” and they struggle to navigate these man made spaces. Not only women but everyone who is “different”, like disabled people for instance: if you use a wheelchair, but also if you push a pram, and can’t enter a building because there is only stairs and no elevator or ramp,  then the design is really discriminating against you.

[Maya] I think our urban environment is very much oppressive for women and also not very safe. One element of discrimination has to do with the male socialisation and the rape culture in which we live in, but the other has to do more practically with the architecture and urbanism itself and how cities are planned. For instance they love to build these underground passages which are super dark and with no places to escape, if you are on your own and somebody attacks you, I always avoid these passages in the evening or night, so it influences where do I feel entitled to enter and where I don’t, it influences the accessibility of the public space, which is by default designed accessible for men. I think the urban fabric completely disregards the need of female users, people of colour and disabled users or generally everyone who doesn't follow the white male norm. We live in this paradox where on one hand our cities are not safe for use, so the public is not safe, but on the other hand while the private should be the safest is actually also very dangerous because of all the domestic violence. There is the direct physical violence involved but also the symbolic violence which implies that you have to stay at home and you are not supposed to participate in the public life or develop your career and work and you are just codified to this one space. So yes definitely it's a man-made environment and should be analysed as such and deconstructed.

And rebuild again from scratch! According to you, which is the most debilitating limitation created by gender inequality to the growth of our social system? Are there some sectors which suffer more because of the perpetuation of certain patriarchal patterns? [Maya] I think that the limitation is where money is. Why there are many women working as kindergarten teachers or primary school teachers and so many men working as professors at universities? Obviously university professors are paid five or ten times more than primary school teachers. I think it's related to value of female labour, so all the unpaid or underpaid labours or all the jobs where you earn less . These positions are gonna be filled with the most disenfranchised people like women or people of colour. So the positions that are decision making, powerful, with most resources and highest salaries, are the most difficult for women to reach, especially for women of colour.

Within your experience with the platform Depatriarchise Design did you ever met other designers who tried to provide solutions for the problem of gender inequality? [Maya] I think we shouldn't think about designers as solution providers, because it's a modernist lie that designers could provide social solutions to tackle societal complex issues like patriarchy. Patriarchy is one of the oldest oppressive system, it has been there thousand and thousand of years, so to think that design could in some way solve it it's  very arrogant. But I think that there are designers, who question the dominant visual languages and they question norms of the disciplines and this is more important that provide some kind of solution.

I think that it's also important to acknowledge to which extent we have influence as designers and what is really in our competences. I don't think it's in our competence to solve the rape culture! I had a student who spoke to me and she was thinking about dealing with rape culture as a bachelor project theme and then I told her that it’s a really interesting subject but it really depends on what she is going decide to do.

Because I don’t think she can design some kind of object that would protect women from rape , it will end up to be something that could also resolve in blaming women, and it’s already the case “ Why didn’t you buy this product to protect yourself?”  So the real issue – as designers – is to pose the right question, to see where we have competences to act.

Yes this could be also a sort of justification that there is rape culture and it’s normally embedded in our society. Why I had to design a tool to protect myself from something that should actually be destroyed?

[Maya] Yes, so then I told her that if she want to deal with consent and how we teach consent this could be for sure a subject for a designer. Like how we design toys for children, toys that  teach about consent and body integrity, this is kind of reflection about what is in our competences and what is not.

Yes. So this would be more thinking about the root of the problem instead of providing solution of its consequences.

Thank you for making this interview possible!

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