Challenging gender stereotypes in design

Challenging gender stereotypes in design

Design, much like the film and technology industries, has widespread problems with gender discrimination. Designer Gabriel Ann Maher talks to NADJA about challenging the stereotypes and the impact of the #metoo campaign.

In 2013 Gabriel undertook an analysis of Framed, a leading interior design magazine published in the Netherlands. Gabriel, (who uses the non-binary pronouns they/them/theirs) found that over the course of the year the representation of men to women was tremendously disproportionate, with a ratio of 80 to 20%.

“We really can’t separate design and the media” Gabriel says. “You see it in the way the advertisers shape design and gender, it’s not just selling objects, it’s selling sexuality, and selling lifestyle. That’s really part of the issue because it keeps coming back to these regular ways of presenting how to live, or how to be a human. The difficulty I had with that was when we were talking about design and gender it was only possible to talk about it in the position of male and female, there was no other gender position. It’s very limited in that way.”

The analysis of Frame led to The Act of Sitting, an installation and performance piece revolving around a chair that challenges the conventional notions of how we sit. It was a project Gabriel undertook when they realised there was no female equivalent to the familiar posture of a confident, reclining male.

Using similar techniques, a more recent project saw Gabriel working on Podiums & Power with Isabel Mager, a “symbolic and visual research” looking at the language, gestures and movements of people giving official speeches, and mapping these from ancient Greece through to the present day, whether on the political stage or other spaces where a speaker is addressing a crowd. They analysed how the body is oriented and organised on these hierarchical platforms, and this revealed patterns over time such as positioning and gender. Somewhat expectedly Gabriel says that men historically dominated this access to mainstream public speaking within the European context, until women’s suffrage.

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Since the suffragettes, the concept of feminism has undergone several revolutions, running through the various waves of women’s lib and their subsequent backlashes, to corporates jumping on its bandwagon, to its current resurgence (partly thanks to headline-grabbing incidents) as the basic right it is for women to be treated as human beings.

READ MORE: Women Are Still Silenced In British Politics

Last year, along with designer and social worker Roberto Perez Gayo and multidisciplinary artist Carly Rose Bedford, Gabriel put together “______________”Collective Enunciation commissioned by Onomatopee in Eindhoven. They explain this installation looked at a network of feminist voices articulating their positions and understandings towards the word feminism, with the aim of encouraging a discussion that focused primarily on the Act of Listening. To this end they put out an open call for participants to provide questions they felt were crucial to feminist practice, and these were subsequently answered by people in different parts of the world who communicated via Skype.

Sexual harassment is also being talked about more openly since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, leading to the inception of the #metoo campaign. While it gained momentum with women in Hollywood, Gabriel firmly believes it won’t be limited to this sector. “This push into mainstream and public platforms will definitely have a very empowering mission to share the vastness of this epidemic.”

“This campaign really highlights conversations around patriarchy and power, all of these big social constructs that are enabling this dynamic to not only be silenced, but to occur in the first place. We’re all finding the language to be able to speak about these issues. The campaign pushes a lot of boundaries in all different industries, and particularly within design I would love to see this, because I think it is one of the most urgent issues we have always had.”

Gabriel says that in many ways design is a profession that reproduces discriminatory patterns. “What I feel with design is that often it is there to support systems of power. A lot of these revolve around consumer culture, these ways of representing things that are incredibly white, middle class, heteronormative, and male-dominant. Also in the more standardised ways, if you look at ergonomics there’s huge discrimination embedded into a lot of the techniques we use, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

“I know this seems very critical of design, design does a lot of amazing things” Gabriel says, “but it also has very colonial roots. There are a lot of ways it’s aiding the material support of particular concepts of lifestyle, and also in the way the domestic spaces are geared towards particular constellations of family.”

“It’s such a big behavioural tool, which is really positioning, ordering and arranging bodies in particular ways for particular reasons. It can reproduce a lot of gendered stereotypes but also in terms of class, race, ability and sexuality. If we don’t look at the dynamics of power that are within the act of design and designing then we can’t really be accountable. This is a huge responsibility of ours, and therefore we need to see how our position is going to affect how we design for other people.”

To see Gabriel’s work visit

Leila Hawkins


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2 thoughts on “Challenging gender stereotypes in design

  1. So true. Sadly, the people affected negatively by this–women–are also the ones that are confronting these issues. Take a look at the Golden Globes’ speeches: none of the men talked about the issue, it was only the women. On one hand, it’s understandable: it’s a night that’s supposed to celebrate people in the film industry. On the other hand, it is about time the issue is being talked about, and what better place than at an awards ceremony.

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