Does Interior Design Have a Gender Problem?

Yes, it does, and it may not be what you think…

Look around the room at any interior design industry event and you will see a sea of mostly female faces. It certainly appears that the industry skews largely toward women, and that is borne out by statistics. According to Data USA, the percentage of women awarded interior design degrees within the five largest undergraduate programs in the country was 89.7 percent in 2016. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) puts the number of female graduates nationwide even higher, reporting 93.6 percent in 2018.

So the question you might ask is “Where are the men?”

In contrast, the speakers, panelists, and awardees at those same industry events trend much more toward being male. For example:

• Over the past 40 years, 65 percentof the Contract Designer of the Year winners have been male.

• Over the past 30 years, 75 percent of the Interior Design Hall of Fame members have been male.

• While ASID and IIDA fellows are a little more than half female, they do not mirror the percentage of women in the profession.

• Forty-three percent of presenters/panel participants at NeoCon 2019 were male. (Interestingly, most panels were largely female, and most single presenters were male. That could be the topic for another essay!)

What about firm leadership? There don’t appear to be any statistics out there right now, so I did some old-fashioned counting, looking at 11 of the largest interior design firms’ websites (after eliminating other disciplines such as architecture, planning, and support).

Thirty-three percent of these large firms’ partners or principals are female; 67 percent are male. The statistics are almost exactly the mirror image of the percentages of women and men in the profession.

In order to get a snapshot of the makeup of leadership for product and manufacturing companies, I looked at six of the largest furniture companies that are publicly traded (so their leadership information is available online). The numbers are even worse:

Of the six companies, only one had a female CEO, and that firm didn’t have any other women in the C-suite. The percentage of C-suite women at the six companies was 5 percent.

An industry that starts off as approximately 90 percent female ends up with far fewer women as leaders. This differs from architectural practice, which had a much smaller pipeline of women entering the profession and only recently has reached a graduation rate approaching parity at 42 percent female, according to the National Architectural Accrediting Board. As mentioned above, there is a much larger percentage of women starting out in the interior design profession, making the drop-off in percentage of women holding leadership positions even more striking. What happens to all that talent? Do women stall out in midcareer, never advancing beyond midlevel positions? Do they drop out, and if so, why? (The fact that the graduation rate is 90 percent female but the industry as a whole is only 70 percent female seems to say a lot of them leave.) Do they form their own (largely residential) firms? Or do they do something else entirely?

At the moment, there are apparently no quantitative statistics and no qualitative surveys. This is in contrast to the situation in architecture; after a big ruckus and the #MeToo movement, the AIA now collects gender information for its members. It also has sponsored large-scale detailed studies such as the latest Equity by Design survey, which seeks to find out what happens to architecture graduates (male and female) in mid- and late career and why. (Its most recent survey covered 14,000 respondents.)

If in fact women are not making it into leadership positions, understanding the reasons why would help to address the issue and level the playing field.* What can be done?

The first goal would be to establish a baseline of numbers, thus confirming (or refuting) that there is a gender imbalance, one that is clearly not a pipeline issue. The second goal would be to try to parse out what happens to women as they move through the trajectory of their careers. The industry starts out with 90 percent women graduates, dropping down to about 70 percent of practitioners and vendors who actually stay in the field, dropping down again to about 30 percent of actual leaders of firms, and dropping even further to less than 20 percent of leaders of product companies.

Only after we understand through hard data whether there are impediments preventing women from making it to the top of the profession and, if so, what is causing them can there be a meaningful and impactful effort to make sure that there will be fairness and equity for all who enter the profession, regardless of gender.

*For the purpose of simplicity, I have not addressed the obstacles faced by both men and women of color or nonbinary gender here. These are factors that almost certainly would affect career trajectories and should be included in any surveys.

Joan Blumenfeld, Contract magazine’s 2018 Legend, is a design principal at Perkins and Will, a global architecture and interiors firm. Over the past 20 years she has been committed to achieving gender equity across all aspects of the design and construction business, as well as being an active advocate for building better and healthier interiors, buildings, and communities. Her widely published and award-winning work is notable for incorporating socially responsible principles of designing for health and sustainability.

Resource from:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: