A gendered look at socially responsible design - guest post from Natalie Balthrop

At SHE, the design and social enterprise world collide on a daily basis when you are working to create transformative change in underserved communities across the world. Natalie Balthrop, a design historian, recently completed her masters' thesis that explored how socially responsible design has addressed women's needs in both history and practice. SHE's business model and our product, the SHE LaunchPad, was one of several projects that were examined. Natalie writes how SHE's video sparked her curiosity to study this issue further:

Three years ago, when I began my graduate studies in the history of decorative arts and design, I planned to study something grand like 20th-century furniture or graphic design history. I certainly never imagined I would write a thesis on sanitary pads. In 2010, I started my second year of graduate school. My love affair with design for social good was blossoming and planting roots in my psyche. To fuel this interest, I attended the Cooper-Hewitt’s Why Design Now? conference and on that October day, the direction of my studies changed. Gone were my plans to investigate the uncredited female designers of decades past. At this conference, I decided to dedicate the next 20 months of my life to thinking about sanitary pads and design systems for social good.

Elizabeth Scharpf spoke on a panel and showed SHE’s campaign video. I watched in bewilderment - how could women not have access to affordable sanitary pads? I’m a feminist; I read the New Yorker, how could I not know about this issue? In today’s era of civilian uprisings, revolutions, and war, atrocities committed against women appear in our newspapers and on the news. But what about the hidden, everyday hardships that women face? Specifically, what about insufficient access to sanitary pads? As a student of design history, we are taught that designers are problem solvers. But why is this problem unknown? Is it because it affects women? Because it’s taboo? These questions gave birth to my thesis.

While it’s impossible to turn 118 pages into a 500 word blog post, in summary, my thesis investigates how women, economics, and development interact globally and explores the emergence of design solutions at the intersection of these fields. By tracing the history of socially responsible design, my research uncovers how the field addresses women’s needs and thus adds a feminist perspective. I studied early social design thinkers and searched for moments when women’s needs were mentioned - if at all. When women’s needs entered the discourse, I looked at which needs were prioritized and how this reflected patriarchal structures.

So in many ways, SHE allowed me to think critically about socially responsible design. It enabled me to then research other projects that typically improve women’s lives, such as water carrying devices, stoves, craft-based enterprises, and to question how these projects are still rooted within a male-dominated system. Such projects provide greater opportunities to women or meet basic human needs, but are developed within a framework that maintains the status quo. Introducing other projects for comparison allowed me to see SHE as a unique, intricate design that empowers women towards sustainable livelihoods in a way that also challenges deeply-rooted gender inequalities.

SHE attracted my attention initially because of the issues surrounding sanitary pad access. But in fact, SHE’s system design also allowed me to trace a critical moment in socially responsible design history when practice expanded from objects to projects. This system, which focuses on education, economic sustainability, and the use of locally-sourced materials, marks an important shift in this historical discourse.

One of the most exciting parts of writing my thesis was speaking with Elizabeth about SHE’s history and its plan for the future. I hope to continue this work and to keep exploring these delicate and complex issues around feminism and socially responsible design. Thank you, SHE!


Anonymous said...

Really great read.

Anonymous said...

Impressive and very insightful.