Civil unrest has raised awareness of persistent inequities lurking in industry behaviors and governance. The fashion industry’s exclusionary practices that include suppression in wages, career advancement, industry acknowledgment, and accolades exact a high toll on women and BIPOC (Business of Fashion [BoF], 2020; Stokes, 2017), and women and BIPOC students also get a lower return on their educational investment (Lindemann et al., 2016). Gender bias and racism continue to flourish as fashion’s hiring practices perpetuate the white male power structure stunting the leadership career paths for women and BIPOC (Gallagher, 2020). Little research exists exploring racism in post-secondary art and design disciplines and research focused on racism in fashion design classrooms does not appear in the literature. Within post-secondary fashion design programs in the United States, 85% of students are female, and 46% are BIPOC (Fashion Designers, 2019; National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2019).

Findings from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project corroborate the indictment that the fashion industry suffers from gender and race imbalances. In the SNAAP 2015 – 2017 survey, there were responses from 580 alumni who majored in fashion design, with a majority of the responses coming from 541 female alumni. Furthermore, the majority of fashion design alumni identified as White. Figure 1 shows the gender and racial breakdowns of the SNAAP 2015 – 2017 fashion design respondents. This sample comprises 1% of the nearly 65,000 SNAAP postsecondary and graduate school respondents, which is only a small percentage of the full fashion design education alumni population, as over 3,500 fashion alumni graduate annually (Fashion Designers, 2019).
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The responses offer a general indication of professional education needs to support future fashion design success. When looking for racial differences on perceptions of business and entrepreneurial skill development while at their institutions, there were no statistically significant differences. However, there were significant differences when comparing on gender, with the women more likely to believe they received adequate entrepreneurial skills training than the men. These findings are interesting to note and bear further investigation of the perception of the quality of the education received, the expectations of the students in their future careers, and the relationship between the education offered and the translated value of that education in hiring, wages, and promotions.

The SNAAP income data parallels national fashion industry data showing women fashion designers are paid an average of $20,000 less per year than men (Fashion Designers, 2019; United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS), 2021). The salary variance between men and women, according to the design industry numbers, show that male designers are paid an average of $20k more than their female colleagues. This difference equates to over $400m annually. The impact for the industry is substantial and the consequences for the individual are staggering. Figure 2 highlights the mean salary variance for gender within the SNAAP data. Additionally, within the SNAAP sample the White and Asian alumni reported receiving the highest levels of income while incurring the least impact of the school loan debt.
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As designers and design professors with a combined five decades of experience, we have witnessed power imbalances throughout the fashion industry in hiring and promotion and classroom practices. The majority of design classrooms are filled with young women who have set their sights on becoming fashion designers, yet why more women have not achieved the top industry leadership roles tugs at our consciences as educators and industry professionals. As researchers, we are interested in revealing the following: 1) what barriers are keeping women and BIPOC’s fashion dreams from being realized, 2) how can coursework support change in industry biases, and 3) how do socio-cultural norms challenge women’s expectations for career success. We parsed the SNAAP data to uncover significant deviations, looking for diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and career biases experienced within the sample population. The SNAAP data aligns with much of the existent fashion literature identification of the career barriers that constrict the advancement of women and BIPOC populations in the fashion industry.

Recommendations for Future Research
The social and cultural turbulence in the world today has ignited a global charge for equity across industries, continents, and mindsets. The SNAAP fashion alumni data offer insight into the gendered and racial challenges faced by fashion design graduates in seeking industry employment. Additional research is needed to investigate industry hiring and promotion practices to identify the path for diverse, inclusive, and equitable future fashion design careers. Insufficient empirical research exists on women’s and BIPOC’s experiences related to career barriers in the feminized fashion industry. Future SNAAP research investigating gender and racial bias in feminized industries will encourage inclusive career programming supporting post-graduation design career goals and successful navigation of career paths, regardless of student positionality.

This DataBrief was prepared by Natalie Salvador, Ed.D. and Amelia Williams, Ed.D. at the University of Southern California.

The authors presented this research at the 2022 SNAAP Research Symposium. View the presentation here (see the last presentation in this video starting at 41:16).