Gender mix

If women have a greater input in the design of products such as cars it will lead to new and better ideas and applications for technology, says Isolde Rötzer

Experts expect the proportion of women car owners to rise from 30 to 50 per cent in the next 20 years. However, women have different requirements from men when buying a new car. They shop more and look after children and grandparents. They would therefore welcome a practical loading platform, a boot that has compartments or holders for shopping and easily adjustable seats.

The marketing departments of automobile manufacturers are slow to react to this new target group. But it is not only cars that are an issue. Women and men have different requirements in other areas, too. One result of the ‘Discover Gender’ project, carried out under the auspices of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, is that women generally have different expectations about products than men.

Another result of the project is that men primarily think like men when they develop a new product. The manager of the project, Martina Schraudner, found that middle-aged male engineers tend to develop things for their peers. They therefore ignore a variety of other applications for men and women because they only have one particular use of model in mind.

For example, the first speech-recognition systems were developed without female testers. Consequently, they did not recognise female voices because the developers had not considered their voice range. So this technology still cannot be used in ways that male and female customers welcome.

Engineers were also thinking only of men when they developed the airbag. Because the ergonomic factor of size was initially neglected, the first airbags represented a life-threatening risk to the safety of women and children.

The term ‘gender’ describes the socially and culturally determined roles played by women and men that prescribe their spheres of activity and responsibilities in everyday life. Gender mainstreaming, on the other hand, is a political term that implies equality-oriented thought and behavioural patterns in the workplace. In 1999, the German government introduced it as a fundamental principle. The principle of striving for equality of opportunity for women and men in all areas of society is now anchored in Article 3 of the German constitution.

However, the reality looks very different. The proportion of women in the research and development departments of large companies is small. The proportion of female scientific staff in 2004 was 26.9 per cent, and the higher the level in a company, the greater the proportion of men.

The foundations for the reserve many women feel towards technology are laid at school. The idea that ‘Women can’t do maths and haven’t a clue about physics’ still exists and deters many girls from a technical career. However, initiatives such as ‘Girls’ Day’ or work placements for girls are a start.

The number of women studying mechanical engineering and electronics has more than doubled in the last 10 years. A relatively new concept that has mostly been implemented in international companies is ‘diversity management.’ The aim is to investigate how companies can use the differences between their employees, in terms of age, gender, cultural background or sexual orientation, to benefit the company and the employees.

The Discover Gender project started in 2004 and was funded by the German federal ministry of education and research. The influence of gender issues in research topics could be presented on the basis of concrete examples. At the same time, guidelines were developed for the assessment and integration of gender perspectives in various research areas. This is important because the earlier gender perspectives are considered, the more successful the end product is likely to be.

Taking aspects of gender and diversity into account can lead to completely new ideas for products and new applications for technology. A ‘functional food’ study, which was carried out as part of the Discover Gender project, showed that women are more interested than men in ‘smart packaging’ that indicates whether food is spoiled. Men, on the other hand, would be far more interested in an ‘intelligent refrigerator’, which automatically re-orders food and gives nutritional tips.

If companies take into consideration the use of gender-specific applications in the development of products and services, they can open up valuable opportunities for optimisation. New ideas can help to establish new markets and, with the help of gender-sensitive usability methods, expand and develop existing ones.

More importantly, as shown with the first voice-recognition and airbags, they can ensure that their innovative process does not produce a flop.

Isolde Rötzer is from German research organisation Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. This article was originally published in Fraunhofer’s research news magazine