Jill S. Tietjen, series editor of Women in Engineering and Science, discusses the positive impact of diverse design teams, and how including women in the design process can benefit us all.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion principles permeate so many areas of our lives without us even being cognizant of them. Most of us are aware of the disparity in the number of men and women pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers as well as the pay gap that exists both between men and women in the same profession and between professions where either women or men dominate. Another example is the design of products that we use in our everyday lives. What happens when women are not on design teams of products and women’s differing needs are not considered? Products seem to be tailored for the category that designed them – men – and may be ineffective or, sometimes, even harmful, to other audiences. Conversely, when women are on design teams of products, as demonstrated by the Windstar Moms, features are incorporated into products that might not have otherwise been considered and that benefit many different customers. Here, I will specifically address the Windstar minivan, lavalier microphones, the early airbags, and the original Personal Digital Assistants (the precursor to smartphones).
Thirty women engineers were recruited by Ford Motor Company to design the Windstar minivan with the specific objective of making it user-friendly for its core customer base – women with children. The features that became ingrained in the Windstar and many other vehicles as well were revolutionary twenty years ago. They included a thinner steering wheel, a drop-down conversation mirror for checking on passengers in rear seats, the second sliding door on the side of the van, a rectangular cup holder for juice boxes, back seat headsets, sleeping baby lights, a row of hooks to accommodate plastic grocery bags, the reverse-aid sensing system that helps people when the car is backing up, and a larger gasoline tank that meant fewer refuelling stops. The reverse sensor was not only appreciated by women but by grandparents as well. Today, it is a feature of almost all new vehicles sold.
Like Ford, Mercedes-Benz also recognized the value of diverse sets of experiences and opinions. At one point, they had an informal group of women engineers named the Women’s Product Advocate Team, which suggested different features for that company’s cars including a lower armrest in the PT Cruiser and a pull-down handle on the rear lift gate of the Jeep Cherokee.
Not all products, however, take into account the different sizes, shapes, heights, or attire of the potential customer. Lavalier microphones are the first example. They are intended to be attached to men’s neckties with the receiver and battery pack inserted into men’s pants pockets. Women’s clothing doesn’t include a necktie and often doesn’t include any pockets. A headset microphone overcomes some of these issues, as do wireless microphones.
If the early design of the airbag in my car had ever been activated, it probably would have killed me. I am 5’2” and weigh about 120 pounds. Designed for 5’9” 160-pound men, the impact of that airbag would have caused me extreme injury or possibly my death. As late as November 2022, car companies are only required to demonstrate vehicle safety on crash dummies modelled on the average man. Products that are to be used by a diverse group of customers need to consider the varied characteristics of that customer base.
The original personal digital assistants that evolved into today’s smartphones were designed to fit into men’s breast pockets on their shirts. Women don’t have these pockets and wouldn’t put the PDA there anyway. A woman’s needs or size were never considered although that has obviously not stopped any women from using these devices.
Products are better for the customers when diverse points of view are considered and explored. When Lillian Moller Gilbreth, one of the founders of the field of industrial engineering, turned her attention to the kitchen and household appliances, many conveniences that we take for granted today emerged. These include the return water pump on the washing machine that removes water from the basin, the egg tray and butter dish in your refrigerator, the height of your kitchen counters, and the foot pedal garbage can. Three cheers for Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the Windstar moms, the Women’s Product Advocate Team, and those companies who see how diversity, equity, and inclusion is a benefit for all.
About the Authors