By Lynn Yanyo
If you’re a corporation, startup, or personal tech developer, I have some advice to help you beat your competition and truly succeed:
I’m serious, I’m a woman and I want to be exploited. Go ahead and use my female nuances to your advantage. It’s high time somebody did.
The tech sector has not always been kind to women. I’m sure no one would be surprised that there were very few female engineers in 1981 when I began my professional journey in the tech field. I was one of only six female graduates out of 80 in Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
My early career was spent developing new technology that primarily served automotive and transportation industries. As I traveled the world, working with other engineers at our suppliers’ and customers’ locations, it was hard to be taken seriously. Despite my background, education, and advanced degree I was still seen as a blonde cheerleader. The things that would come out of my male coworkers’ mouths were...interesting, to say the least. Think Mad Men without network censors. I know that at least two of my “opportunities” were due to my legs – one even told me so.
In the late 1990s, car companies woke up to the fact that women were literally driving their sales, so low and behold they began to design for women. Do you like the cup holder in your vehicle? Thank a woman. Seat belts that don’t cut into your chest? Vertically adjustable seats? Door handles that don’t break your nails? Lift gates that are easy to lift? All thanks to a woman.
This focus led the industry to start hiring more females to better design for women, and a decade and a half later they make up about a quarter of all employees. In 2014, General Motors’ Mary Barra became the first woman to run a major auto manufacturer.
When I moved into the electronics sector in the 2000s, I was once again surprised to see so few women involved in the development of the very tech items that were being heavily marketed to millions of women. Surveys back then showed that women buy more tech products than men, even though they lacked any features specifically designed for women.
Fast forward to 2015, and I was one of the 170,000 attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Walking around, visiting the 3,000+ exhibitors like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, I was struck that, aside from the proliferation of “booth babes,” the vast majority of technology professionals I met were male. No female designers, no female engineers.
So how is it that women account for 85% of consumer spending yet only 20% of industrial designers are women?
One of the effects of this is in the electronics industry where the design of popular products are not geared toward women. Take smartwatches for example: you see ads for these in which women seem to enjoy the product, but have you ever tried one on? Where is a woman going to wear that? It’s large, unattractive and heavy – three things that absolutely do not appeal to half the population.
And products that are “for women” just because they come in cute colors are not going to cut it. Remember Dell’s laptop for women (“Della”)? It came in pink and included calorie-counting tips and recipes. When women voiced their anger and disgust at being condescended to, it was immediately pulled from the shelf.
Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, but we’re still being frozen out of the electronics industry. Product innovation and marketing are reliant, to a great deal, on observation. But if you only employ male engineers to create your products, and they don’t have a female perspective on the front-end, how is that company going to effectively build a product that women will buy for themselves?
Take smartphones, for instance: if you observe women, you’ll see some of them slip their phones into their blouse or dress, tucking it into their bra. That’s because if they’re wearing an outfit without pockets and don’t carry a purse, there’s simply nowhere else for them to put it. And nearly half of female college runners do not run with their phone because Nike and other clothing manufacturers don’t design women’s sports gear with pockets. So why, then, are all the new iPhones and Androids coming out with larger and larger screens? They’re not taking into account female consumers.
Every business wants to – and needs to – grow in order to be successful. There are two ways to do this: sell new stuff to new people or sell the same stuff to new people (which is significantly easier by the way). In tech, you have women buying smartphones and smartwatches for men in their lives; why not design these products for women as well? They’re already the main purchasers for the household, so with some basic design tweaks (ideally by women designers) you could double your sales to pre-qualified customers.
The bottom line is this: I can tell you that the first companies to recognize and exploit women’s needs by actively engaging women in the product design and engineering process will take the market share. If you were guaranteed the attention of 85% of the consumer spend just by designing for the woman’s need – why wouldn’t you?
About Lynn Yanyo
Lynn Yanyo, Ph.D., is president of De Novo Ground and is a technologist and business leader with extensive experience in multidisciplinary science, engineering, design, marketing and quality manufacturing.