Where are the women in design, engineering streams?

Meera Kaul
Meera Kaul

From feminine hygiene products to women's shoes, bags, cars and even jewellery, everything is largely designed and marketed by men.

By Meera Kaul

Published: Sat 26 Mar 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 27 Mar 2016, 9:18 AM

So it's 2016. And globally, we still have a whopping prevalence of all-male teams leading the design and production process of most products, even products that are more actively, and sometimes exclusively, consumed by women. So, where are the women?
From feminine hygiene products to women's shoes, bags, cars and even jewellery, everything is largely designed and marketed by men. When the entire process of buying and using a product stems from the user, the utility it serves and the emotions associated with its consumption by the user, how can men, exclusively, be at the helm of creating products for women?
From an entrepreneur's perspective, nothing can be better than having an actual user design a product. One wonders then how we have endured decades of men-only design?
A classic example is of cars, which have till date not come up with an appropriate solution for women to place their handbags inside the car while driving. With nearly every woman using a handbag, and possibly a car, it is startling to note how such a basic and significant everyday need has not made it to the drawing board. And the answer simply lies in the lack of women involvement in the designing process.
Unfortunately, when men do try to create products suited to women's needs, they end up either infusing stereotypical 'feminine' design elements in their choice of colours and structure, or create marketing campaigns that target women, once again stereotyping their roles and taste aka the 'pink & blue' colour patching of boys and girls, and the homemaker/caretaker/child-bearing roles for women.
In some cases, it is fundamentally impossible for men to fathom the needs or use of a product. A strong instance of this is the cure for women having heart attacks was administered based on research done on male rats. Till women themselves got involved in the R&D process, it was never realised that the administration of drugs to a woman's body is a different scientific process.
Design differences in products meant for men or women should be backed by logical rationale of use or situations, and not gender stereotypes. Products need to be exclusive, not targeted by gender.
Strangely, over decades of such stereotyping, product design and marketing has not evolved to take into account the various facets that comprise a modern day woman - from caring motherhood to technical home improvement; from tea-parties to corporate meetings; from hard-trail treks to home-cooked meals; from investment planning to grocery shopping; from car driver to car mechanic. With so many avatars being part of a single day for most women, marketing or products that touch upon just one stereotypical aspect of what it means to be a woman do not make the cut.
And it is not just about products that women exclusively use. Ignoring half the population of the world while designing a product that will be consumed by everyone does not hold logic. Add to that the fact women are the primary influencers for purchase and choice of products, and once again it holds to reason why more women scientists, engineers and technologists must be guiding, or even driving, product design and marketing.
Closer home in the Middle East, we see reasons for hope and change. Egypt is now host to a few Stem-only schools, Saudi Arabia is looking at vocational training for women in jewellery craftsmanship and the UAE boasts the region's first woman pilot, mechanic and forklift operator.
Get creative
Our Women in Stem Smart City Hackathon was also another attempt in the same direction, aimed at encouraging more women to get creative and design products and applications suiting their needs.
Getting more female engineers and architects involved in designing products meant for women can make the products more appealing and relevant for women's needs and tastes, both from a utilitarian and an aesthetic standpoint. Additionally, bringing on board the unique perspective of the female gender cranks up the creativity quotient of all products, fuelling innovation, economic progress and change.
The writer is chairperson at the Meera Kaul Foundation. Views expressed are her own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.

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