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issue: July 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Designing Women?

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Editorial from Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

When I first decided to write about this topic, I thought I had a simple—not to mention logical—observation: the appliance industry needs more female engineers. Well, my research took me on wild ride that taught me both everything and nothing. In other words, no issue is ever simple.

Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

Yes, I am a woman, but I can assure you my initial thought process had nothing to do with equality, but had everything to do with strategy.

Every time I turn around, some new study or article is talking about designing and marketing products for women. From brown goods to power tools to automobiles, she is the gateway to profits. And while the white goods industry claims to have known this for years, my question remains—which sex is designing your products? Sure focus groups are great, but wouldn’t it make even more sense to have the “customer” as an integral part of your design team?

Ford did it a few years back with its Windstar minivan. Remember those “Windstar Mom” ads and the media coverage that followed? But why in the world is having women on a design team in this day and age so groundbreaking that it makes the evening news? Scary.

I visit R&D centers, attend technical conferences, and interview engineering sources, and women are very few and far between. In fact, at a recent technical conference I heard a disturbing story from John Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor at Michigan State University and a consultant who focuses on dispersed collaborative engineering teams. While working on a consultant project with a leading appliance maker, Mr. Lloyd compiled a team of 10 engineering students—six of which were women. Upon visiting the appliance company, the manufacturer was “shocked” that 60 percent of any engineering team would be made up of women, especially when it only had about five out of 100 in its entire facility.

While 60 percent is certainly an anomaly, the huge discrepancy still indicates industry is falling short, right? Maybe not. Although 2000 U.S. Census Data shows only 11 percent of today’s working engineers are women, it is notable that the latest data from the National Science Foundation shows only 20 percent of today’s engineering degrees are going to women. This means that even if industry is actively pursuing hiring women engineers, the pool is pretty small. So perhaps the problem lies within the educational system.

Professor Lloyd agrees to some extent, stating that lack of women mentors within the university is an issue. Women that are candidates for PhDs and tenure—and, therefore, would most likely be future mentors—end up leaving to get jobs in industry, he says.

Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), suggests that the mentoring process should start even earlier. Her organization, which creates a network opportunity for women in the engineering field, also does outreach for fifth- through 12th-grade girls. “We try to fill that pipeline because the reason only 20 percent of engineering degrees go to women is that women aren’t shown the engineering face,” she says.

Even so, Ms. Shanahan also believes there are issues within industry that can be improved to encourage more women engineers. One is to invite diversified communication: recognize that women and men communicate differently and embrace that. “As a woman, it is often harder to be effective in the workforce because your communication styles and your interaction styles are different than the majority of your colleagues. So what you do, sort of naturally as a woman, is adapt, just to effectively communicate,” she explains. “Some of that value of the different perspective gets lost if we adapt too much.”

Some examples, she says, is that women use terms like “I think” or “I’m not sure,” which can be perceived as weak or insecure comments, but actually encourage discussion within an engineering team.

Ms. Shanahan, an engineer herself with 24 years of experience, also notes the “isolation” women engineers feel in such a male-dominated profession. This is where organizations like SWE come in, she says, which brings together women outside of work so they can create their own informal network—a female version of the “Old Boys Network.”

In fact, a group of female engineers at Whirlpool recently set up their own local SWE chapter in southwest Michigan. Tamera Mounteer, an electrical engineer and product manager at Whirlpool and part of the new 37-member SWE chapter, says she and the other members like the opportunity to interact with other women from Whirlpool and other companies. She also says Whirlpool supported the effort from the start and even reimburses for memberships.

She adds that she doesn’t feel isolated within her company. In fact, she doesn’t like being singled out as a woman, especially during brainstorming meetings or discussions. “I’m just another person on the team, and I’d prefer to just be another person on the team,” she says. She also doesn’t communicate with terms like “I think,” but admits that she has adjusted her communication techniques throughout the years to fall more in line with what is normal in a business environment. Interestingly enough, she says this change started at the university level. Hmmm.

While the lovely circle I’ve drawn has probably left you feeling like I did, I do believe a few “nuggets” can be drawn from my findings. First, are you actively seeking out women engineers? If not, do it or you are missing out on an obvious competitive advantage. Diversified ideas—in terms of gender and culture—are key in a global industry laboring to come up with the next life-changing appliance.

Second, what kind of support are you giving those women engineers within your organization? Are you working with local universities and organizations like SWE to promote the appliance industry to women engineers? Professor Lloyd, Ms. Shanahan, and Ms. Mounteer all agree that women tend to lean toward professions that benefit society—isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

Finally, are you considering women for executive-level/mentoring positions? And if women aren’t sticking around long enough to be considered, you may want to ask yourself why. Maybe creating a supportive environment—like in Ms. Mounteer’s case—can go a long way.

In the end, the issue is a complicated one, but it needs to be addressed. “I believe most companies really want to have a diverse workforce,” notes Ms. Shanahan of SWE. “Their challenge is how do they translate that goal into the everyday actions that happen on the manufacturing floor.”

What are you doing? I’d like to know.


Email us at: editors_mail@appliance

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