• Pandora’s Car

    When Volvo unveiled their new prototype “a car designed by women for women,” at the Geneva Motor Show this March they called it YCC: Your Concept Car. They might just as well have called it Pandora’s Box. The car’s “feminine” features—an inaccessible engine, teflon bumpers, computer-assisted parking, seat-covers that can be changed to match your outfit—proved controversial. The first to condemn the Swedish design team (eight out of ten of whom were women) was Robert Lutz, Vice Chairman of General Motors, who called the project “sexist”. “Most women would say: ‘I send my husband out to do the shopping. Let him have the car with the rubber bumpers, ’” he said.

    Momus Volvo

    Nick Currie strikes a sophisticated pose in a Volvo lounge.

    American and British people discussing the car on the internet seemed to agree. “It makes women engineers look like morons. I’m sure right-wingers will have a lot of fun with this one,” commented “Dymaxion”, a Chicago woman whose online handle honors Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 three-wheeled bubble car. “I think the lady designers were imported from the 50s,” agreed Liz, who pictured the design team “in nice clean white labcoats, foxy librarian specs and lovely high heels.” Someone called Allyzay pictured “all the men at Volvo behind closed doors with cigars and brandies, chuckling mightily at how ‘cute’ the ‘little ladies’ are. This whole story really is like 50s science.”

    The 1950s were indeed the golden age of feminine car design. In 1955 Daimler introduced the 104 “Ladies Model” which came with a cosmetics pack, fitted luggage, an umbrella and a shooting stick.

    Only 50 were ever made, but the company persisted with the theme: Daimler CEO Lord Docker let his wife design a series of extravagant show cars, the Docker Daimlers featuring gold plating, zebra-skin upholstery, and ivory dashboards. At about the same time, Dodge introduced a pink car known as “La Femme” with cosmetics cabinets built into the seats. It was a fiasco, says Lutz, and led Detroit to steer clear of cars that played on gender stereotypes.

    Or did it just sweep the issue of gender under the accelerator mat? Is gender only invisible in our cars because we take it so much for granted? The anger of the man from General Motors might have a different explanation: as soon as someone comes along with an explicitly feminine car, all cars are made to look inherently masculine, and thus sexist. The best way to refute the accusation is to respond in kind. But once your gender bias is shown, can you ever find the neutral position again? How do you close Pandora’s sunroof?

    Personally, I don’t think the women at Volvo were being “sexist”. I do think, though, that the company could have taken more care with the implication that what’s biologically female is necessarily what’s culturally feminine. They might, for instance, have called the YCC “The car by women, for women... and the woman at heart!” Being born female is a matter of biology, but appreciating “feminine” qualities like ease of use, aesthetics and convenience...well, anyone can do that.

    “Men and women really want the same things in cars, ” says Camilla Palmertz, the Volvo project manager. “But women want more. There’s no car out there right now that fulfills all their criteria.” Thinking about this, I formulated a hypothesis: “Consumer societies progress in the direction of the feminine”. What women want today, men will want tomorrow. Who wants to wrestle a car into a tight parking spot when a computer can do it better?

    The development of the cell-phone in Japan seems to bear this out. Keitai were clunky big black things marketed to businessmen until NTT headhunted a female lifestyle journalist to re-position them as fashion accessories for young girls. Phones got slim and pearly, and those smaller phones became the template for all cell-phones pretty soon. The kinds of things women want—usability, elegance, portability—are the kinds of things all consumers value... eventually.

    It was then that I stumbled on the ideas of Geert Hofstede, founder of IBM’s Personal Research Department. Between 1966 and 1971 Hofstede sent out 117,000 questionnaires to IBM employees in 72 countries, quizzing them on their views about life and work. Based on the results, he constructed a model of cultural attitudes structured around four variables (Hofstede’s Dimensions) Uncertainty Avoidance, Power Distance, Individualism-Collectivism and Masculinity-Femininity.

    The gender measure was the most controversial one. Hofstede called “masculine” values like competition and achievement and “feminine” things like co-operation and quality of life. The most “masculine” nations according to Hofstede are Britain and the US. The most “feminine” turns out to be... Sweden, home of the “car by women for women”.

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