Overlooking opportunity that’s very visible

During a 2001 company workshop, Volvo employees heard an expert on marketing to women say that women wanted the same things men wanted in a car- and more.  According to an article in Edmunds, the consultant said “When you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men.” The fact that women influenced 80% of car buying decisions was also mentioned.  Inspired by what they learned, Volvo engaged in a project to design a car designed for and by women.  It was called  “Your Concept Car” (YCC).   Although there were over 100 employees involved, all final decisions were made by the 9 women project leaders. The car generated a lot of buzz for Volvo in 2004 when it was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show. Unique features of the car included no gas cap, easy-clean paint, interchangeable seat colors of various colors and materials, self-parking, storage between front seats, and external access to add windshield washer fluid.

Tatiana Butovitsch Temm, YCC Communications Manager, spoke about the project enthusiastically at a 2005 conference on Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute of Gender Research.  As a long-time Volvo driver (I’m on my 4th Volvo wagon), I was delighted at the company’s initiative at revisiting car design.

Earlier this week, I attended a lunchtime presentation at Clayman Institute on Gendered Innovation in Engineering in Germany. YCC was mentioned as a great example of tapping the needs and talents of women to produce a product that’s superior for men as well as women.  Londa Schiebinger, Director of Clayman and the woman who had organized the 2005 conference, was in the room and said she had heard from several of the women project leaders that they have since left Volvo because none of their ideas had been adopted by the company.  None.  [Self-parking is now an option offered by Lexus and Prius. Perhaps Toyota’s engineers got their idea from YCC!].

No one expected YCC to become a production model (that’s why it’s called a concept car) but it was assumed select features would be adopted.  Why didn’t that happen?    How do ideas usually move from concept to production?  How often does the company fail to pick up a single idea from a concept car designed by men?  How often are women’s innovations overlooked in companies?  My guess is that this situation is not a case of conscious exclusion.   Research has repeatedly shown that women as well as men judge the same work product as superior when attributed to a man vs a woman.  The challenge is finding a way to overcome that patterned way of thinking.  A lot of people, including me, are working to fix that.