Female fit

Many products are rethought with sustainability and ergonomics in mind, but designing for the specific needs of women all too rarely comes into the equation – and a touch of pink just won’t cut it any more. Clare Dowdy explores what might be ’the last untapped market’

Despite the strides that the feminist movement has made, many people still believe that women are poorly served by existing products, services and environments. In response to this, new female-friendly solutions are being offered across a raft of sectors, from consumer electronics and workspaces to healthcare uniforms.

While women’s roles have evolved, the tools and environments they are operating in haven’t. ’Companies are still relying on stereotypes of the past, often resorting to the “shrink it and pink it” approach to connect with women,’ says Agnete Enga, founder of product design consultancy Smart Design’s internal initiative Femme Den. The awkwardly named venture aims to ’save good women from bad products’. Enga is currently poised to expand her cause from the US to Europe, with the launch of Femme Den in Barcelona, where Smart has an office.

Women have long been cultivated as a potentially lucrative audience by certain opportunistic businesses. At the turn of the millennium, Design House created The Toyota Experience – a redesign of the conventional car dealership to appeal to women. And it worked: one dealership saw sales to women increase by 40 per cent in the first year.

Now, American consumer electronics giant Best Buy is at it too, designing a store in Aurora, Colorado specifically to appeal to women. The interior scheme of the store tones down the traditional warehouse-shed style, introducing skylights, a muted colour palette and wood-panelled shelving. What’s more, the retailer has just appointed a woman – Aura Oslapas – to the role of senior vice-president and chief design officer.

Enga spells out the requirements for a women-friendly store. ’You have to create an environment that is equally appealing to both genders, and that doesn’t stigmatise or alienate one or the other. If you create an environment that is overly feminine to attract women, you may alienate many women – and, obviously, male consumers – and further separate the genders.’

Today’s women often carry out traditionally male tasks and vice versa, says Enga, each with varying success. ’While taking on these new roles, females are constantly adjusting to products and services that were not designed with them in mind,’ she says.

She cites Smart’s redesign of Endura surgical scrubs in the US. ’The original unisex hospital scrubs were designed based on an XL-sized male body, and despite the fact that today 75 per cent of hospital workers are women, the scrubs haven’t changed in years,’ she says. Smart’s version takes into consideration the female form, making them more functional and aesthetically pleasing.

PR luminary Lynne Franks is also aware of women’s changing roles, leading her to launch her businesswomen’s clubs, B Hive, earlier this month, through workplace provider Regus.

’More women than ever are starting their own businesses, moving up the corporate ladder and taking leadership roles in media and the arts,’ she says – hence the creation of a club where women can work together according to what she calls ’the feminine principles of community, connection and collaboration’.

All this happens in the vintage – or faux-vintage – environment created by designers Rachel Ashwell and Elina Grigoriou. The interiors have Franks’ stamp, and several of the ground-floor and basement walls carry her quotations, including the line, ’Be all I was born to be’.

’The whole feeling [of B Hive] should be extremely aspirational and totally accessible,’ says Franks, comparing it in tone to Grazia magazine, and contrasting it with the Institute of Directors’ male-friendly wall decor of 17th-century war hero paintings.

While, legally, B Hive can’t stop men joining, it is a female-focused offer. It remains to be seen – once the hype has died down – whether businesswomen really do want to be in a single-sex working environment.

Perhaps women should be defined as the last untapped market. According to the September 2009 edition of the Harvard Business Review, globally, women control around $20trn (£13trn) in annual consumer spending, which is expected to rise to around $28trn (£18trn) by 2013. That makes women as a growth market more than twice as big as China and India combined. For Enga, this means making gender ’part of the design dialogue in the world today, raising it to the same level as issues like ergonomics and sustainability’.

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