Cars are still designed for men

Cars are still designed for men

With its research on safety for all, Volvo has a clear gender perspective on industrial innovation. So far they are quite alone in this respect.
Women are more exposed to certain types of injuries than men in a car crash. Due to differences when it comes to anatomy and neck strength between average men and women, for instance, women have higher risks of getting whiplash injuries. Illustration photo: iStockphoto

Once you start paying attention to it, you see it everywhere: The smart phone that men can easily operate with one hand while women need to use both hands. Men who are comfortable wearing only a shirt in the office, while women wearing layers of wool tremble with cold because the temperature is adjusted to the average metabolism of men. Tools and protective equipment made to fit men, whereas women cannot get a proper grip or get the equipment to fit properly.

Or the Norwegian women’s national football team that is continuously handed out shoes and socks that do not fit, according to the women’s football news series in the weekly paper Morgenbladet.

Some of these stories may be funny, but in other cases, they may be about life and death – such as when pharmaceutical products are only tested on men or when crash tests for cars are only carried out with an average male in mind.

Men crash, women die

“We want cars that are equally safe for everyone, regardless of who you are or what your body is like,” Eirik Trosby explains. He is head of PR and communication at Volvo Car Norway.

By collecting data from real accidents, researchers at Volvo have identified which injuries are caused by which accidents and how accidents affect people differently depending on anatomical differences.


“We want cars that are equally safe for everyone, regardless of who you are or what your body is like,” says Eirik Trosby, head of PR and communication at Volvo Car Norway. Photo: Volvo Car Norway

The likelihood of getting involved in traffic accidents is bigger for men than for women, but the likelihood of dying or being injured once the accident occurs, is bigger for women. One contributory cause is probably that crash tests are most often carried out with standardised test dummies based on the measurements, weight and muscle mass of an average male. The tests are also based on a sitting position equivalent with that of an average male’s.

Women, on the other hand, normally sit ‘out of position’ when they drive. On average, they have shorter legs, and need to sit more forward leaning in order to reach the pedals. This makes head-on collisions more dangerous for women. Additionally, car seats are designed for men.

Although car producers have begun to use ‘female’ test dummies more often in recent years, these are often just downscaled versions of the male dummy, without regard for the fact that women are built differently and have different muscle and bone contexture. Moreover, the dummy is typically placed in the passenger’s seat, not in the driver’s seat. Pregnant women barely exist in the car producers’ strategies.

Pregnant women barely exist in the car producers’ strategies.

Within this larger picture, Volvo stands out: The company has marketed itself for years as a brand that takes safety seriously. Now, Volvo has launched the E.V.A. project: Forty years of research on car safety for both genders and all body shapes have been made accessible from a digital library to anyone who would like to make use of the material.

Studies accidents

In 1970, Volvo established a research team, and since then, the team has collected and analysed data from real traffic accidents, Trosby writes in an email. This involves travelling to the scenes of the accidents in order to analyse the course of the accident. This research has formed the foundation for many of the safety systems that the Volvo cars have today. In actual traffic accidents, women and children are well represented, as opposed to the crash tests in a laboratory.

“Based on Volvo’s own research data and several other studies, the E.V.A. project shows that women are more exposed to certain types of injuries than men in a car crash. Due to differences when it comes to anatomy and neck strength between average men and women, for instance, women have higher risks of getting whiplash injuries,” Trosby explains.

Market considerations is the most obvious explanation when gender perspectives are used in design and innovation.

Volvo has used such information to create virtual test dummies in order to develop safety technology that are equally fitting for both men and women. The first among these innovations was a seat design that provided better protection against whiplash, which was put on the market in 1998.

Unique for Sweden

“I do not have any statistics to refer to, but I believe that Volvo’s initiative is an exception in this sector,” says Gry Alsos, professor at NHH Norwegian School of Economics and Nord University Business School.

“The branches that more commonly use gender as a category in their design are typically producers of consumer goods such as clothing and cosmetics. In these instances, feminism is not the motive for doing so, it is purely commercial interests.”


“Producers of clothing and cosmetics use gender as a category in their design, but feminism is not the motive for doing so,” says Gry Alsos, who conducts research on gender in innovation. Photo: Nord Universitet

Market considerations is the most obvious explanation when gender perspectives are used in design and innovation, and according to Alsos, this may also be an important factor for Volvo.

“But Volvo has worked a lot with gender over a long period of time, and they have studied gender in connection to product development. They have been more conscious about this than many others have. I am not aware of many other instances of this kind. It may also have to do with Volvo’s traditional affiliation to Sweden, where gender considerations have been on the agenda for a long time.”

Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, had until recently a clear focus on gender perspectives in innovation, and this has contributed to increased awareness. But parallel to the general political development, this focus on gender has weakened over the past years,” according to Alsos.

“Reflects deep patterns”

“Gender imbalance in innovation also reflects imbalance within the engineer educations. And it has to do with who works in the sections for innovation and product development, who are in contact with the customers and can report the customers’ needs back and so on. All these aspects are significant for what kind of knowledge they seek,” says Alsos.

She has previously demonstrated through her own research how innovation developed by women is often not considered innovation at all.

Alsos warns against the belief that the world will be better adapted to women if only more women are engaged in the teams working with innovation.

Gender divided patterns are nevertheless so deeply rooted in all of us.

“Personal experiences may also affect innovation, for instance if you have found driving unpractical while pregnant. But these gender divided patterns are nevertheless so deeply rooted in all of us – in women as well as men – that we all easily reproduce them.” 

However, Vinnova’s focus on gender perspectives demonstrates that measures do have an effect, according to Alsos.  

“We just cannot expect direct and immediate effect. We have a very long and historic development of a culture that gender segregates society, but at the same time we know that major changes have taken place in society exactly in this field. So change is possible if we have an awareness of what we want to change and the patience to wait for the effects.”  

Lack knowledge

Anne Kjersti Fahlvik, Executive Director for Industries and Technologies at the Research Council of Norway, admits that gender perspectives on innovation is a field in which there are still some major knowledge gaps. This becomes clear when the Research Council works with the implementation of its policy for gender balance and gender perspectives in research and innovation, which was revised during the autumn 2018.

“Right now, we are particularly interested in gaining more knowledge on structural and cultural aspects that prevent change,” she says.


Anne Kjersti Fahlvik from the Research Council of Norway admits that gender perspectives on innovation is a field in which there are still major knowledge gaps. Photo: Research Council of Norway

Traditionally, gender balance has been a bigger challenge within technological disciplines than within the humanities and the social sciences. Because of this, the way towards integration of gender perspectives may be more difficult within the technological disciplines.

At the same time, Fahlvik emphasises that the Research Council has a programme for student entrepreneurs, which gives good cause for optimism. This is an arrangement in which master’s students may be awarded a grant worth one million Norwegian kroner for one year in order to realise a research based business idea in collaboration with a university or a university college.  

Students give hope

“Among the thirteen projects that were granted funding in 2018, only one had a female project leader. We could not live with that. Women are not a minority among the master’s students, but perhaps some women are reluctant to take the step into entrepreneurship. So we decided to do something about this.” 

This year, 44 per cent of the successful applicants were women.

“There is no direct connection between female project leaders and gender perspectives on innovation, but the student entrepreneurs represent major diversity, and with goal-oriented work I am convinced that we will have more projects of the type that Volvo has now.”  

“One great thing about the student entrepreneurs is that they are not coloured by traditions. Although this programme only amounts to a small part of our work, it may hopefully serve as an illustration of the direction in which we are going,” says Fahlvik.

See also: The gender dimension should be broadly integrated in research