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Can gender shape the future of technology?
The best way to sell technology to women? Do not simply turn products “pink” advises Dr. Martina Schraudner, a visiting scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and professor for Gender and Diversity of Organizations at the Technical University of Berlin. Schraudner can list a variety of pink flops, such as the mobile phone that was intended to look like a compact but instead reminded women of a packet of birth control pills. Or women-oriented websites that dumb-down the technology and focus instead on color choices.
Gender can offer far more than a marketing gimmick. In her work as director of strategic research planning for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Germany’s leading institute for applied research, Schrauder sees opportunities to build new markets using gender as a tool for applied research – starting with consumer understanding.
One possibility for new markets is bridging the gap between the family and the workplace – technologies to facilitate communication between a working professional and a child or elderly parent at home. Her idea is that technology can make communications easier, more personal and more real while easing the working parent’s mind at work.
Schraudner also recognizes the need for technology to enable the elderly to live independently at home as long as possible. She argues that technology companies need to understand how to make technology accessible and useful. The Wii Fit has made its way into senior care facilities because it is easy to use and understand by consumers across the life span.
Schraudner notes that her interest in gender analysis dates back to her early days at the institute. It was 2004, and the European Union’s Research Commission had just come out with new guidelines requiring all its grant applicants to think about gender factors up front, and state clearly how those might be incorporated into their research and development practices.
"In Germany we don't have words that express 'sex' on the one hand and 'gender' on the other; gender in the meaning of socially constructed roles," explains Schraudner. "Therefore it is often applied only for women." When time came to write grant applications for the new EU Research Commission, “People in our headquarters were asking, ‘What about these gender aspects? What should we write in that part of the [application] form?’" she recalls. "At the time, I was the only woman working there. So they came to me and said ‘Gender? You take care of that.’”
Schraudner responded by developing innovative guidelines to help Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft researchers determine if their proposals met the EU’s requirements. She also began collecting case studies for her scientists and engineers, to show them how their research projects and products could be improved by taking gender factors into account.
In one case, engineers successfully helped LEGO adapt its popular Mindstorms robotic game so it would appeal more to young girls. Instead of having players to drive a LEGO car through a maze of streets, the new game lets them imagine they are bees looking for flowers. Another design team developed a backpack with wider-spaced shoulder straps to better accommodate female bust lines.
Women aren’t the only ones to benefit from this kind of research. Case in point: the sleek black MacLaren “Techno” stroller. “This was an example of something that took fathers into account,” Schraudner adds. “The handles are spaced wider apart. It has better stability on curves to allow them to go jogging with their child.”
Perhaps the best thing about this kind of research and development, she added, is that is draws more young women into the ranks of science and engineering – which in turn leads to even more innovation. “When you address these problems, then you bring in more women,” she says. “And when you have more women, there’s a different atmosphere. You have more creativity because of the variety of perspectives.”