How these female car designers are challenging stereotypes

Editor’s Note: Tara Weingarten is an internationally recognized automotive journalist. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of VroomGirls, a car website for women.

CNN  — 

Was your car designed by a man or a woman? You’ve likely never thought about it and you probably can’t tell. Few clues belie a designer’s gender.

“If you look at the sporty Acura NSX, can you tell it was designed by a woman? Or the Honda minivan by a man?” asks Angus MacKenzie, editor-at-large at Motor Trend magazine. “Good design is good design; it transcends gender and everyone knows it when they see it.”

Though most vehicles are in fact designed by men, that gender disparity is fading, albeit slowly. Acura’s red-hot halo sports car, the NSX, is arguably the most important vehicle that brand will introduce next year as a 2017 model.

It’s a raucous macho car, both in its angular design and blisteringly fast performance. And the fact that Acura chose Michelle Christensen as top dog for the NSX’s exterior speaks volumes about inroads women are finally making at the upper echelons of automotive design.

michelle christensen

Majority of exterior jobs go to men

But still, the vast majority of female car designers are employed doing decorating-type jobs. They select seat fabrics, choose exterior colors, and in general, oversee the cushy interior environs of a car, rather than design what’s considered the plum job in automotive design: the exterior.

diane allen

That’s not to say interior appointments aren’t equally important. They certainly are. But the perception that the Grand Poobah of jobs in automotive design is the exterior, persists. And the vast majority of those assignments still go to men.

But why? No one we spoke to believes that automakers are willfully keeping women out of the design department. Indeed, Motor Trend’s MacKenzie thinks it’s the opposite. “If there was a woman designer who was talented, a hard worker and competitive, which the job demands, the car companies would knock each other out of the way and rush to hire her.”

Early influences may shape career paths

Steward Reed heads the transportation department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. It is one of the nation’s top schools for automotive design, and its graduates work at key automotive design studios around the world.

alexandra sandy mcgill

Earlier this month, his department held a graduation ceremony for the school’s latest batch of transportation (automotive, aerospace, marine) designers.

“We graduated a class of 15 students and of those, there was one woman,” he laments. “Believe me, it’s not because we don’t want to admit women. It’s exposure and culture and women don’t seem to think of automotive design when applying to art school. We seem to give one kind of toy to boys when they’re young and another kind of toy to girls. Could that shape the kinds of career choices they make later in life?”

Lack of women in automotive design schools

Certainly Reed, who has chaired Art Center’s Transportation department for a decade, wishes more women would apply.

“The majority of students who come to us have been smitten at some point in their lives by the look and performance of vehicles; not just cars but things with wings, things that zip down rails,” he says.

wendy lee

“Do young girls usually go nuts over trucks and cars? I don’t know but that early exposure seems to be what ultimately drives students to our school. And I’ve not heard of any barriers for entry to manufacturers’ studios; the carmakers would be delighted to have more women. The notion of, ‘oh, she’s just a woman, is long gone.’”

What inspires women to pursue an automotive design career, and what are the spoils of the job? For answers, CNN Style spoke to leading female automotive designers, featured in the gallery above.