For Monika Zych and Sandy McGill, becoming car designers for BMW started with Matchbox toy cars, racing the tiny replicas around the living room as little girls.
Helen Emsley, who redesigned the interior of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette and was recently appointed executive director of GMC design and user experience, spent her childhood afternoons in the local railroad museum, sketching design legends like the Flying Scotsman.
Kimberly Wu, who worked for Honda, jokes that, with a father and grandfather working in design and engineering, "we have gasoline in our veins."
At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., John Krsteski, a car-design instructor, says he is seeing more women interested in the field. "We've gone from one in 15 students being female to having two or three each year," he says.
But women in the car-design world are still often relegated to automotive interiors, not the sexy exteriors that can represent a brand for decades. "There are some women in design, but the plum jobs — the exterior — are still designed almost entirely by men," says Tara Weingarten, a longtime automotive journalist and founder of vroomgirls.com, a website for female drivers.
The redesigned BMW Z4, introduced in 2008 and still in production, remains an automotive rarity, a car designed by two women. Its interior was designed by Nadya Arnaout, and its sculptured exterior by Juliane Blasi. An all-female team also designed the Volvo YCC concept car, which has customized seats and storage for female drivers.
Krsteski, also a design manager at Hyundai Design North America in Irvine, Calif., sees in his classrooms the value of women's ideas in the industry.
"Women bring another level of attention to detail and the complexity of colors," he says. "A lot of the male designers focus on the big picture but not the finer detail development, while a lot of the female designers I've had enjoy working it out to the very last stitch."
Wu, a former student of Krsteski, agrees: "Women inherently have a different sensibility when it comes to aesthetics.
"I think interior car designers require a completely separate, if not more challenging, skill set than those of exterior designers," Wu says. In addition to styling a vehicle's interior, "interior designers are responsible for considering the ergonomics and human factors involved with a driver's experience. Interior car design tends to seem less formulaic as well. There is room for technological advances that may not be possible on the exterior."
Do female drivers benefit when a vehicle is also designed by women?
Women want reliability from their vehicles, but they also really want a place to store their purse or laptop while driving, designers agree. Toyota, which won Weingarten's praise for designing well for female customers, has added "a huge space" in its 2014 Highlander SUV for this purpose, she says.
"If we could start over and really see what women want in the interior, it would be far simpler and less superfluous in terms of gadgetry and controls," says Chris Chapman, chief designer for Hyundai Design North America.
Female drivers want a car that meets their needs for fuel efficiency, and in colors and styles they find appealing. "Women — not all, of course — like cute cars, like the last-generation VW Beetle especially, the current Fiat and the BMW 1 Series," Weingarten says. But creating a car designed specifically for women is a nonstarter, she adds.
Dodge came out with a car called La Femme in 1955. It had rosebud cloth fabric and special seat backs that had spots for women to store the supplied rain hat and purse.
"It's hysterical," Weingarten says. "Women didn't go for it."