Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When being a woman can drive your career

Ever wondered what it was like to be a woman and work in the automotive industry?

If so you will enjoy our interview with Vicki Vlachakis, Design manager for General Motors Advanced Concept Design from CA in the US is an inspiring read.

Vicki have you found it hard being a woman and working in the male dominated auto industry?
As a female designer working in the auto industry for the past 12 years, I am often posed the question: “How does it feel to be one of the few women in your industry?” As much as I get asked this question, it always seems so out of place in my daily life which does, in fact involve working at a design studio where I am the only women. The issue for me is that as a designer, I am constantly concerned with questions like: “How do I come up with new and innovative ideas in an impossibly short time frame?” or “Is this design relevant in today’s ecologically conscience environment?”, or “Does this design actually work over our engineering criteria?” Despite my obvious surroundings, there never seems to be any reason for me to actually ponder that question. It’s as if the “Designer” part of me always comes before the “Female” part. I have come to realise that designers share strong common desires such as our interest in improving our surrounds and the functionality of objects we interact with, in this case cars. We also search for new expressions of visual language and push the envelope of form and function in an attempt to find better ways to solve design challenges. These examples have been the most relevant part of my career as a designer, while the fact that I am one of the few females has fading into the background. All that being said, there have been some stand out experiences that could have only occurred given my unique situation. I can remember a design review I made during my time at Mercedes-Benz in Germany. I was fresh out of college and hardly spoke a word of German when I had to stand in front of about 40 German men in suits and explain my proposal in their language. It was a truly humbling experience which was not helped by the fact that my French colleagues tried to help me compose my thoughts on flash cards before the review. English translated into French translated into German probably didn’t come out as well as I hoped. On the other hand, I have been a part of some amazing and unusual situations while part of the production team on the Pontaic Solstice and Saturn Sky Interior design programs in Michigan. I was in a team that consisted of a female lead engineer and female lead sculptor while I led the design team. What was more astonishing was that my Design Director and Executive Director were also women. I learned so a great deal from these accomplished and talented women. So much for stereotypes! Statistically, however, women still are a rare occurrence in the automotive industry in general, especially on the design side. Strangely enough, after my experience in this industry, I think that automotive design is well suited for females. Apparently, 80% of all car purchasing decisions are influenced by women, so it would be a great asset for any company to have that insight during the design process. I also feel that women have a great intuitive sense of detail and quality. Of course there is a natural instinct, especially among mothers for safety and comfort. So I would encourage any woman who is inclined towards design, problem solving, and visual expression to consider automotive design as a possibility. It’s never a dull experience!

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