When Janet Lieberman, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, had trouble operating a sex toy that claimed to be the best on the market, she had an epiphany.
“For a boyfriend’s birthday, I bought an expensive sex toy that was well over 100 dollars, and neither he nor I could figure out the controls,” Janet says. “We felt really stupid. We were both engineers, and design and make products for a living. We thought, ‘How can people who [aren’t in design] figure this out? You think to yourself, ‘I could do this better.'”
Lieberman eventually met Alexandra Fine, another entrepreneur who was interested in sex tech, and the two banded together to launch Dame Products, an adult toy company that aims to empower female sexuality. Their first design—Eva, a hands-free clitoral stimulator for couples—earned nearly $850,000 on its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, far exceeding its $50,000 goal. Their next product—Fin, a finger-held vibrator—earned nearly $400,000 on a $50,000 Kickstarter (it was the platform’s first sex toy campaign) and began shipping a couple months ago.
Their secret to building a successful business? That design and engineering are led by women.
The realm of product design and engineering has long been a boys’ club. Dame Products is showing how having female leadership in both of those areas can yield more innovative products. While the sex tech industry has begun to embrace design-centric products, few of these companies are women-owned and operated, and fewer still are run by female engineers.
“If you are trying to design something, it’s always better to start from the perspective of being a user,” Lieberman says. “If it’s about female pleasure, you can’t synthesize that experience. You can’t take a vulva on a test run.”
Eva was a complicated product–and the first of its kind. Lieberman and Fine wanted to create something that would help women achieve orgasms in a way that wouldn’t be obtrusive to intercourse. The vibrator, which looks like a beetle, is designed to sit on top of a woman’s clitoris, and holds itself in place with two flexible wings that use tension to hold steady when tucked between a woman’s labia.
Lieberman–who was one of the first five employees at the product company Quirky and was a lead engineer at Makerbot–initially concepted Eva by hand, using art supplies and broken vibrators, before moving on to 3D-printed prototypes. Like just about every design process, it required extensive user testing.
“You can’t do that unless you have engineers involved to make sure your testing is standardized and you’re following through to make sure production matches what you’re testing,” Lieberman says. “In the end, it’s the engineer presence more than the female engineer presence that makes the difference.”
To Lieberman, what made the product strong is that the woman’s perspective as the primary user was part of both the design and testing, and that an engineer was involved throughout the product’s development. Dame Products is gender-agnostic when it comes to hiring; it picks the best designers and engineers for the job and has men on staff–which is important, after all, since its products are also meant for couples.
“Although it’s hugely beneficial to have have the driving force behind your design be people who really understand the use, you need to be careful that you don’t build a monolithic team,” Lieberman says. “Diverse teams make better products; they bring more perspectives to the table. Our engineering team is mostly, but not entirely, women. You’re still looking to find the right person for the job, and you shouldn’t be picking target demographics over skills or team fit. Assuming that all women understand what needs to go into designing a good vibrator better than all men is just as sexist as any other gross gender-based generalization, but that doesn’t negate the importance of having women’s perspectives firmly represented.”
After the prototype was perfected, the designing and engineering didn’t stop. Dame Products traveled to its factories to make sure that the production process yielded just the right spring force on the wings–an impossible aspect to perfect without an in-house engineer working on the assembly line.
“At some companies, design ends with design,” Fine says. “They just create the shell and tell their manufacturers to fill in the engineering.”
Fin, the company’s newest product, is inspired by jewelry. The bulb-shaped vibrator is designed to rest between a person’s index and middle finger and features a detachable tether that’s worn like a ring. The vibration feels different on each end of the product.
Lieberman and Fine worked with a freelance industrial designer, who is male, on Fin. (Like Eva, Fin is also meant to be used by couples.) While they believe it’s important to have women working on a women-focused product, they also believe strength comes from having different perspectives and mind-sets work on the same design problem. In addition to Lieberman and Fine, Dame Products is composed of four other women and three men.
“Everyone had biases, and it’s hard to get past what’s there,” Lieberman says. “If you start from the position that you do not have biases, you are wrong. You live in culture. Everyone has biases, and you do not always know where they are coming from. You have to have a heterogeneous pool to understand what you’re missing.”
The challenge with engineering today is that women only make up 13% of the engineering workforce. While women account for 20% of all engineering graduates, the industry struggles with retention, and an estimated 40% of graduates leave the profession. It’s safe to say that most companies aren’t benefiting from the range of perspectives that Dame Products does.
“The leaky pipeline is real,” Lieberman says. “It’s hard for women to get into these technical fields, and it’s a pretty hostile work environment when you’re there. One of the biggest problems is that people are so afraid [of talking about gender inequality]. And it’s so high stakes that you can’t have the discussion.”
At her first job, Lieberman was the only female engineer in a 30-person department. Most of her colleagues were 10 to 15 years older than she was, and she felt like they were so nervous about any of their actions coming across as hostile that they didn’t interact with her at all. “It was six months before a coworker invited me to do something outside of work,” she says. “I wasn’t working with peers. I was constantly super isolated. If they weren’t comfortable with me, I wasn’t comfortable with them.”
Later in her career, when she was among the most experienced engineers on a team, Lieberman experienced situations where her colleagues were more comfortable with the presence of female engineers on their team; however, she noticed that she often had to work harder to defend an opinion whereas male colleagues could say things off-the-cuff.
“There was all of this coded language, like, ‘Is that a design decision you’re more rational or more emotional about?” Lieberman says. “I had to do so much more testing than other coworkers, but when I brought up the topic [of sexism with colleagues] they said, ‘There’s no way this is because of gender, there’s no way I am sexist.’ A lot of the problem comes because if they admit they have a problem, they’re afraid of getting fired. It’s an environment where you can’t make anything better.”
To Lieberman, getting more women engineers involved, and tapping their talent to help produce better products, involves diversifying the composition of teams and departments. She recalls a situation where a colleague was looking for a better smelling alternative for acetone, a solvent commonly found in nail polish remover. She suggested looking at non-acetone polish removers, and her colleague remarked that he had no idea that acetone was such a common substance in women’s medicine cabinets.
“Coming from a different perspective meant that I had different tools in my belt,” Lieberman says. “It’s not about saying, ‘I’m going to hire you because I haven’t checked that box.’ You’ll develop better products if you have more people going into it—as long as someone who is the central user is in the group, too.”