Just in time for Valentine's Day, our ergonomist looks at gender differences on the assembly line. What's been your experience? How have you adapted a process to accommodate such differences? Share your thoughts!

Why can't a woman be more like a man?

In ergonomics, we design things to fit the workers. This means designing for the workers as they are, not as we would like them to be. In other words, we’re not “politically correct.” We design for real people, whether they are big or small, fast or slow, tall or short, old or young.

Along that line of thinking, we need to be candid about gender differences. By this, I mean the work-related differences between men and women.

So here are some “rules of thumb” about differences between men and women as they relate to the workplace. These are rough guidelines for back-of-the-envelope calculations. (For more precise calculations, use anthropometry data. Or ask an ergonomist.) As such, they are generalities and yes, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But generally speaking…

Strength: Men are generally stronger than women. How much stronger? About 1/3 stronger. Or to put it another way, a woman (on average) has approximately 2/3 of the strength of a man. This means it takes three women to do what two men can do, if physical strength is the critical factor.

Size: Men tend to be bigger than women. In the United States, the average man is 6 inches taller than the average woman. This means that a workstation that has been built for men may need to be changed when women start working there. Not only does the height of the work table need to be lowered, but tools should be moved closer because a woman’s reach is about 5 percent to 10 percent shorter than a man’s. In designing seat widths (as in airplanes) where a comfortable fit is important (notably not in airplanes), shoulder width is the critical dimension for men; but for women, hip width is the critical dimension.

Speech: The average frequency of a man’s voice is 128 hertz. The average frequency of a woman’s voice is 256 hertz. Women also talk faster than men. On average, females can talk at a rate of 250 words per minute, versus 125 words per minute for typical males.

Sense and Sensitivity: Women are more sensitive to the color red, and they have better visual memory. Men see better in bright light; women see better in the dark. Women have wider peripheral vision because they have more rods and cones in their retinas; they literally see the bigger picture because they receive a wider arc of visual input. Men’s visual fields are narrower, but with greater depth and a better sense of perspective. Color blindness is more common in men (8 percent of men) than women (0.5 percent of women).

Women have greater sensitivity to sounds and smells. Age-related hearing loss for men begins around age 32; for women, it begins around age 37. Men have superior visual-spatial skills and are better at reading maps and blueprints. Women have superior verbal skills and can learn foreign languages more easily. Women are more susceptible to pain and swelling of the hands when using electric or vibrating hand tools for long periods of time.

Although this list may ruffle some feathers amongst those aiming for political correctness or trying to avoid stereotypes, here’s hoping that it helps you to design better workplaces, ones that fit both men and women. Or as the French would say, “Vive la différence!”

Delia Treaster, Ph.D., is a certified professional ergonomist and writes on various ergonomic issues, drawing on decades of experience in occupational ergonomics. She has been an ergonomic contractor with Humantech, one of the largest workplace ergonomics consulting firms in the United States. Prior to working for Humantech, Delia was an ergonomic consultant for the U.S. Postal Service, a senior ergonomic specialist with Travelers Insurance, and a research scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute. She has a master’s degree in human factors engineering and a Ph.D. in biomechanics from Ohio State University.

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Editor’s note: “Ergo Corner” is part of a series of guest spots by industry experts that will appear regularly on ASSEMBLY’s blog page. Check back frequently to read more commentaries from Delia, as well as contributions on product testing, automated assembly systems, machine vision and robotics.