LOS ANGELES – One of the last bastions of male domination in the auto industry – exterior design – will see an influx of women in the coming years, says Chris Bangle, BMW AG's design chief.

That is because women are shedding the puritanical constraints that, for generations, prevented them from creatively exploring the steamy dynamics of cars and sex, he says.

“You're dealing with a product (in which) your whole relationship to this car's exterior is discovering the form within – you heard that from Michelangelo,” Bangle says, referring to the great sculptor's quest to reveal the art buried in a block of marble.

“That's basically what a young guy's trying to do with a girl in the back seat of a Chevy on a Saturday night,” he says. “Your whole relationship with this thing is the discovery of an interesting type of sexual tension.

“If you want to get into cars, there is sex influence,” Bangle tells Ward's during a break in the design forum component of the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

“There is sensuality in shapes, which you have to be comfortable dealing with. And you have to be comfortable in an environment where you're expressing it and having 10 guys standing there saying, 'No. You're full of it.'”

Jacqueline Reeve hopes to join the new generation of women designers. A third-year student at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, she is among throngs of her contemporaries, a crowd still dominated by men, attending the auto show's design forum here.

Coincidentally, Reeve recently completed a Smart-based concept car project with a very sexy theme, she says: “Victoria's Secret.”

“It had a lot of feminine curves,” she says.

Reeve believes women are more than capable of churning out exterior designs that capture the appeal of overt sexuality. But she concurs with Bangle that some women may not have developed the ability to express this.

She has seen designs by fellow women students that are “too feminine” and “too delicate,” she says.

“They don't have enough stance in the cars,” she says. “There are guys who do that, too. But I can see how some (womens' designs) may be a little bit flaccid or a little bit weak in that sense.”

Under Bangle's tenure as general of BMW's design ranks, the population of women has grown from less than 10% to more than a third. And that number includes exterior designers, he says.

Bangle attributes the improving ratio to the ongoing societal shift in traditional male-female roles. It is producing new generations of women designers whose perspectives are “different” than previous generations, he says.

“I'm not saying they have different ideas, but their ability to express them somehow is different,” Bangle adds. “And that allows them to come into a world where expression of creative ideas, in a competitive environment, requires this type of facility.”

Industry-wide, women more likely than not still find themselves designing interiors or assigned to color and trim. But it does not have to be that way, Bangle claims.

“The door has always been open,” he says. “It's whether or not they walk through it.”

Yet, a woman designer, who requested anonymity, challenges Bangle's assertion. She maintains there exists a well-entrenched “good ole boys club.”

She recounts a story of rejection told to her by a woman colleague. The woman was interviewed by a prominent male figure in the industry, who suggested she was better suited to do interiors, or color and trim.

“He said, 'Some people are fighter pilots. Some people are commercial pilots. You're a commercial pilot.'”

emayne@primediabusiness.com