It's a Man's World

Today I’ll be focusing on the topic of gender bias in design, something you probably haven’t given much thought about before but something which is actually extremely pervasive yet invisible in society, and has a profound impact on women’s lives.

This article is based on a recent read of mine: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez, which tackles the neglected topic of what we don’t know and why we lack this knowledge. It is literally a book full of stories, facts and statistics on our world designed by men, for men.

Having been voted #1 best seller in the ‘Ethical Issues’ section on Amazon, as well as #1 in feminist criticism, and gay and lesbian critical theory, it is safe to say this piece of research has been pretty ground-breaking, and will hopefully call for a change in research and policy decision making in future designs and for, basically, the average white male designer to pull the wool from over their eyes and recognise that we all come in different shapes and sizes!

The book focuses in on the fact that through our societal designs, we are systematically ignoring half of the population and this spans a wide range of topics: government policy, medical research, technology, workplaces, urban planning, and the media to name a few. Women being neglected by design is both ethically wrong and can be dangerous…

The average male is the figure our world is designed to accommodate for. The unfortunate thing for us girls is that this default male is also treated as a stand-in for “human”. For most of history this has also been the case; going back to the theory of Man the Hunter, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall, by default.

What I am utterly perplexed about is how we can disregard the other half of humanity in design. 51% of the UK’s population is female – how can we ignore 51% of the population in policy and design and get away with it!?

The fact that our world is designed for the average male creates frustrating impacts for women, making the most mundane things annoying for us (longer queues for the loo, phones that are designed for the average male hand, smaller pockets and so on) but also leaves women with potentially lethal consequences (protective uniform that fails to protect the female body, and misdiagnosis of heart attacks – see Perez’s book!) 



Let’s talk about pockets…

Pocket designs are just one of the many things we find irritating. Entire articles, even essays have been written dedicated to the weird, complex and what some call sexist history of pockets. Why are pockets on women’s clothing often so small that we can’t fit our iPhones in them? Why are they often non-existent on female clothing?

According to London’s Victoria and Albert museum, pockets in menswear when they first began appearing in the late 1600s were sewn directly into garments, whereas women had to wrap a sack with string around their waists to be tucked away under their petticoats… cheers patriarchy.

When big petticoats started to fizzle out of fashion, they were replaced with slimmer and more fitting dresses in the 19th century. This is when the purse evolved.

‘Reticules’ – mini bags women carried in their hands rather than on their hips - became a status symbol. The bags were not nearly large enough to hold any money and women tended to leave the money handling to men regardless. Frustrations and limitations of women’s lack of access to money and property ownership shone through the lack of pockets they had…

In Invisible Women Perez goes on to discuss her issue with the too-small design of pockets on women’s clothing, drawing our attention to an inconvenience we largely overlook.



Another inconvenient reality women face which Perez also highlights is toilet queues. As a girl I am certainly not unfamiliar with the daunting sight of a long train of ladies waiting outside the toilets. In the intervals of plays it is almost like a fight to the death to get to the cubicles first to avoid the staggering wait.

Perez delves into the problem and explains that the long waits are to do with the gender bias in toilet design! It seems fair to expect there to be 50/50 floor space for women’s and men’s loos - well actually it isn’t. It takes females 2.3x longer to go to the toilet – simply because we can’t use handy urinals, and for many more minute reasons e.g. clothing.



Now looking to more serious design fault. Women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash and 17% more likely to die in one. The reasons for this are down to how vehicles have been designed and tested.

Crash test dummies are based on the ‘average male’. It was actually not until 2011 in the USA they began using female crash test dummies. Cars are designed for women to be out of position drivers, and so seats are not designed for women’s height, weight and muscle distributions.

It is not only in vehicle design that women’s lives are at risk. Uniforms and protective clothing has been proven to be ineffective for women as they are designed around the male figure.

“It wasn’t until 2011, 35 years after women were first admitted to US military academies, that the first uniforms were designed that accounted for women’s hips and breasts” Perez explains. In fact, we can hear about this in the news – a British female police officer was stabbed to death because of her ill-fitting body armour.


So what does this mean for you as a student?

Whether you’re learning to, or already driving, these design faults could have an impact on you. You may begin noticing your frustration with the queues for the toilets on campus or at the club. You may also, if you give her book a read, find yourself noticing the chill of the air conditioning on campus, which is – by the way – set for the metabolic rate of an average male. Perez discusses an interesting and compelling section which is dedicated to findings on the gender bias of data within universities. So go check it out…


If you want to give this amazing book a read, you can find it here!

You might also like this podcast: Do We Live In A World Designed For Men? (feat. Caroline Criado-Perez)’by ‘The Bustle Huddle’ – a great podcast series which spotlights topics millennial women ‘can’t stop talking about’