How design forgets about female users
Breaking news. Women and men are not equal. Their bodies are biologically not the same. This difference could be the only one, but that would be to forget about the weight of society, that transforms the sexes into genders. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir describes this phenomenon with these words: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”. In the same way that one is not born a man but becomes one.
Because gender equality is above all a question of power, women and men aren’t equal in society. As Jean Vogel stated, “power was always owned by men, in the family (domestic sphere), in the civil society (social sphere), as well as in the state (political sphere).” This unbalanced access to positions of power, in addition to a deeply rooted patriarchy, creates a vicious circle where women are not welcomed and become the Other. A minority, an exception, “with a niche identity and a subjective point of view” as Caroline Criado Perez writes in Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Man.
Simone de Beauvoir, who thus qualifies the female gender as the “second sex”, demonstrates in The Second Sex (in 1949), that men used to confuse their own point of view with the absolute truth. The most obvious demonstration of this is in the ambivalence of the word “man” which refers both to a male person and the whole humankind. In French, the subtlety is made in the use of a lowercase letter for “homme” (man) and an uppercase letter for “Homme” (humankind), but this rule is often accidentally or lazily forgotten, depriving the word of its true meaning… The French language, like many others, having been built by men (the first women joined the 400-year-old French Academy in 1980), this example reveals a systematic inequality concerning gender consideration, in a world designed by and for men.
Now let’s talk about design.
Like grammar, design can alienate the purpose of its product if it forgets part of its users. A definition of design I particularly agree with comes from the French Design Alliance’s website. It describes design as an “intellectual, creative, multidisciplinary and humanist process, aiming to bring solutions to small and big everyday challenges concerning economical, social and environmental issues”, allowing innovation and progress. And like the sustainable designer Victor Papanek, I would add that “design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself)”. Design is therefore a precious key to a gender-equal society. But how can design achieve such a mission? To answer this question, let us first examine the different inequalities in various contexts.
Let’s start with a familiar object, the smartphone. While Apple unveiled its new iPhone X models (with screens ranging from 5.8in to 6.5in), the company announced it will be discontinuing the iPhone SE which has a smaller screen (4in). Women’s average hand size is smaller than men’s and holding such a large phone like the iPhone XS Max without dropping it can be a real challenge for a female user. The writer Caroline Criado Perez also mentioned she “had developed repetitive strain injury from using a phone which was too big for her hand”. But since the trend is one of increasing size, if Apple designers don’t start considering women as much as men, the company will soon lose most of its female users.
In her book Invisible Women, Criado Perez also describes more severe examples. Although women are less involved in car accidents than men, they are 47% more likely to be seriously injured when it happens, 71% more likely to be lightly injured and 17% to die. Far from being due to a conscious choice, this stems from the fact that car crash tests are undertaken using reference models of a figure having masculine dimensions. Thus, cars are designed more for men, and women drivers are more at risk. Another powerful example is the limited choice of size concerning work clothing. “Women went through Iraq and Afghanistan — up to 2018 — in equipment designed for men” stated Alex Elias to the BBC talking about the American army’s women. Baggy can be stylish but when it comes to firing a gun, it can be handicapping…
This non-consideration of women stems from a gender data gap, which is not seriously taken into account when decisions are made. It is indeed very challenging to gather data about users in total objectivity, because even supposedly neutral data is usually based by default on male use cases and characteristics.
In a field that is more directly linked to women, female sexuality, a non-respect of the female body can still be observed: the gynecological chair and tools looking like instruments of torture, sanitary protections jeopardizing the vaginal flora… Modern medicine has its roots in the Renaissance era, when rationality began to try to dominate nature and when doctors eliminated their rivals the healers (mostly women) by accusing them of witchcraft. It is also during this period that utensils and furniture for childbirth were invented, forcing women to lie down to deliver, whereas this position is neither ideal nor natural but allows the doctor to control the process.
Today, we don’t invent pointy metallic tools to introduce into a vagina anymore, but instead, connected menstrual cups. Because technology can solve any problem. Right? It’s true, the development of domestic electrical appliances in the 60s relieved women of part of the housework. But this systematic solution only represses the real question to be asked: how to more include men in these domestic tasks?
Why these inequalities?
“What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition”
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1972
Men don’t naturally perceive the gender gap as they can’t experience it directly and daily like women do. Consequently, this gap becomes invisible, and we unconsciously live in a world designed for men, by default. The values, ideals and aesthetics of this world are also masculine, even when neutrality is the aim… Consider for instance the Modulor, a standardized human silhouette created by the French designer and architect Le Corbusier who used it as a measuring tool for his works. Although the Modulor’s dimensions respect the golden ratio, they don’t adequately represent a man’s standard size, but even less so a woman’s standard size, which is averagely 20 cm smaller than the Modulor… This quest for absolute standardization is rooted in the Industrial Revolution, when mass series production required standardization of designs, thereby neglecting the diversity of use cases and therefore, of users. In response to this alienation by industry, the Arts & Crafts movement has thereafter suggested shapes in better accordance with their function.
The Bauhaus, which current design has to thank for many precious innovations, still wasn’t without contradictions. With the motto “Form follows function”, it offered a radical minimalist functionalism aiming to simplify the use of items and to free the human being from objects. But doesn’t this rationalist dogma imposed by the Bauhaus movement risk alienating the sensitive experience that an object or an environment can provide and lead the way to a totalitarian design? Also, while the school intended to break from its era, which it certainly did in many ways, it didn’t allow the female students to fully realize their potential. Access to architecture studies was often refused to the Bauhausmädels who were more welcomed in the textile workshop. The great majority of the school’s professors being men, the Bauhaus was a significantly male-dominated environment that left numerous female designers’ creations in the shadow or attributed them to their professor or their husband. We can also mention the Frankfurter Küche, a modern kitchen that the first female Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed. This was based on her studies of a housewife’s typical movements, ergonomics and tasks in order to allow them to reappropriate this room and spend less time there. This optimized kitchen was then assigned to the Bauhaus, although its creator didn’t actually belong to this movement and she herself became known exclusively as a kitchen designer despite the variety of her work.
When design can stigmatize…
Furthermore, contrary to what one may think, this imprisonment of women within particular roles still isn’t ancient history. The illusion that today’s society is equal for the only reason that it is more equal than before, nourishes the myth of equality and genuinely hides the fact that gender stigmatization of certain sectors remains very real.
As the Swiss feminist essayist Mona Chollet demonstrates in Beauté fatale, Les nouveaux visages de l’aliénation féminine, the Fashion-Beauty complex takes great advantage of the concern for appearance that many women experience. Of course, there is nothing negative about caring for one’s image. Except, of course, when it’s under the pressure of the look tyranny. This concept refers to the fact that, being unable to influence her environment, the woman then sees her power of action limited to her own person. And through the medium of her body and the accessories highlighting it, the woman only exists “through her beauty and survives only thanks to the man’s gaze” (La bimbo est l’avenir de la femme, by Sylvie Barbier, 2006). Capitalist consumer society has cleverly adopted this need to please as a means of pressuring women to buy anti-wrinkle creams and bras for girls…
Trying to understand the origin of female coquetry in France, we discover that before the French Revolution in 1789, fancy high-heels, long wavy hair and excessive makeup were adorned by men as much as by women at the king’s court. Following the emergence of a determination for rational truth, connected to the rupture of the Old Regime, men stopped wearing brilliant and refined forms. This phenomenon is referred to as the Great Male Renunciation by the British psychoanalyst John Flügel who also states the significant example of Benjamin Franklin giving up the wig during the American Revolution in 1783. The leaders of these changes being men, this new rationality was assigned to men. The suit, a simple and convenient outfit became part of the male tradition. Women, on the other hand, staying equated to sensitivity and sensuality because of their minor social role, could therefore keep their extravagant clothing.
As we just saw, sensible or rational qualities aren’t fatally anchored in female or male genes. To desexualize use cases and aesthetics, these two approaches should be evenly valued. In this way, men and women could be equally considered. But it isn’t as simple… Many men are victims of an Essentialist Panic, a fear of being associated with certain aspects of women’s identity. This contributes to the development of masculinism, which further promotes gender differentiation.
So… How can design be egalitarian?
The solutions I suggest are of course not the only ones, and as design calls for everyone’s creativity, I invite all readers to challenge their suppositions.
Because it isn’t very natural to notice inequalities that we don’t experience directly and to give objective solutions to them, my first thought is to enable equal recognition of female and male designers. And I am not talking about those exhibitions exclusively in honor of women, like Women Traces currently exhibited at the Möbel Design Museum in Stockholm, where barely 20% of the museum’s collection are objects made by female designers, whereas Sweden has “more female trained furniture designers than men ones”. Separating creations according to the gender of their creator can give women’s work more visibility, but emphasizes at the same time the binarity within the profession. This visibility issue should in fact be considered at its very source. For example, by evenly giving credit for a work, in contrast to various recent prizes that awarded only to the man of design duos.
Even the most feminist person can be biased by patriarchy’s influence. And even if objectivity is aimed for, one can hardly ignore its subjectivity. Everyone has a different position in this world and each person’s point of view is relative to their position. To do egalitarian design, we should start by acknowledging this influence and by recognising our bias, which can be related to our gender, culture, personal experience… This deconstructivist self-analysis is essential. Design can help in the questioning of users experiences: for example, stickers have been placed on Seoul’s metro’s ground, indicating to potential manspreaders where to put their feet to give enough space to their neighbors.
Once aware of our own subjectivity, we know that we don’t know anything about the other and its vision of the world. The designer will have to be very empathetic in order to project himself or herself into the other and understand the user’s needs. And as these things can’t be guessed, the designer will need to ask, listen, investigate and analyze, while considering the user’s context… This is what Yona Care’s designers from Frog Design did when they worked on improving the pelvic exam experience and redesigned the speculum, a gynecological tool that hasn’t been improved in 200 years despite the discomfort it causes. We can also mention the Indian app SafeCity that offers to report sexual harassment on a map. It informs the community of any potentially dangerous areas to avoid and gives more visibility and precision to rape and street harassment issues, taboo subjects that seriously lack precise data. Both examples take care to address the woman’s needs and to respect her person and her practices through the product’s function and form.
Big Up to non-binary and inclusive design
The concepts of these last examples directly aim to improve women’s daily life. But, changing things doesn’t only need raising awareness and availability of the material necessary to this change. It is also crucial to make social norms change so that the border between genders softens. Someone’s identity shouldn’t be defined by her or his gender, but by this person’s singularity and personality… With non-binary design or gender fluid design, we would find satisfaction without being constrained by content exclusively addressed to our gender. This is the aim of fashion brands like One DNA that creates stylish unisex items, or like COS that mingles male and female androgynous clothes in the brand’s shops… Perfumery also bets on gender fluid design, with Calvin Klein’s CK All perfume, suitable for any gender, or with the Gentle Fluid perfumes duo by the Parisian Francis Kurkdjian who offers two non-gendered identities using the same ingredients to call on individual sensitivity rather than social expectations.
While non-binary design eradicates women’s stigmatization in certain use cases and aesthetics, inclusive design, which aims to include users that are as diverse as possible, is a valuable solution to the non-consideration of women. On each step of the creative process, the designer should wonder: is my design as equally inclusive for women as for men? Through her project DE_SIGN, the queer and non-binary designer Gabriel Maher offers a flexible usage and neutral aesthetic to enable the body to explore the design through a space, an outfit and a chair. Modularity, customization, or DIY are indeed relevant clues to make design more inclusive.
So, no more cliché personae!
Obviously, designers have an important responsibility as they have the keys to create social change and gender equality. But to accomplish this mission, they must first accept their ignorance, take nothing for granted and identify their bias. With a lot of research and empathy, they will be able to design inclusive and respectful products, as much for male users as for female users.
Now, let’s do this!