Invisible Women

Snow plowing patterns seem an unlikely subject of a gender study conducted in a small town in Sweden. After all, the town’s approach appeared logical and neutral enough on the surface: plow major roads first, particularly those leading into and out of town, followed by smaller local streets. It is the same sequence played out in many cities around the world.

As researchers dove into the subject, however, they discovered that male and female driving patterns were markedly different. While men mainly commuted to and from work, women drove all over to run errands and to take care of elderly family members. They also walked more, trudging across often-unplowed intersections, sometimes with kids in tow. Aside from health and safety, that labor, when tallied up, was found to be worth almost as much to the economy as paid work. “This work contributes hugely to GDP,” explains Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, a book about how women are often left out of design.

In Sweden, the city council looked at the findings and reversed their approach, plowing side roads and sidewalks first. It had a huge impact, reducing the people admitted to emergency centers, women in particular, and had a corresponding economic impact from lower healthcare costs. Driving through a few inches, as it turned out, was less dangerous than walking through the snow, particularly if one was pushing something like a baby carriage as well.

Snow removal at Gutevägen in Visby, Sweden image by per egevad (CC BY 2.0)

Of course, the original plowing plan wasn’t designed to harm women or to help men. It was seen as a neutral and obvious choice — a default strategy. Only by collecting and analyzing data did it become clear that men were the ones being designed around, which isn’t an isolated problem. Males are often the default subjects of design, which can have a huge impact on big and critical aspects of everyday life.

The vast majority of medical research, for instance, is based on studies of men. Perez explains that heart attacks are more often misdiagnosed in women, in part because of the symptoms we’re all educated about. For men, chest pain is a common, prominent symptom. For women, heart attacks often present as fatigue or what feels like indigestion, with chest pain appearing in just around one out of eight cases. As a result, fewer women overall seek medical help during heart attacks and even when they do they are often diagnosed poorly by professionals.

Car crash test dummies are also generally male, based on an average man, which of course means they feature different sizes and proportions than a typical female. The tacit assumption is that the 50th-percentile cis male is the average person, skipping over around half of the population entirely. This approach ignores anatomical differences, plus specific individual circumstances like a person being pregnant. These tests impact design, and are part of the reason women are far more likely to be injured or die in a car crash. Even in places where “female” dummies are brought in to test cars, these figures are often just scaled-down male dummies with the same basic shape. Sometimes, too, these dummies are only tested in passenger seats.

Three-stone cooking stove, image by Thamizhpparithi Maari (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even when women are the focus of design, their actual needs are still sometimes ignored. Consider the three-stone stove, a traditional cooking mechanism used by 80% of people in the developing world. It is a simple device consisting of three stones with a fire underneath and a pot above. This stove not terribly efficient and is often placed in poorly ventilated rooms, exposing women in particular to the equivalent of multiple packs of cigarettes per day worth of harmful smoke. Alternatives have been developed by well-meaning groups, but adoption has been slow, in part because many designers have simply failed to consult the actual women for whom they are designing.

Some solutions increased cooking time or required more direct attention, which reduces the ability of women to multitask and manage other things. Other designs required more maintenance or chopping up smaller pieces of wood, which, Perez points out, are typically jobs men do, or in this case: don’t do, presumably because they don’t see the need to do extra work when there’s already a “working” stove in the house. Of course, when these designs aren’t adopted, the women are sometimes blamed for their failure to adapt to the design.

A few years ago, researchers in India developed a device that reduces wood use and smoke. It’s cheap, made of recycled metal material, and it’s been adopted in India and elsewhere. The design was created after its makers consulted women who were actually supposed to use the device. Instead of imposing a solution or expecting women to change their approach, the designers adapted to the actual needs of women. In some sense, the solution in this case was quite simple: gather data, consult women and include them in the design process. What remains is for other designers around the world to do the same more consistently, and, more fundamentally, to stop seeing just half of the human population as the default targets for good design.

99% Invisible’s Impact Design coverage is supported by Autodesk. Autodesk supports the design and creation of innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. Autodesk Foundation is a proud partner of 60 Decibels. 60 Decibels makes it easy to listen to the people who matter most. Their Lean Data approach turns customer voice into high-value insights that help businesses grow and maximize their impact. They leverage the power of technology to communicate directly with marginalized communities which allows them to collect high-quality impact data efficiently and at a fraction of the time of traditional approaches. By putting the voice of the customer at the center of impact measurement, they help impact-oriented businesses better serve their customers. That means businesses providing everything from off-grid energy solutions to family health services can better understand their customers, and adapt to their needs – delivering greater impact. To learn more, you can visit 60decibels.com or go to Autodesk.redshift.com to explore more designing with empathy.

Comments (24)

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  1. Cal

    I’m a 6’3″ (190cm) male and due to being a cyclist, weigh only 143lb (65kg). I’m pretty much right at the limit of how little a MAN could weigh at my height. I can count on my fingers the number of women I have seen in my life who were taller and of those, zero were also thinner. I go shopping with my wife and whilst she’s trying on clothes, I stand around noticing that most shop mannequins for women’s clothes ARE taller AND thinner than I am. I would say they are normally 6’4″ and if they were a person, about 55-60kg. That is, they would be dead. I point this out to my wife and a few other women standing around in the shop – they all think I’m being ridiculous because models are meant to be tall and thin. I think they have been brainwashed.

  2. Great interview and great work by Caroline Criado Perez!

    I understand the anger that Perez expresses about the failure in various systems to take account of women’s issues in the design process.

    This is directed, in the interview at least (I have not yet read the book, I confess, but will now), at researchers.

    As someone who teaches in a program that includes the field of user research, I often hear from industry practitioners that one of the main obstacles they face in trying to advocate for this kind of formative research is convincing management of its value.

    Shouldn’t the funders of the research that goes into (or doesn’t) the design process bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for these failings, rather than the researchers themselves?

    In other words, it might not always be the researchers’ fault, but the companies behind the research that aren’t willing to spend the time and money to gather and utilize the sex-disaggregated data that Perez rightly says is the root cause of the design flaws?

  3. Skeptic

    Unfortunately it’s really not possible to draw any meaningful conclusions based on the summary of the book as presented. Research into these topics is typically very poor and untrustworthy — Therefore in order to support the conclusions as presented we need more data than is actually presented in this article. We see, for example, a significant elision of actual data in favor of qualitative and value-laden judgments.

    If the default plowing strategy was A, and then further analysis revealed B was better, on what metrics was B shown to be better than A? Why were these metrics selected? On what metrics was B worse than A? Can we actually provide meaningful analysis of the overall impact of the differing metrics at a broader level to evaluate the impact of each? And what is the evidence given which supports the conclusion that there is an implicit bias towards men in strategy A versus strategy B, rather than an effort-bias, time-bias, etc? What biases are exposed by, first, the value-laden preference for strategy B?

    Furthermore, what biases are exposed by our implicit acceptance of the hypothesis presented in this article/book?

    1. Julie Knox

      Fantastic interview.
      In the brand new maternity assessment ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, I was disappointed to find that the chairs in the waiting area (where pregnant women may wait for 2 hours to be seen) seem to have been chosen based on design aesthetic rather than comfort for pregnant women. They are made of hard wood and the seat slopes upwards from your bottom towards your knees, so even the average sized woman may struggle to reach the floor with her feet, leaving her feet dangling over the hard edge. And the angle of the seat makes it so that shuffling your bottom forward in order to reach the floor with your feet is very uncomfortable and leaves you with no lumbar support.
      So even when the intended demographic is pregnant women, the design is aimed at a tall non-pregnant person (i.e. a man).

    2. Julie Knox

      Dear Sceptic
      I suggest you examine your own bias, since you have managed to overlook that the data you call for are clearly presented in the episode – one metric that showed that plowing strategy B was better than plowing strategy B was the fact that the reduced AE attendance resulting from strategy B saved more money than a the whole year´s plowing budget. This is not taking into account the reduced human suffering from injuries and subsequent effect on the work that the injured woman was doing before being injured.

  4. Nicolas Trolet

    Does that happen with all data or just the ones regarding sex gender? It seems to be the non-use of data that makes bad design not just the sex-disaggregated data.

  5. awasky

    Fantastic episode. For my “favorite” design flaw caused by invisible women, how about the way that our entire economy is structured around an idea of working (when and what hours, what you need to do to advance, what you give up for flexibility) that assumes that the default employee will not become pregnant, give birth, or be a primary caregiver for children?

    Runner up is that every public building has bathrooms for men and women of the same size even though it’s demonstrable that women take longer to use it. There could be equal line length for both genders if the bathroom allocation took that into account. It is such a natural thought that of course women have to wait in line and men don’t, I’ve watched men be appalled that the bathroom at a show is unisex and they do have to wait in the line.

  6. Although the concept of “listening to the user” is wonderful, and there are some interesting points made, I find it difficult to imagine (a) designing pianos for both men and women, (b) designing separate cars/seatbelts/car seats, (c) etc. Frankly, if we’re going to design men’s and women’s piano keys, why not kids’ keys (on normal-sized pianos, not kids’ pianos.). Are we supposed to design separate machines and devices for men and women? Or perhaps find an “average” solution that doesn’t accommodate most people?

    The snow plowing issue is also problematic. There may be economic GDP reasons for plowing side streets first, but I sure wouldn’t want to be wrestling with traffic on my way to my center city office (whether I’m a man or woman) so that mothers/fathers/caregivers can push their baby carriages around (as is implied in the narrative). The fact is, getting to work is not an optional time of day project for most people, whereas running errands on side streets is. (The real solution may be to work from home and eliminate center city…but until then, the vast majority of workers are on a strict timetable)

    Now, the 3-stone-stove issue is a different kind of problem and the logic is very difficult to follow. If 80% of people in the developing world are using this so-called primitive method, it doesn’t sound like it calls for a “designer”–it calls for the users…people…to simply rise up and protest. And if this is such an ancient method, does it really take several thousand years for the householders and “designers” to realize that people are getting sick and dying? At some point (several millennia) “being ignored” starts to be on the user. Meanwhile, I’m having trouble imagining people living in such dire ancient conditions and calling in “designers” for their new huts who proceed to ignore them.

    As it happens, though, I think a lot could be done about the restroom situation. Having watched countless scenes of women patiently waiting for access to their facility while men waltz in and out seems patently unfair…and pretty easily fixed. It’s not like creating separate piano keys or seatbelts or reversing plowing routes.

  7. Ross

    Another win for purposely getting sex-disaggregated data in as many areas as possible is that there are a few places where women are the default and men end up getting ignored, in the exact same way. The one example I can think of right now is depression diagnosis. Men’s symptoms of depression are usually not the “depressed mood, lack of motivation, loss of pleasure in activities and hobbies, etc.” that we usually think of. Men’s symptoms generally include anger, irritability, and substance abuse.

    Doing this will be good for everybody.

  8. Pedro

    I work designing houses, so I tend to notice the built environment. The thing that I don’t understand is why the women’s restroom at public buildings where events are held aren’t designed for the volume. Has the line at the women’s restroom been studied? Let’s sort that one out.

  9. Fred Leonard

    This interview was disappointing – especially the portion dealing with snow removal. While the guest presents herself as a feminist activist and presents snow removal as a gender issue, the presents this on the basis of the assumption that men commute (using major thoroughfares) to work and women are housewives who stay at home and run errands (using local streets).
    The interview also ignores the basic issues around snow emergencies in the US (which you Bay Area folks don’t deal with). When major snowfalls are forecast, people stock up on staples (and TV news crews go out and take pictures of this). Further, many local business are closed after snow falls. Add to this, schools close and kids stay home. So clearing local street for errands is not an issue. Furthermore, major highways and freeways are generally cleared and maintained by state departments of transportation. Local streets are cleared by cities, townships or county road departments. It’s not because sexist male bureaucrats ignore women but because different agencies have different resources and priorities.
    Most disappointing of all in this interview, Roman made no attempt to probe the guest’s assumptions, facts and conclusions, to challenge her conclusions or to ask her to confront contrasting views. Roman did little more than say “amen” and “I feel your pain,” which is far too typical when public radio covers grievances of so called “minorities.”

  10. Dorthea

    The “Unisex” T-shirt is my #1 love-to-hate design. Let’s just call it what it is: a men’s t-shirt. Many events give away t-shirts as an incentive for entering or participating. Because the t-shirts are 80% of the time “Unisex” the women go home with a boxy t-shirt that sits in a drawer because it’s tight around the hips, baggy at the waist, and has big floppy sleeves.

  11. Jill

    Motorcycle gear is seriously lacking in the industry. It’s mostly designed for women riding on the back of bikes. Gear that is designed for women is either pink or lace. Many say just get men’s small or extra small, but that doesn’t take into account the differing proportions of the female body not to mention breasts. Manufacturers often site that there isnt enough women riders to justify the cost of making womens gear. Yet they have vertically ignored women as riders fir over a century, women have been explicitly excluded from clubs or activities as riders. And when the motorcycle is designed there are few concessions made with respect to womens shorter body height and smaller fingers. I would think if they want to save their sport they should open their minds to including women as riders and increase ridership amongst 51% of the population.

  12. Curtiss Seale

    Unintended Gender Bias front and center: Ironic that the audio of this podcast was such that Roman, with his soft NPR voice, was completely mismatched with Ms. Perez higher treble voice.

  13. Ymi Yugy

    Great interview but I think there is something problematic with two of the examples, snow ploughing and the stove.
    Both issues overwhelmingly affect women not because they are women but because of gender roles.
    Making these issues issues of gender bears the risk of reinforcing gender roles.

  14. SW

    This comments section is like a microcosm as to why nothing changes. No amount of data will convince some. Some will never believe something even if every woman in their life says it. Some will give endless commentary about how it isn’t really sexism. Some see everything as all or nothing. Every comment section on a topic about women proves the need for feminism and this one is the same. Yeah, the grammar and spelling is better than average. But the reasoning remains tired. You don’t want to change and you don’t want to be wrong. While the rest of us die because of your blindness. The devil has advocates enough that he doesn’t need you.

  15. Shana Ryken

    The episode points to several examples where the male-designed default makes life just a little more dangerous and difficult for women. The more you look the more you can see these design flaws. The standard size of steps (generally) is for a man’s length of leg and gait, seating and audience space at venues and theatres is always infuriating to me as well, tall men block women all the time. I don’t think the answer is to just start creating separate men’s and women’s things but to create based on the acceptance and knowledge on various types of bodies and sizes (universal design)… seats that adjust up and down, etc. this helps everyone, not just women.

  16. Carol Ramsey

    My favorite example of this is the forward-facing headrests in cars. I got a Honda Pilot and it wasn’t a big problem at first, but about a month later, I was in the chiropractor’s office. I was leaning forward just a bit when I drove, and my upper back was a mess. I read that the new headrests were a safety improvement, to reduce the impact of whiplash. When the researcher pointed out that test crash dummies are based on men’s bodies, it made sense. They have more upper body muscle and mass. If the angle of the headrest is ideal for them, then women are leaning forward. AHHHHH. Really, seriously, the test dummies STILL represent a typical male? Even the female versions?

    I agree with other commenters though. The snow plow example didn’t make sense.

  17. Jane

    This explains why every seatbelt rubs against the left side of my neck. I have to keep forcing it down because it never sits across my chest correctly. As for previous comments about how they cannot design separate seat belts for men and women, it wouldn’t need to be a separate seatbelt. The adjustment for the shoulder harness needs to have a wider range.

  18. As a cis female owner of Nox Shop, a highly curated sex toy boutique, I can tell you that this is one of the driving forces behind how we select the products for our shop. There has been extremely limited data collection done on women’s sexual fulfillment (compared to, for example the research and development of erectile disfunction medication) which has resulted in warehouses full of near-useless sex toys. Most anyone with a clitoris can tell you that most of their orgasms are triggered by external stimulation and yet toy after toys after toy is developed for internal use only. We’re so lucky to have found smaller, up and coming female-owned toy companies, like Dame Products, who are putting gender data at the forefront of how their toys are designed. It may seem frivolous, compared to some of the examples offered in the interview, but when ED meds are covered by a number of insurance providers, it’s almost as though we see accurate, safe, and researched sexual satisfaction as a right…for cis men.

  19. jball

    Great and thought-provoking interview providing several ‘yes!’ and ‘so, that’s why!’ moments. Hoping this will impact the field of nutrition and serving sizes which are obvi man-sized; cut down on food waste and give accurate data per serving. Also, can anyone come up with a solution to enormous dogfood bags? Women are the primary pet food purchasers yet the enormity of giant dogfood bags cannot be hoisted by most women.

  20. Kiwi

    The “Unisex” Shirt is the WORST. Whenever you want to get a promotional t-shirt or one included in giveaways, you’re given a men’s shirt with a “unisex” tag on it. It’s miserable, it doesn’t fit around my breasts, is too wide for my shoulders and rides up on my hips. The unisex tag is used as an easy excuse to look inclusive without having to actually make a women’s shirt

  21. JE

    This article goes into detail explaining how the three stone cooking system is deficient and the failures of past systems. I wish it provided any meaningful level of detail on the design of the new stove system that has apparently addressed these issues. Given how prevalent the three stone system is presented as being, I feel like the “solution” is just hand waved away. For show that focuses on design, it would have been great to know how these problems that apparently have plagued designers around the world for years were overcome!

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