How the Male-Designed World Is Unfair and Dangerous for Women

From heart attack data to crash test dummies, women suffer in a world designed around the standard male.

CC BY 2.0. Dynamic Test Center, AGU Zürich

Over the past few decades, heart attacks for men have been on the decline. But recent research has found a disconcerting trend: For young women, heart attacks are on the upswing ... and in alarming numbers. Although the research showed that the risk factors leading to the increase in women's heart attacks were mostly modifiable, doctors aren't addressing women’s risks in the same way they address those of men. Treatment post-heart attack was far less proactive for women than men as well. After all, it’s a “man’s disease,” goes the thinking – even though it is clearly not.

Heart disease is an equal opportunity illness, so why isn't it treated like one?

To get to the bottom of that question, perhaps we need to start thinking like Caroline Criado Perez. Perez is the author of "Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men," and in an excerpt for The Guradian, she explores “the deadly truth about a world built for men.”

Perez cites numerous examples of how, throughout history, “the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. And these silences are everywhere. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future, are all marked – disfigured – by a female-shaped ‘absent presence’.”

This is what Perez calls the gender data gap. “The gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male,” she writes. And its ramifications are profound. Here are some examples in which a world designed for men does not do a woman well.

  • Shelves are designed at a male height norm.
  • Personal body armor is not designed to accommodate the female form – this has proven to be a fatal flaw (literally) for female police officers.
  • The standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man – even though the metabolic rate of women is significantly lower. Which is why women who work in offices are often freezing.
  • A typical A1 architect’s portfolio fits under most men’s arms; most women have to struggle to carry one comfortably.
  • Standard hand tools are too large for women to grasp firmly. (Our alternative tends to be cutesy floral toy hammers that aren’t sufficient to do much hammering.)
  • Differences in chests, hips, and thighs can affect the way the straps fit women who rely on safety harnesses.
  • Dust, hazard, and eye masks are made using a “standard” American male face shape, and thus don’t fit most women.
  • Cars have been designed using car crash-test dummies based on the “average” male, meaning that women are more likely to be seriously injured in a crash. Perez writes about this fact a lot, and it is pretty mind-boggling just how ignored women have been in this regard – though there is movement for change here.
  • Car crashes are the number one cause of fetal death from maternal trauma, yet there isn’t a seatbelt that pregnant women can really use. “Research from 2004 suggests that pregnant women should use the standard seatbelt,” Perez notes, “but 62% of third-trimester pregnant women don’t fit that design.”
  • Space is divided 50/50 for male and female public restrooms, even though more men can use urinals simultaneously and women take longer, for a variety of anatomical reasons.
  • The average smartphone size keeps growing, to the point that it can still be used by one hand, if the hand is the size of the average male’s ... but not one hand if the hand belongs to the average-size woman.
  • Voice recognition software “is often hopelessly male-biased” – in one study, Google speech-recognition software was 70 percent more likely to accurately recognize male speech. Many voice systems have the same tilt, so much so that women learn to lower their voice when trying to get some cooperation.
  • And for the last one, the whole quote: "When Apple launched their AI, Siri, users in the US found that she (ironically) could find prostitutes and Viagra suppliers, but not abortion providers. Siri could help you if you’d had a heart attack, but if you told her you’d been raped, she replied “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.'"

In a Medium post a few years ago Kat Ely tackled the topic, writing that "we should be concerned about how prejudices and assumptions can creep into the sphere of data science and exacerbate social inequalities or create higher risks for certain populations."

Most simply put, design and data are not sustainable if they are created with only half the population in mind. We see all the damage caused by the anthropocentric perspective of prioritizing mankind over nature, possibly even to the ironic detriment of the species altogether. Designing the world around men feels like the same kind of mindset. And a mindset that doesn't take the whole picture into consideration is, by definition, not a wholesome one.

It may be impossible to design everything in workable one-size-fits-all components, but we clearly need to at least be paying attention to the elephant in the room here. As Ely concludes, "The first step is more diversity in the conference rooms, workshops, and research labs where decisions get made about how the world is going to be designed, engineered, and ultimately constructed."