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Gender bias: hidden in plain sight

Greater gender inclusion is needed in every step of the design process to prevent alienating half the world's population

Yuliana Safari and Olivia Stone

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The overturning of Roe v. Wade is symptomatic of a wider problem: a world designed by, and for, white, cisgendered men. Note: Mention of ‘women’ in this article is representative of every person that identifies as a female.

In a recent meeting with a male executive at a global brand, we asked the questiondo you understand the female perspective and experience of your product?’ There was a slight pause, a look to a colleague, a cough and then ‘umm well yes, we consider everyone equally, of course’.

It was nice to hear, but it was hardly, ‘of course’. Don Norman—credited as the grandfather of UX—famously depicted the frustrations of the design of everyday things from doors to sinks, noting that good design is invisible to the everyday experience. Yet, gender bias is hidden in plain sight, everywhere. And bias impacts not just the comfort, but also the safety, of people who identify as women.

Let’s look at the current and wider context of how women are currently being treated. The Supreme Court violently stripped American women, and other people who can become pregnant, of their bodily autonomy on June 24, when they overturned a landmark decision that guaranteed access to abortion nationally. With most American citizens maintaining abortion should be legal, it's hard to fathom that this inconceivable nightmare became a reality. But if we look a little closer at the infrastructure of the Supreme Court, its core DNA consisting of white cis-gendered males, the realisation of these horrors seems less unexpected.

We have the potential to break and remake everyday systems to be inclusive of half of the population

Olivia Stone, Senior Analyst and Yuliana Safari, Associate Director at R/GA London

There’s still a resounding aura of dumbfoundedness in the UK looking out across the Atlantic. But, in fact, these trepidations are emerging a lot closer to home. With more than £70k funding donated to UK schools by US anti-abortion groups and women facing prison sentences for merely having abortions, we must aknowledge these dreaded worlds are not so far off as it seems. What society must confront is that these events are symptomatic of a world designed for white men by white cis-gendered men. A world in which women are just expected to retrofit in, as instructed. 

Let’s get into the exception to the rule: “good design is invisible.”

Glass staircases and walkways are a constant feature in modern buildings, despite a fundamental design flaw that should be glaringly obvious. Male architects in 2018 were challenged to walk around their designs in skirts, yet no one answered the call to walk a mile in women's shoes. Caroline Criado-Pérez, aptly painted the grim reality in her book Invisible Women: "when planners fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default."

Most medical and clinical research has been based on the assumption that men can serve as a representative of both sexes. In 1993, women were excluded from clinical research and trials and today, men continue to be the default, with dangerous and sometimes deadly implications for women. Case in point: because general health information focuses on male symptoms, most women don’t recognize when they’re having heart attacks. Even some doctors don’t realize it.

These are systemic design issues so normalized that the bias is invisible to most. It wasn't until visiting Apple's corporate headquarters in 1982, when Free The Tampons founder Nancy Kramer saw menstrual products in the bathroom, that she realized that this shouldn't be a unique experience. And despite the percentage of women architecture students reaching an all-time high in 2021 at 51%, exiled bathrooms and glass walkways continue to be recognized in modern design because they've become normalized as design features.

It's not that the world conspires against women daily, it's that we're so entrenched in a world designed for men that we have to actively plan with women in mind to create spaces for them. And when spaces are not designed for women, it disproportionately affects and often actively works against women of color and transwomen.

The narratives modern products prop up

And this gendered bias exists beyond the spaces we occupy. They taint the products we use daily and shape how we see ourselves inherently. This predicament is an internally-conceived one, whereby the products we use are the product of those that form them. Today the global workforce behind industrial design is 81% male, leaving women making up just 19% of the sector.

Studies from Stanford researchers Shelley J. Correll, Sarah A. Soule and Elise Tak strongly imply that gender stereotyping significantly impacts how we assess products. When traditionally male-gendered products like beers and power tools are made by women, they are instinctively-perceived as less than. It is only when women receive an added merit to their products through prestigious awards or prizes that they are seen in the same realm as their male counterparts.

Breaking and remaking everyday systems

Compared to other industries, advertising’s power is not in its finances, but in the narratives it creates and the stories it tells. We have the potential to break and remake everyday systems to be inclusive of half of the population.

At R/GA London, we worked with Nike on developing Nike Sync, a period syncing fitness app that stands up to a fitness industry that didn’t take women into account. We were thrilled when the work was recognised and awarded a Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Lions festival. Another example is Dame, on a mission to craft pleasurable sex products which help close the gendered pleasure gap. At Dame, they’ve created a community of “Dame Labs Members”, made up of people from all genders, lifestyles and orientations. This diverse community is instrumental in helping the team innovate for pleasure in an intentional and valuable way. And Ellevest is a deliberate, transparent approach to wealth management designed for women.

This is encouraging to see. But we now need to see progress across the sectors informing how we live and behave more than ever before: AI, automotive, city planning, finance, fitness, sport, technology, clinical trials, insurance, healthcare,  transportation, workplaces, taxes, hygiene products and so on. The ongoing pronounced gender imbalance gives way to the narrowing of perspectives and, ultimately, the stunting of creativity from the inside out. To really move towards a world that embraces gender fluidity, we must move from a world where we're shackled to a system created for and designed by men.

Guest Author

Yuliana Safari and Olivia Stone

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Yuliana Safari is Associate Director at R/GA and Olivia Stone is Senior Analyst at R/GA

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Design Inclusion Women