Invisible bias and gendered design have resulted in a world designed to suit the average man. But by prioritising the comfort of men, we putting women at a constant disadvantage in their daily and professional lives – and even putting their lives at risk.
One small step for women, one giant step for womenkind. Earlier this month, NASA celebrated a long overdue milestone: its first ever all-women spacewalk. Performed by astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, this was the first time in NASA’s 61-year history that had two women spacewalking without any men.
But why did it take so long for the space agency to reach this – let’s face it – simultaneously monumental and utterly meagre milestone?
One reason is infuriatingly basic: spacesuits are not designed for women. It’s one example of how the world is saturated with invisible bias and gender-based design that treats men’s body as the natural default, failing to accommodate or even consider women’s bodies, needs, and physical experience of the world. The human experience is still coded as male and so the world is designed for men.
It was this gender-based design that prevented the first all-women spacewalk from taking place on its originally scheduled date of March 29, 2019. The event was cancelled because there were not enough spacesuits to fit the two women astronauts.
Christina Koch was scheduled to conduct a spacewalk with NASA colleague Anne McClain, but they only had one medium-sized spacesuit. The larger suits would have prevented the women from fulfilling their duties with ease, efficiency and safety.
The result was that only Koch was able to participate in the spacewalk, while McClain stayed onboard the station.
However, instead of NASA being embarrassed by this easily preventable oversight; instead of taking the opportunity to examine the organisation’s invisible bias and gender-based design, a NASA official instead decided to double down.
The lack of spacesuits that fit women isn’t the problem, he asserted. Women’s bodies are the problem.
“There are some physical reasons that make it harder sometimes for women to do spacewalks,” said Ken Bowersox, an associate administrator for human exploration at NASA and a former astronaut, said during a press conference.
“It’s a little bit like playing in the NBA. You know, I’m too short to play in the NBA, and sometimes physical characteristics make a difference in certain activities. And spacewalks are one of those areas where just how your body is built in shape, it makes a difference in how well you can work a suit.”
Note how Bowersox statement frames the idea of design and suitability: he posits that bodies are built, spacesuits exist, and some bodies are problematic because they don’t suit spacesuits. The reality is that bodies exist, and it is spacesuits that are literally built - and could be built differently.
Women’s bodies are not the problem. The suits are the problem. This attitude is the problem. A world that only wants to design for men is the problem.
Bowersox’s ignorant, patronising statement is emblematic of a world filled with invisible bias gender-based design. First, you design a world that ignores the needs of half the population. Then you tell half the population that it’s their own fault for not properly fitting into this world. Finally, you use this inability to fit as proof that they are the weaker sex.
The spacesuit debacle is far from the only example of how gender-based design has prevented women from excelling at the same rate as men. The design of clothing, technology and equipment that we interact with every day frequently demonstrate invisible bias puts women at a distinct disadvantage, in their daily lives and chosen professions.
"Mobile phones and smart watches are designed to be comfortable for the average male body, making them too large for most women to use as comfortably or efficiently as men."
There are the examples we all already know and experience daily: women’s clothing lacking pockets and being made with much thinner material than men’s clothing (even though women, on average, have a resting body temperature five degrees lower than men, and yet most public spaces, including offices, are temperature regulate for men’s comfort.)
Mobile phones and smart watches are designed to be comfortable for the average male body, making them too large for most women to use as comfortably or efficiently as men. So we’ve no pockets, are freezing, have probably paid more for our outfit than men in comparative clothing items, thanks to the systemic up-pricing on women’s clothing – and it’s harder for us to text each other to complain about it.
But it’s not just that women are left uncomfortable and uncatered for in our daily lives – we are also being pushed out of our desired careers.
Gendered design that assumes the average male body is “standard” also effects professional clothing, uniforms and equipment, creating another invisible hurdle for women to overcome and preventing women from excelling.
Overalls, jumpsuits and other “unisex” one-piece outfits are designed for the male body, with a zipped crotch that allows men to urinate easily, but requires women to essentially strip to do the same.
This has a major effect on women working in open spaces with no private bathrooms; fields like construction, emergency services; or who have to navigate extreme temperatures or terrains, such mountain-climbing, expedition or exploration.
In the military, women soldiers report that pistol belts don’t fit; boots don’t accommodate for narrower feet and higher arches; and backpacks designed for men’s upper body strength cause discomfort, frequent strain and injury. Life jackets, bullet-proof vests and stab vests aren’t designed to accommodate breasts, resulting in women coastguards, police officers and soldiers enduring constant discomfort, causing injury, and actually being endangered by safety equipment literally not designed to keep their bodies safe.
Other safety gear used in countless professions such as farming, engineering and construction are often too big for women, such as safety goggles, protective gloves, boots, safety harnesses. These items ironically become a safety hazard by hindering women’s movements and posing the risk of excess material getting caught in machinery.
Gendered design obviously poses a risk to many women in their chosen professions – but we’re also being endangered in our daily lives. Many safety features of the world are less safe and even actively dangerous for women, because they have been specifically designed for the average male body.
These safety features frequently fail to account for the fact that, on average, women have smaller frames, different weight distribution, breasts, and can be pregnant, leaving women much more vulnerable to injury and even death while simply existing in the world.
In Caroline Criado Perez’ superb book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men, the author highlights countless shocking example of gender-based design that puts women in danger.
In one example, she explains how crash test dummies, first introduced in the 1950s, were designed around the fiftieth percentile male, and so safety features in cars were designed to protect this type of body. Seatbelt design fails to account for breasts, meaning that many women have to wear their seatbelts “improperly”, while 62% of women in their third-trimester of pregnancy don’t fit the standard seatbelt design at all.
Women tend to have less muscle on their neck and upper torsos than men, leaving women more vulnerable to whiplash. Yet car seats and headrests designed for men’s heavier upper bodies amplify this vulnerability, often throwing women forward during rear-end collisions.
Men are more likely to be involved in car crashes than women, but as Criado Perez explains, “when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seat-belt usage, and crash intensity. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom.”
Like so many facets of our patriarchal culture, gendered design has prioritised the comfort of men over the safety of women. The world is literally built in a way that does not fit us – yet we’re told that we are the problem, for not fitting in.
Of course, all of these examples that assume that the standard, default body is that of the average man, also inherently exclude bodies that fall outside the average body type for cis men or women.
They don’t even begin to consider or account for the needs of plus-size people, people with disabilities, bodies that don’t fall within the limited male/female binary. When the design of most of world literally refuses to consider the needs of half the population, the struggle for people with even more pressing and particular needs are going to be neglected, excluded and endangered, too. When you only design for one group, you inherently exclude all others.
It’s time for a major overhaul of how the world is designed, and who gets to do it. We shouldn’t have to fight to fit into our lives; our lives should be designed to fit our needs. And that includes listening to the needs of everyone, not just assuming that the average male experience represents all of humanity.
And seriously, start with giving us some goddamn pockets.