How Women Are Made Invisible by Design

How Women Are Made Invisible by Design

How Women Are Made Invisible by Design

When a “generic male” is the measure of all things, women suffer the consequences.


It might not astonish you to learn that I keep an ongoing mental file on the annoyances, indignities, and even dangers to which women are subjected in daily life. As a small, five-foot-tall person of a certain age, for example, I seethe each time I struggle into one of the larger New York City taxis. They are high off the ground, and not all of them have those little steps by the door or hanging straps to help you hoist yourself up; plus the sliding doors are heavy and tend to stick.

New York is a city of women, to say nothing of seniors and people of all ages and ethnicities on the smaller side. Whose bright idea was it to order up a line of taxis fit for nimble giants? And while we’re on the subject, who replaced normal chairs in restaurants with tall stools that you have to awkwardly wiggle up onto? Why are podiums so high? And why does nobody offer you something to stand on so you can be seen over them?

I know what you’re thinking: It’s not about sex, it’s about height—and you, Katha, just happen to be short. That is true. But hello! Women on average are shorter than men, and once you get down to the really petite, they’re mostly women. And yes, I am aware that taxis and seating and podiums are not the most important problems in the world. But as the British writer Caroline Criado-Perez argues, they are symptoms of a much broader affliction. Her brilliant book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, lays out in impressive detail the many ways that human beings are presumed to be male, as well as the wide-reaching effects of this distorted view of humanity.

You might have heard of Criado-Perez when she started a campaign in 2013 to have a woman included in what was supposed to be an all-male lineup of notables featured on British banknotes. She was met with scorn and the online obscenities and threats that all feminists seem to attract when they invade male turf—and what’s more manly than money? But it’s largely thanks to her that Jane Austen appears on the £10 note today.

Austen, of course, would have known all about the “generic male.” From the rules of grammar—“man” means both male and human, “he” means both he and she—to the positioning of kitchen shelves, which are way too high even though a woman is likely to be making the most use of the kitchen, the male is treated as the default human. It’s what Criado-Perez calls “male unless otherwise indicated”: Women aren’t people; they’re a “niche.” That means women are seen as the exception, even when they’re not. Asked in one study to draw a “beautician,” Criado-Perez notes, most people in the group drew a man. A 2015 study showed that when people were asked to draw seemingly genderless words (“user,” “participant”), both men and women drew males.

Because male experiences and standards of judgment are taken as neutral, and men tend to be in charge of determining what information is collected and how it is analyzed, data about women is often not disaggregated—or even collected at all. This can have serious consequences. Did you know that, although men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, women are 71 percent more likely to be moderately injured, 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured, and 17 percent more likely to die in a car crash—and not because women are bad drivers. It all goes back to automobile design, which is built around crash-test dummies based on the “average” male. Only in 2011 did designers start using a female dummy in some tests—and even then only in the passenger seat (how fitting). Car crashes are “the number one cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma,” according to Criado-Perez, but seat belts are not designed to accommodate pregnant bellies—or female breasts, for that matter. (Or, I might add, short people: I have to put the shoulder strap behind me, because otherwise it rests on my neck.)

What about health? We all know that women’s pains are often not taken seriously, and that specifically female conditions like endometriosis are often misdiagnosed or ignored. In medicine, as in car design, the default human is male. But did you know that heart disease is the most common killer of women, and that only one in eight women who have a heart attack report chest pain, which is popularly portrayed as a classic male symptom? Because of this “yentl syndrome,” in which women are misdiagnosed unless their symptoms mimic those of men, heart disease in women is not properly recognized and treated—and that may be why women are more likely than men to die of it.

“Women are not just smaller men,” Criado-Perez writes. Sex differences affect our bodies down to the cellular level. But medical education, as well as research, studies, treatments, and drugs, are designed as if these differences did not exist.

Criado-Perez gamely walks us through a huge variety of examples, many of which are pretty discouraging. Why are cell phones designed for male hands? Why should office heating and cooling be set at the lower temperatures that men, with their higher metabolism, prefer? Because men designed the system as if only men would be affected. And that’s the least of it: Everything about work is designed around men, beginning with the outmoded assumption that the typical worker is male—and that he has a stay-at-home wife who can run the house and raise the kids so that he need never be distracted from his job.

The good thing about these systems is that we can change them for the better. When urban planners in Sweden looked at their snowplowing schedule, which prioritized cars (mostly used by men to commute), and changed it so pedestrian streets (mostly used by women for short errands) were plowed first, snow- and ice-related injuries fell. Data-driven sexism such as hiring algorithms can also be corrected, but their architects have to recognize there’s a problem. That’s why planners, coders, researchers, and designers all should be given a copy of Invisible Women for free. And maybe we should start with NASA, which had to cancel the first all-woman space walk, scheduled for March 29, because the agency only had one woman-sized space suit. Houston, we have a problem!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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