A World Made for Men - NY Times Series - Day 1 (of 7)
Practice reckless kindness and optimism.
July 21,2020 at 1:42PM UTC
DAY 1 (of 7) | BY EMMA GOLDBERG
A World Made for Men
Much of the world was designed with a certain kind of person in mind: The person weighs around 150 pounds, stands about 5 feet and 10 inches tall, and, most important, is male. Facial recognition programs are built to pick out his face. Cellphones are manufactured to fit in his palm. Cars are designed to protect his body in case of a crash.
“Everything from architecture to car safety to medication has been designed with the idea that the average man represents the average human,” said Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.” “Women are sometimes described as a confounding factor.”
The “default male,” as Ms. Criado Perez refers to him, is not a modern invention; the world has been designed to fit his needs for centuries. Ms. Criado Perez traces him to the fourth century B.C., when Aristotle wrote in “On the Generation of Animals” that human offspring “should” be male and described the female body as an aberration. Medical illustrations during the Renaissance treated male bodies as the primary human form, Ms. Criado Perez added, sidelining women as deviations from the norm.
“Algorithms don’t just reflect our biases back at us, they amplify them.”
— Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women”
Designing a world for men doesn’t just cause inconvenience, it also puts women in danger, said Ms. Criado Perez. For decades, car safety was tested using a crash dummy based on the body of the average man, which was both taller and heavier than the average woman. That means women are more likely to suffer injuries in an accident: a female involved in a crash is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die.
It doesn’t help that many of the people designing and testing new products are men, according to Sasha Costanza-Chock, author of “Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need.” When women are not in the room, their needs can easily be overlooked or sidelined.
And the numbers suggest that women are very much not in the room: Women represent just 14 percent of American architects and engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and in 2017 received just over 20 percent of engineering degrees in the U.S.
Apple’s health app, for example, was introduced with niche tracking options like copper or selenium intake before adding period tracking in 2015.
“Apple didn’t deliberately set out to exclude women,” Ms. Criado Perez said. “They just forgot that periods exist because they didn’t have enough people who have periods on their design team.”
Designing for the male “norm” doesn’t just hit products; it’s rife in industrial and environmental design, too.
Sara Sanford, founder of the group Gender Equity Now, said modern offices present a number of challenges specific to women.
For example, open office plans make workers more available for emotional labor, which studies have shown falls more heavily on women. “People stop by your desk to talk about problems they’re having in their marriage or bounce ideas off you without reciprocation,” Ms. Sanford said.
Then there’s the environmental setup of office buildings. Work spaces typically set their temperatures to a formula developed in the 1960s that is based on the metabolic rate of men. That leaves women to wrap themselves in blankets like they’re working in the Arctic. And architecturally, offices and other public spaces generally allot the same amount of floor space to male and female bathrooms, Ms. Criado Perez pointed out, even though women take up to 2.3 times longer using the bathroom, especially when they have their periods. (Increasingly, offices have created gender-neutral bathrooms, which are required by law in some cities and states.)
Ms. Sanford said the gender biases ingrained in modern offices are not the result of a concerted effort to exclude women, but rather the work of male leaders who did not sufficiently consider female needs as women entered the work force.
“Following World War II there was an influx of women to the office,” Ms. Sanford said. “We never hit pause and said, ‘How can we design the workplace with a new diverse work force in mind.’”
Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, new devices are emerging that favor male bodies. Dr. Costanza-Chock noted that some workplaces and public spaces are developing technologies that screen people’s temperatures to identify who is feverish and might have Covid-19. But these machines were likely not built to account for women in menopause.
“Women having hot flashes could trigger these systems,” Dr. Costanza-Chock said. “We know that companies aren’t thinking about that.”
As the medical community continues its battle against Covid-19, there are other areas, too, where bias could pose a threat to women’s health.
Historically women have been underrepresented in clinical trials for drugs and vaccines, and even the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Phase 1 trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine looked at sex only “as part of subgroup analysis.”
Excluding women from trials can mean developing drugs that are unsafe for female bodies, since men and women’s cells respond differently to medical treatments, Ms. Criado Perez said. It can mean missed opportunities for women’s health as well. One study she looked at showed that when both male and female cells are exposed to estrogen to fight off a virus, the treatment is effective for women but not for men.
“We don't know how many medications we missed out on that might have worked for women but were discarded because most trials begin with men,” Ms. Criado Perez said. “The default male is so embedded in our psyche that it is somehow taking precedence over medical knowledge.”
So how do we solve for the male bias?
Astrid Linder, research director of traffic safety at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, who studies gender and crash dummies, said having more female representation among engineers could help offset some of the subconscious bias in product development processes.
“It would remind us, when we’re sitting around a table, that we come in different shapes and forms,” Dr. Linder said. “That’s easier to forget if there are no women in the room.”
Dr. Costanza-Chock said some technology companies are starting to take the issue more seriously. Many have committed to hiring more diverse development teams; In 2019, Facebook, for example, committed to doubling its female work force within five years.
But gender parity on design teams is not a panacea. Ms. Criado Perez warned that even the data sets used to train thousands of popular algorithms are built to reinforce and amplify gender biases.
Researchers at the University of Washington recently showed that a photoset used to train computer software programs, including at Facebook and Microsoft, was more likely to associate women with activities like cooking and shopping. Researchers at Boston University and Microsoft found that a software program trained on text from Google News was also more likely to link women with domestic activities. When asked to complete the statement “Man is to computer programmer as woman is to X,” the program responded: “homemaker.”
— Francesca Donner contributed reporting.
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