Some sectors, like product design, still have a long way to go in respect of gender equality. Though projects opposing established role hierarchies in our society have increasingly emerged in the last decade, gender equality is not evenly spread out in our economy.
A myriad of everyday objects are a testament to a gender-biased design approach and the result of unconscious gender preconceptions, laying bare the role women play in the design chain. Indeed, everyday objects and technologies are designed for, and by, men, affecting the comfort and safety of women worldwide.
Gender blindness is pervasive in design
Gender blindness is pervasive in our society. Women are 47% more likely than men to get seriously injured and 17% more likely to die in a car crash, as Caroline Criado Perez writes in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. The reason? Car safety takes men as anthropometric references and crashes dummies based on men’s physiques. Only this November, a team of Swedish engineers finally developed the world’s first female crash test dummy.
Moreover, bulletproof vests have always been tested only to be worn by men and consequently do not consider the specific anatomical components of women’s bodies. In 2015, after a series of complaints, the Romanian Army tested the world’s first bulletproof vests for female soldiers. In the more commonplace world of work, a brick is designed for the width of an average male hand, and rungs in a ladder are spaced for the average male step height. The average temperature for an office of 20 degrees Celsius was designed for a 40-year-old, 70 kg male in the 1960s. Therefore, if you are a woman and need to put on an extra layer at work, that is because the office temperature is five degrees too cold for you! I could keep these examples coming, but we’ll save them for another day. Right now, all this information leads to the one and only conclusion: the gender data gap.
The “pink it and shrink it” ideology in sports
Interest in women’s sports has increased dramatically in recent years and revenues generated by women’s sports in the UK are expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2030, according to GlobalData. However, the majority of female athletes are still under-marketed, and sport is the sector that most suffers from gender marketing, as pink is overrepresented in the color palette. There is a widespread belief that pink brings the female audience closer, often at the expense of comfort and safety. For example, when cycling companies advertise an entirely bright pink bike.
Ultimately, models for different genders have to start not from the color, but from the design. We find a light in the tunnel with Liv Cycling, launched in 2008 in Taiwan, the first ever in the world of cycling to design bikes solely aimed to suit the needs of a female clientele.
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Meanwhile, ski boots excepted, pinkification is rampant in outdoor footwear. Libby DeLana, creative director at Mechanica, remarks: “Oftentimes, women’s products are just taken from men’s, shrunken down and with some pink or some glitter slapped onto it, and that’s your women’s shoe”.
Anatomically, indeed, women’s feet are tighter in the heel and have wider toes, and alpine ski boot manufacturers recognised this many years ago.
However, only when women started embracing sneaker culture and began wearing sports shoes every day, did sports brands start working on the women’s market. In 2019, Nike brought back the historic Air Jordan I, now going down to a 5.5 size. In 2020, Ida Sports, a start-up designing football boots tailored for women, was launched—the first of its kind.
After years of women’s exclusion from design, the “pink it and shrink it” ideology is starting to be phased out, and the female body is beginning to be less invisible. When designing with and for women, everyone wins, as the absence of conscious design has historically made products only functional for half of the human population. Pink, sparkles, and glitter are not enough, not now, not earlier. A tailored and inclusive design will gain huge success. The market is ready and waiting.