Failure to consider women in the designed world — from seat belts to sleeping pills — is killing and maiming them. This can change.
It was a joke in our family that mom scoots the car seat up so far the wheel is practically in her lap. A recent episode of 99% Invisible made me realize there’s nothing funny about cars not fitting women since the result is carnage and fatalities: women are “47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die than a man if they’re in a car crash.” My mom — and women generally — are in greater danger because they have no been considered in the design process.
This failure to consider women in the designed world is endemic to a scale difficult to measure. Cars are just one significant example. It’s not news to women that cars just don’t fit correctly, of course. One uncomfortable facet of that is seatbelts designed without considering breasts. Pedals that are difficult or impossible to use while wearing heels is another failure of the car to recognize women. The overall experience of being in a vehicle just doesn’t fit most women.
One of the more significant results of designed the car to the specifications of the average man is that until very recently all crash testing was done with male crash test dummies. The entire engineering focus, then, was to build a car environment that would protect the specific vitals of an average man. Women are less likely to fit those live-saving design elements — e.g. airbags placed strategically to protect the head from a side collision — and are therefore in greater danger from driving. Women still aren’t being considered in the driver’s seat in crash data, so the problem continues even now.
This alone is an infuriating, but the problem is massive, truly endemic. Women aren’t considered by design teams, they aren’t included in data-taking studies that help guide design, and the results are products, policies, architecture, and many other elements of the built world that simply do not fit women. The scope and depth of this problem has been studied by the guest of the above mentioned episode, Caroline Criado-Perez, in her recently published book Invisible Women.
One particularly murderous failure to consider women is in the area of medical research. Women have historically been excluded from clinical trials of new drugs and other medical interventions. Drugs end up prescribed to women that have never been tested on women. The first example of this that comes to mind is the sleeping pill marketed as Ambien that was given in doses far in excess of what was necessary, with often dangerous results such as ‘sleep driving’, because only men were tested. It wasn’t known that men metabolize it much faster. Ultimately the dosage was adjusted for women, but that damage wouldn’t have been done if women had been included in the studies. Similar damage has result from numerous other drugs, from aspirin to kinds of anesthesia, with injury and deaths resulting.
My training by education and experience is in science. I am personally offended that anyone claiming to be a scientist, medical or otherwise, would fail to include women in anything intended for women. That is an oversight so pathetic, so stupid, so unscientific that every single researcher guilty of this should care real and urgent shame for having been a part of this grand failure to see to the needs of women.
A compounding issue is that the resulting damage can be difficult to measure, and worse, often simply isn’t measured. The invisibility of women is terribly comprehensive. We don’t know how bad the problem is because so few people bother to measure it. It’s easy to see what exists, but much harder to see what ought to exist. It takes more perception and clarity of vision to see the gaps in our design and knowledge.
This must change. Women must be taken into account purposefully and systematically in any element of design or research that could possibly be affect women.
It just isn’t enough to assume things are sex-neutral. The opening example from the episode is a prime example of how sex-neutrality must be a focused and intentional thing. A small town in Sweden discovered their snow plow routes were exposing women to undue danger. Their adjustments as a result of their study resulted in significant reductions in accidents overall, especially those involving women. It wasn’t enough to assume. They had to do the work of checking whether their design was working for women.
This is work that must be done in all cases of design. There is no excuse not to. Women cannot be left invisible to suffer and die from design failures. This demands every involved in the constructed world — i.e. everyone — to stop seeing men as the default human being. Women are not some rare exception to the rule of men, and we must all insist the world we help build include them from the start and to the end.