Insights - Design & Product

Gendered Design and its Historical Wars

Somya Hastekar traces the long history of gender discrimination in design and the voices that have fought against it

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur is touted as one of India’s most splendid monuments and I drove past this gorgeous structure a few months ago. It did make me travel back in time, but also left me disconcerted about the long-standing influence of gender politics on design. Built in 1799 AD by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the palace was constructed so that the cloistered women of the royal family could catch a glimpse of everyday life through slit-like windows.

Socio-cultural impositions have had long-lasting consequences on how our built environment is designed. Not just our cities, but buildings, products and even clothing from across the world, reflect unequal gender power dynamics. Limited participation by other genders and an unequal focus on their needs, have led to gender-skewed decisions in urban planning, architecture and product design. Be it the zoning of work areas vs residential areas or our public parks, a male-centered design process has been a key contributor in making cities less safe and happy.

Gendering in Built Environments

Identifying sexism in urban planning only gained momentum mid last century. Jane Jacobs, an influential author and activist pioneered dialogue around humans and cities. She studied the relationship of people with public spaces and developed the concept of ‘eyes on the street’ to foster informal surveillance. She believed that one of the desired characteristics of an urban centre was that a gender-neutral crowd feel safe public spaces, even if they are amongst complete strangers.

In the 1990s, Vienna pioneered its ‘gender-mainstreaming’ strategies to develop gender-neutral cities.

It took them almost 30 years, but now Aspern, a neighbourhood in Vienna, prides itself on ensuring that all genders are accounted for equally in policy, legislation and resource allocation.

Flexible flat layouts of the Frauen-Werk-Stadt complex made by an all-women team

Eva Kail, CEO of the city of Vienna, was a forerunner of gender mainstreaming. Under her leadership, female architects were encouraged to design social residential projects. An iconic project was the Frauen-Werk-Stadt complex which was built entirely by women. From pram storage on every floor and wide stairwells to encourage neighbourly interactions, flexible flat layouts to high-quality secondary rooms and building heights designed to ensure ‘eyes on the street’ – every aspect was designed for all.

The design of our future physical spaces is increasingly going to hinge on Artificial Intelligence. How do we free this process from amplifying gender inequalities? Until recently, Google’s translation algorithm had skewed relationships. Words such as intelligent, successful and ambitious were assigned masculine pronouns whereas words like emotional, vulnerable and sweet were assigned feminine pronouns.

People like Hannah Rozenberg, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, give me hope. Rozenberg has developed a machine learning program to quantify linguistic associations into ‘gender units’ (GU). Her website Building Without Bias seeks to discover whether “architecture can be used as a tool to reveal, rethink and revise the biases that are embedded within technology and society.” When you enter a word, a value is displayed to show whether machines (or algorithms) currently see that word as male or female. Try typing ‘successful’ and see what you get!

Building Without Bias is a machine learning tool to quantify linguistic gender associations

Another example of progressive thought leadership comes from a project named Stalled. Its mission is to address the problems of sex-segregated bathrooms in public spaces. Transgender historian Susan Stryker is a key player in the functional team behind this. One of Stalled’s concepts revolves around conceiving the airport restroom as a “semi-open agora-like precinct that is animated by three parallel activity zones, each dedicated to grooming, washing and eliminating.”

Airport restrooms by Stalled, take departure from the standard dimensions of a typical gender-segregated public restroom.

Sexism in Cars, Pockets & So Much More

The automobile industry is another example of an industry that was blinded to gender equality until beginning of this century.

Crash test dummies, standardised in the 1970s, were made for the 50th percentile male represented by a 171-pound, 5-foot-9-inch man. This led to a study that alarmingly concluded that women were 17% more likely to die in car accidents.

Until recently, crash test dummies simulated only a 5foot 9inch male

It took someone like Dr. Astrid Linder and her twenty years of traffic safety research, to develop EvaRID, the first and so far – only – virtual, female crash test dummy in the world.

And how can we forget the humble pocket and sexism in the design of this simple piece of extreme utility. There have been frequent complaints around the unpocketability of smart phones. In fact, we were a lot more gender-neutral about pockets in the medieval period, when everyone carried little bags tied to waists or belts. It was only in the late seventeenth century, that pockets started to make their way into men’s garments. By the mid-eighteenth century, neoclassical fashion had no room for pockets in garments with feminine notions.

A clever piece of data visualisation from Pudding

Time for Bias Correction. Speak Up!

Contemporary voices like that of Caroline Criado Perez are backing gendered debates with compelling data points. Her latest book ‘Invisible Women’, sheds light on many such hidden data points of gender inequality.

It is encouraging to see how the tech industry is making attempts to embrace diversity and inclusion. Perhaps a lot of this is for PR glory, but I believe there are genuine thinkers too. We have seen well-designed campaigns like #biascorrect by non-profit organisation Catalyst, which are trying to uncover unconscious biases hidden in labelling at work. However, it will take deep-rooted transformation to completely eradicate inequality in design.

In our near future, Artificial Intelligence will reflect and amplify implicit biases, if left uneducated. If people from under-represented genders don’t speak up like leaders have in the past, we will continue to live in gendered cities with gendered technologies for the foreseeable future.

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