Last week, the cancellation of Nasa’s all-female space walk because there wasn’t a spacesuit available in the correct size for Anne McClain sparked controversy. It also got some people considering women in the modern world and how they navigate it when it may appear that world has been designed for men.
The last 60+ years have seen the numbers of women within the workplace, increase and has resulted in women entering a much broader range of occupations, from mainly supportive, nurturing roles such as teaching and nursing to every walk of occupational and professional life. Women are working in industries and roles previously regarded as the sole prerogative of men.
In a recent BBC news article, Caroline Criado Perez, a journalist and the author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, told the BBC she was totally unsurprised by the spacesuit debacle. From police stab vests that don't account for breasts, to safety goggles too large for women's faces, to boots that don't fit women's feet, Ms Criado Perez says the list is endless.
"This is just what happens over and over when it comes to what we design," she says. "We are so used to thinking of men as the default and women as the sort of niche - a variety of man… The average woman is an outlier."
Ms Criado Perez’s recent comments regarding this are not new, but we need to be careful and consider if what she talks about is really the norm. The example of the space suit comes from a time when astronauts were recruited from the all-male fighter squadrons. The same is true of a lot of anthropometric data which originated in studies used to design military equipment. The source of that date came from measurements on fit and healthy GIs. Designers who are pushed into a one size fits all solution or do not have the data they need will always end up with a solution that inevitably suits the very smallest percentile of users. Well trained and confident product designers avoid this pitfall as a matter of course.
We think it is worth noting that product design and engineering as a whole needs more gender balance in its ranks. There is a strong argument to say that every design team should have the balance of input of both genders. A good conclusion in the article by Ms Criado Perez was that companies should be prepared to demonstrate how they have been successful in doing this so they can inspire others to do the same. Certainly food for thought!
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