Gender and data gaps in design

May 23, 2022 | Publications

Gender symbols

For decades, women’s heart attacks have been severely undiagnosed because physicians were unaware that symptoms can manifest differently across genders. Invisible Women by Caroline Perez highlights the extent to which women have been overlooked – be it in urban planning, government programs, or designing consumer products and services.

Men as the default human

Perez argues that gaps in designing for all humans arise from severe gender data gaps, since men are often assumed to be default human to design for. The consequences range from deadly to mild. For instance, evidence indicates that women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to die in car crashes than men, simply because seat belts and air bags are built for and tested with the average male-sized dummy figure. Ill-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) is more likely to kill female frontline and industrial workers, for example, when stab vests designed for men ride up, leaving exposed areas. Less serious consequences include smartphones that are too large to be held single-handedly by women, high hard-to-reach shelves, and power tools with awkward proportions to handle.

Given that women constitute half the world’s population and drive 70-85% of consumer purchases globally, it is no longer good business for brands to design products and services catering to the male default. Designing for women is not designing for ‘others’ or ‘edge cases’ – it is simply designing for all humans.  

Further, expanding the default user prototype benefits a wider consumer base – men with smaller hands, men who are shorter than the average white male, and non-binary people to name a few. Designing for several human body types and use patterns is not just about making products pink, or reducing the size of products, but also accounting for physiological differences such as limb ratios, shoulder width, size of hips, and hormonal differences. A critical example is in the field of medicine, where drug dosages are designed for men and put women at disproportionate risk of overdose – with consequences ranging from brain bleeds, liver failure, and death.

Re-imagining gender inclusive design

Brands, designers, and the insights industry can play a critical role to address this gap for everyday products and services. Some steps could include:

  • Representation at senior levels: Women in decision-making posts are critical to enable inclusive design. In a famous anecdote, Google did not consider the needs of pregnant employees until Sheryl Sandberg’s pregnancy led to difficulties walking across the large car park. Sandberg’s ability to approach Sergey Brin immediately led to reserved parking spots for pregnant employees in front of office buildings.
  • Diverse researchers and designers: The dominance of white men in the design and technology industry leads to unintentional gaps, when designers fail to consider lived realities other than their own. A prominent failure was Apple’s health monitoring system launch in 2014, which was marketed as a comprehensive health tracker – yet did not include a period tracking function.
  • Listen to users: Researchers and designers can spend time with diverse users, to understand their underlying motivations and choices. A glaring failure in the development sector has been the low adoption of clean (smoke-free) stoves, which was assumed to be because women could not see the benefit of the stoves. It took a 2015 research study which spoke to women to discover that clean stoves needed more firewood, which took more time and energy for women to collect and split. Designers then created an inexpensive air flow mechanism which could be attached to the smaller existing stoves – and saw high adoption. 
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It is worth noting that changing the assumption of male as the default is not just about designing for different body types, but also understanding gendered patterns of behaviour. For example, snow blowing schedules assumed that male commuter hours to offices by cars were the default, overlooking women’s pedestrian and cycling trips that started earlier in the day to run errands or drop children to school. Fixing this oversight in Sweden led to saving millions of dollars in public healthcare, with fewer accidents on icy pedestrian paths.

Future trends

Lack of diversity in data is especially worrying in the technology space, where Machine Learning algorithms learn from existing datasets. Ramifications include cars not recognising female voices or different accents for hands-free devices, to potential implications for autonomous vehicles.

Much also needs to be done to design for transgender and non-binary individuals, particularly in technology interfaces and healthcare. A simple example is not using credit card names to refer to individuals (credit cards often use dead names), but instead updating brand records with correct consumer names.

Some brands have moved beyond conceptualising men as the default human. The fitness industry has done well, using gender-disaggregated performance data to provide different shoe structures for lighter and heavier bodies, and hiking backpacks with different sizes for hip belt, torso length, and harnesses. Other brands need to follow suit fast – female consumers represent a larger growth opportunity than India and China’s combined growth.

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