It’s a man’s world – by design

It all starts with the toilet. Head to the public toilets after your flight or during the theatre intermission, and you’ll find a queue forming in front of the door. That is, if you’re a woman.

When it comes to designing toilets for the different sexes, equal is not equal. Women’s and men’s toilets of equal area can accommodate unequal numbers of users, thanks to the space-economy of urinals (men are far from being what the Germans call Sitzpinklers – men who urinate sitting down – though there are arguments for that, too). Using toilet stalls takes more time, especially if a woman has to accompany a small child – far less likely for a man. On average, women can take up to 2.5 times longer in the toilets, meaning that men are in and out again while women are forced to wait.

Toilets are just one very familiar example of the many ways in which we are living in a man’s world – by design. From health and medicine, to transport and safety, to the workplace, women are often invisible in how we think about and design solutions for some of life’s most pressing needs.

Beware the side effects
Take medicine. Experimental drugs are more likely to be tested first on male mice, then on human men. The best go on to earn the designation ‘safe for humans’ – even though the potential effects on women may be different than those of men. For example, some sleeping pills are metabolized more slowly in women, meaning that they are more likely to be driving ‘under the influence’ the next morning. The US Food and Drug Association took note of this after a spate of road accidents, which led to revised, gendered guidelines differentiating safe dosages for women and men.

Safety first – for men
Like pharmaceuticals, safety equipment is often designed for what Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, refers to as “Reference Man”: a white man who is in his 30s and weighs about 70 kg. Reference Man may be why, in 2019, NASA cancelled an all-woman spacewalk: there weren’t enough women-sized suit components onboard. And why women have 23% less chance of surviving after receiving CPR in public: potential rescuers are uncertain how to deliver CPR to women, having never practised on CPR dummies designed with breasts. And why women are 47% more likely to suffer serious harm in road accidents: car driver seats and safety mechanisms aren’t required to be tested on crash test dummies sized and shaped like women.

Sex in the city
Urban planning that’s blind to sex inevitably punishes women as well. Around the world, when a family owns a car it’s generally the man who uses it to go to and from work, meaning that the majority of public transport riders are women. Women are more likely to move around the city, on foot or on public transport, during the day. Any city policy that advantages the 9-5 car commute at the expense of pedestrian safety and public transport is essentially choosing men over women. Urban zoning that separates residential areas from shopping, or which puts childcare facilities far from workplaces (like Apple’s $5 billion headquarters with a massive gym but no childcare centre) is doing the same.

Portrait of the artist as a young woman
While no man failed to take note of late actress Rachel Welch in the 1966 film One Million Years B.C., anthropologists have had a harder time seeing women a mere 10 thousand years ago – until recently. It was long assumed – without any direct evidence – that the great prehistoric cave painters, who created elaborate scenes of bison hunts in dank caverns across Spain and France, were men. But a 2013 analysis of 32 complete stencilled handprints in cave paintings found that 75% were of women’s hands, suggesting that women, not men, may have been Europe’s real cave artists.

So what would a world designed for women look like? For one, it would be one in which Reference Man kept company with Reference Woman – or women. There would be more walkable cities with mixed-use neighbourhoods for living, working, childcare, entertainment and shopping. Phones – and even pens – would be designed to fit women’s hands; safety gear and work uniforms to fit and protect women’s bodies. Research questions in all scientific and academic disciplines would be designed to “see” women. And of course, your average public women’s restroom would come with at least a few more toilets.

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