Data’s Gender Gap: Endangers Half of the Population

In an ideal world, all the features and functions of society would be accessible and useful for all members of the population. However, it is becoming an increasingly visible fact that more often than not, half of the population isn’t considered when gathering and applying data.

Women are often left out of the equation, and only the male body is used as the default when constructing buildings, forming transit systems, designing vehicles, formulating pharmaceutical drugs, and more. The majority of the time, this is an inconvenience for women, however, sometimes it is worse.

In this new quarterly column, “Data’s Gender Gap”, I will be exploring a wide variety of areas in which we see data’s dangerous gender gap taking its toll on half of the world’s population. You may recognize some of the material from the blog I published in TDAN.com last month! I’m upcycling a bit for this introduction to the column, but future columns will be deep dives into particular data gender issues each quarter.

Let’s jump into the topic with a disparity in something 76% of Americans do every day[1]. Most of us don’t often think about data while driving our cars around town, but maybe we should. Data governs everything, including how traffic lights are timed, how roads are configured, and how our cars’ safety features are set up. While the number of men who pass away in car accidents each year is larger than the number of women who face similar fates, women are far more likely to die or become severely injured in car crashes of equal severity— up to 73% more likely[2]. This is due to the fact that the test dummies around whom car safety features have historically been designed to model the average male body.

The data that decides where airbags are placed, how the cabin takes impact, and much more has largely been gathered from tests where the male body is assumed as the default. Cars made after 2003 have generally utilized dummies modeled after the female body, however they are built to emulate a woman who is 5 feet tall and weighs 110 pounds[3]. This is ultimately unhelpful, as the average American woman is 5 feet and 4 inches tall and weighs around 170 pounds. Additionally, two thirds of crash tests presume that a male body will be in the driver’s seat and a female body, if present, will be in the passenger seat. The lack of data gathered on how to build cars that protect women in case of an accident is killing them.

One big mistake commonly made when extrapolating from one set of data is assuming that equal facilities and items are the same as equitable facilities and items. One area where this is not the case is in uniform design for the Armed Forces. In 2016, the US Navy’s uniforms were slightly redesigned to be “gender-neutral,” and female members were forced to pay out-of-pocket for the new designs[4].

Regarding the shift, Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, stated “Uniformity is about ending the way we segregate women by requiring them to wear different clothes. In the Navy and in the Marine Corps, we are trending towards uniforms that don’t divide us as male or female, but rather unite us as sailors or Marines.”[5] This is a lovely concept, but fails to take differing physiological needs into account. The uniform changes did not address primary complaints women had about their old uniforms. It altered the head cover to better fit a bun and was made to match the color and design of men’s uniforms, largely ignoring the main issue taken with the uniform— pants that were made to reach a male’s natural waist but was uncomfortable for most women’s hips.

Men’s uniforms cost $234.98 in 2015, while the uniform for female officers cost them $328.98— a 40% mark-up. The redesigned uniforms are estimated to cost women $700 after tailoring, with no compensation offered for the expenses. The uniform changes also did not address primary complaints women had about their old uniforms. It altered the head cover to better fit a bun and was made to match the color and design of men’s uniforms, largely ignoring the main issue taken with the uniform: pants that were made to reach a male’s natural waist but were uncomfortable for most women’s hips. This begs the question of why the overhaul of current uniforms failed to address the most common problem faced by female officers. Were any women involved in the process? Was no gender-specific data gathered before the project was undertaken?

The price discrepancy in gendered Navy uniforms brings up an additional, and sadly common, issue: the pink tax. The pink tax refers to the extra money women are charged for the same items and services as men. It has been proven time and again that it is more expensive to simply exist as a woman than as a man[6]. And this is not simply because of sexist demands on women to upkeep their appearance and wardrobe. It extends to even the most simple and basic products. Women’s clothing articles are, on average, 7% more expensive than equivalent (in shape and material quality) articles for men. Their longevity tends to be shorter as well. A 1994 study by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs estimated that women pay an annual $1,351 ($2,369 when adjusted for inflation) “tax” simply for buying products created for their gender. One would hope that if women pay more for existing, their possessions and facilities would at least be catered to their needs, however this is often not the case.

Have you ever wondered why the line for women’s restrooms can seemingly stretch on for miles while the line for the men’s room is nonexistent? Public restrooms are largely constructed with the male body in mind. We are aware that women make up larger percentages of the elderly and disabled populations than men, that they are more likely to be accompanied by a child or someone for whom they are a caregiver, and that roughly one fifth of them are menstruating at any given time.

All of these are excellent reasons why they would spend more time in the restroom than men, however it seems that building designers have failed to gather and failed to consider data that would make the public restroom experience comfortable for all genders. Not all examples are so benign, however. Women are underrepresented in most clinical trials, resulting in less effective medicine for them[7]. To resolve all of these issues, we must be sure to gather data on all bodies. Doing so would be both meaningful and useful to all, resulting in better health, fewer injuries, and less necessary follow-up to issues the data gap currently causes.

If we build resources and programs with data in mind that comes exclusively from the average man, said resource or program will have been built for one half of the population. If we break this down further, and assume the white man as the default, the world becomes built for less than one third of the population in America[8], and a far smaller percentage in many other countries. To prevent further harm, we must adopt an outlook where the male body is not seen as the default, and women are not seen as simple variations of men. We must collect data from different populations separately and consider all of it when constructing the systems that govern our world.

It is not sustainable to allow such societal divides to continue. Londa Schiebinger of the Gendered Innovations project at Stanford University offered in a 2015 interview with NPR: “My suggestion here would be that all engineers, architects, urban planners, automobile designers go back and look at their standards,” Then ask: “What is the basic standard that things are engineered for? Who is the assumed ideal subject or user?”[9] To engineer things in an equitable way like she suggests, we must ensure that we have gathered data on as diverse a population as will be using the product or system in question.

More often than not, that means we must intentionally gather data on women and utilize it in the same way that we would data gathered from men. Only then will we be able to build a world in which people of all genders can exist equitably. As this column continues, I will be doing deep dives each quarter into one area in which data’s gender gap is taking a dangerous toll on women. Check back next quarter to learn about how research on a crucial health issue that affects 90% of women is underfunded and solutions scarce, while there is a surplus of studies and over-the-counter medications for a secondary health issue that affects 20% of men. I hope you are as eager as I am to learn more and bring these issues to light.


[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/10/03/americans-commuting-choices-5-major-takeaways-from-2016-census-data/

[2] https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/07/car-accident-injury-safety-women-dummy-seatbelt/594049/

[3] Ankin Law Office LLC. “Female Crash Test Dummies Now Regularly Being Used.” Hg.org, www.hg.org/legal-articles/female-crash-test-dummies-now-regularly-being-used-27482.

[4] https://taskandpurpose.com/the-navys-uniform-changes-are-anything-but-gender-neutral

[5] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/may/13/navys-new-female-uniforms-draw-fire-academy-why-ar/

[6] https://graziadaily.co.uk/life/real-life/expensive-woman/

[7] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/308/5728/1517.long

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/08/65-percent-of-all-american-elected-officials-are-white-men/

[9] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/08/04/429005094/women-theres-a-reason-why-youre-shivering-in-the-office

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Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner is a writer and educator from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston and currently resides in Brooklyn. She works for the NYC Department of Education, following a history with creative writing nonprofits and public schools.

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