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 the male body is used as the default when constructing buildings, forming transit systems, designing vehicles, formulating pharmaceutical drugs, and more. Much of the time this is an inconvenience for women, however, sometimes it is worse.
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.1 This is due to the fact that the test dummies around whom car safety features have historically been designed model the average male body.
The data that decides where airbags are placed, how the cabin takes impact, and much more has been largely 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.2 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 us.
Car safety features are not the only thing built using the male body as the default, and not all results of data’s gender gap are killing women. Many are majorly inconveniencing us. Consider, for example, what is considered to be “room temperature.” Generally, this is accepted to be around 70-72 degrees Fahrenheit. It has been shown that their physiology makes women feel colder than men do at the same temperature, and their metabolic rates are most normal at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, versus 71 degrees for men. Studies have been conducted that show that office productivity is best at 72 degrees3, however these studies fail to look at productivity separated by gender. It is speculated that, as women’s bodies function properly at a higher temperature, they would be more productive in warmer settings as well. However, we lack the separated data to make clear conclusions on the topic. This could be leading to decreased productivity in an increasingly female workforce.
One big mistake commonly made when extrapolating from one set of data is assuming that equal facilities are the same as equitable facilities. Have you ever wondered why the line for women’s restrooms can 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.
This and room temperature are just a few examples that demonstrate how the gender gap in data affects the day-to-day life of half of the population. Women are also underrepresented in most clinical trials, resulting in less effective medicine for them.4 As of 2016, the US Navy and Army were still working to adjust their uniforms so that they were comfortable and effective for women.5 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 America6, 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.
Data’s gender gap is making women shiver in their offices, causing them to miss the beginning of second acts due to restroom queues, keeping them ill from inadequate medicine, and causing them injury and harm in vehicular accidents. 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?”7 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.
2 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.