Why Feminism is Important in Design

Before I sat down to write this article I thought of other subtler ways to put the title like “Why Design teams should be inclusive of Women”, but in today’s day and age, we shouldn’t even be justifying inclusiveness of women, that would mean I’m ‘dumbing down’ (notice how I’ve used a term which was stereotyped with women for the general masses). But what still disappoints me is even after people like Obama, Trudeau, Andy Murray, Amitabh Bachhan etc. becoming an influential part of the movement, the common man and a lot of women (6 in 7) view feminism as some extremist movement taken up by man-haters and dismiss it as marketing trend. That’s sad! What people think as a recent marketing trend is in fact the struggle women went through for centuries to gain a right to vote, right to education and a right to be considered as an individual identity rather than another asset of a man. Before I start off on why feminism is important in design, let me briefly explain what exactly does feminism mean.

Feminism simply means removing the stereotypical gender roles from the society and considering men and women individual equals on the same parameters. So this should be called equality right? But we call it feminism instead of equality because it is the ‘feminine’ traits that both men and women are shamed for. It is the feminine traits that the society needs to accept and look at people as a spectrum rather than just their biological gender. This holds even more importance today than ever before as we move towards a more individualistic society where gender identity holds a lot of importance.

Design has often been discriminatory and caters mostly for the people in power. Sure that makes sense, because the people in power are our clients who will execute the product after the design has been finalized. Before design started becoming an intrinsic part of the entire product development process, designers had a limited role which was doing what the brief asked them to do, and handing over the design for production.

The lack of participatory design practices have often overlooked women’s needs, wants and preferences and catered for products from the male point of view.

Above: Is the Victoria's Secret Ad Campaign, Below is a social media campaign

Dictation of how women need to view their bodies:

Chastity, humility and dignity are ‘considered’ the assets of a lady. We don’t talk about our personal health & hygiene, menstruation and sexuality in public, as it makes us ‘profane’. For years, women’s bodies have been dictated by how men would like to see how women’s body. Coincidentally male view also happens to be the societal view of the ideal woman. Because women’s needs are often subdued because their sheer lack in numbers and domination we can see this view seeping down to bad policy making, bad retail practices and bad designs for women. Be it a lack of over-the-counter contraception pills, or the ease of getting an abortion without the society making their decision on it. The inaccessibility to basic needs like sanitary napkins at cheaper prices, to poor design/ unavailability of public toilets; the lack of body positivity in clothing and the catering and promoting an ‘ideal size’ in a particular role is another rampant area where design plays a huge role. Women are iconized and often objectified as sex symbols, but very rarely are they allowed to have their own sexuality. The lack of providers working in these domains causes them to have a market monopoly and often the outreach is limited.

Outdoors are not for you, Babe:

The women section is usually limited to a small corner in a two storey sports retail store, says a lot of about the perception of women being interested in sports and outdoor activities. Often women’s sports are dismissed, and aren’t taken seriously by our policy makers and even the media. The women who do want to enter sports are often considered masculine, which is unfair towards them. Moving away from competitive sports, the general perception is women are not outdoorsy as compared to men; outdoorsy women have to make do with men’s products because they are offered so little in their own range.

The cycle parking space outside the girls hostel

I had to come face to face with this reality recently when I recently moved to the campus and had to buy a cycle for commute. Among the best options to cycle in, you could choose a ‘step-through frame’ with thin profile tyers (popularly known as the ladies cycle) or a Y-frame/unisex bike/mountain bike with wider profile and thicker tyer threads. Ideally the Step-through frame is faster for flat terrain, and the mountain bikes faster in hilly terrains. but bicycle companies only offer ‘Miss India’ and “Ladybirds’ in a generic female pallete of various shades in pink/mauve. Similarly if you went to look out for a mountain bike in pink, you’d find none. See how a colour is associated with a bias, that if you wear flowy clothes (which often girls outfits do) you must love pink, and if you love pink you must not be the girl who likes to cycle on difficult terrains.

Gigi Hadid in a BMW ad campaign

Similarly with automobile industry, cars are primarily designed and sold as men’s product which ‘coincidentally women tend to drive’. Over the ages the gap is slowly fading, but the stereotype still remains that ‘women can’t drive’. The advent of adjustable seating and power steering has made commuting a lot easier, but a low car seating with lesser visibility of the road often rules out many cars for women. And if god-forbid the car does breakdown in the middle of your solo trip with a flat tyre, you know how difficult it is for someone with a weight of 50-60kgs to unscrew those bolts from the tyre. At any car show, a female size zero model will unfold the latest car, ever seen a muscular male model do the thing? But hey, the automobile industry is dominated by men, and the only place where most women are seen is the color and trim department.

Image credits- Getty

Dumbing down everything Tech:

When we’re in school, we see a good number of girls graduating , however as we go higher up to where the research is conducted, and ideas turn into reality and where the business happens, we start seeing the lesser number of females in the picture. There are a number of reasons for this: the hardhat culture, the lack of opportunities, women considered as bad employees etc. but as a result, when designing happens,the products become more male-centric.

Good HCI practices asks technology to rehabilitate all types of cognition, and kinds of user. More often than not while considering user personas for uni-sexual products, women tend to be under-represented as compared to men by the use of maybe a single persona to represent the needs of all types of women. Also their goals seem to be more superficial and aesthetic oriented than men. A reason why our mothers have a harder time with technology than our fathers, is that technology was not wired keeping their cognition in mind. It was ‘assumed’ that women weren’t as interested as men in tech. The practice of good HCI has shifted these patterns and slowly we are bridging these gaps.The presence of only female voices as Voice Assistants except when the role needs to dominate (eg: IBM Ross, IBM Watson) is a shocking realization on how deep-seeded our patriarchy really is.

Sexism in our Culture

I would particularly like to cite that we are in a unique point in time, women definitely enjoying the best time in their own history. Design can help reduce this gap at an even more faster pace, as it can help overcompensate where nature cannot. It can identify particular instances where a design interventions can help moving away from pre-historic roles, and stereotypes and biological shortcomings. Game design is another place, which currently caters mostly towards entertaining men. The female characters are highly sexualized and hence finds very less takers among women. Cities can start becoming much safer once the urban planning policies look at women reclaiming the community spaces and the nights.

The higher presence of feminine qualities like nurturing, listening, caring in our culture could significantly reduce the stress, depression, and other mental illnesses in our society. Teams which have good number of women are in general better performers.

Power of Design

The unique power of design to change cognition and rewire us to form new habits may one day eradicate the way we look at gender roles. Design has power to empower and make everyone feel like an intrinsic part of the society. With sensitive design we can break stereotypes, and for that designers need to look beyond cognitive biases, political biases, gender biases, social biases and start a dialogue on why should we exclude a particular group from our target users, but rather provide them with the power to choose. Through the ages, the greatest role of design has been to make life better; designers need to identify political movements which question the supremacy and the privileges of one group over the other. Feminism is just one movement that is asking the questions of inclusiveness. As we move towards a more global and diverse society, these questions expand to diverse gender groups,ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, economically underprivileged, specially-abled and so on.

We really can’t gain equal footing as women in the society if we don’t get men standing by us. You can give feminism any other name for your convenience, but that really is a refusal to address the ‘elephant in the room’ and calling it a fox, as the elephant feels to large to accommodate. We need feminists in design. After all, the things we shape, in turn shape us.