Thinking differently about sex and gender during the design process helps identify risks & generate new opportunities

Milena Bacalja Perianes
May 31 · 7 min read

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

We are human beings. However, our needs and experiences of what it means to be human are different based on how we look, where we are born, how we are treated, and how we move through the world.

Human-centered design has too often treated ‘man’ as the placeholder for human.

Whilst some would argue that this is just the result of living in a patriarchal society, others suggest that this is the by-product of different social justice movements’ idealogical attempts to promote equality over difference. Regardless, there are endless groups of people whose needs, experiences and pain points remain unmet and underserved by technology and design.

Whether motivated by social or financial profit, the private sector has the potential to address this gender gap in concrete ways through Women-Centered Design (WCD), a new concept that we at the Menstrual Health Hub (MH Hub) have developed.

We need to first understand and then design for sex and gender differences

Don’t fret, I am not here to give a lecture on gender theory. However, understanding how sex and gender play out in the design of products — and in the building of a business — can have very real impacts on their success and profitability.

Women’s bodies necessitate gender-specific innovation that responds to their biological realities

Sex refers to the biological characteristics (hormones, physiology, and sex chromosomes) which denote at birth whether you are labelled male or female. Though we are increasingly witnessing variations around this, there are real-world differences between being born with the reproductive organs and physiology of a what is commonly agreed upon as female, compared to male.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

While it seems obvious that the female reproductive health system looks, feels and functions totally differently to men’s, there is a real gap in clinical research, and health-tech innovation around female-related health needs.

Research suggests that women unequally bear the burden of the gender gap in terms of their health outcomes. There are a variety of chronic diseases that are more prevalent in women that need to be managed differently than the way men manage them.

This fact, paired with the increasing growth of the femtech industry (estimated to be worth $50 billion by 2025!), suggests that the female reproductive system is a massive market opportunity. How effectively companies can capitalise on this opportunity will be deeply connected to how well they understand and can market to women in gender-appropriate ways.

Gender, on the other hand, refers to the ways that “being female” has a specific social meaning more broadly. Gender is about how women move, talk, dress and understand their place in the world.

Our sex may be female, however we experience the world because we are seen as women.

Let’s leave the academics and activists to engage in the nature vs. nurture debate (that’s what they’re good at). What is important for conversations about innovation and design in the modern world comes down to this: businesses are ignoring the risks of gender-neutral design, or the opportunity of designing gender-specific solutions to human health needs.

Gender-neutral design does an injustice the complex biological, socio-cultural, economic and environmental needs of half the population. (This is further complicated when you consider designing products and services for those who fall outside the gender binary of male or female.)

It is fundamental that we start thinking about how our experience of being women influences us as users, consumers, and purchasers of specific products and services. This is the purpose of Women-Centered Design.

Image: @bimberkeck_ on Instagram

Women-Centered Design is the acknowledgement that that the female sex poses an incredible market opportunity. It implores designers, innovators and investors to drive the market in ways that are cognizant of what women need. WCD challenges them to rethink how products are marketed so that they acknowledge and respect women’s purchasing power. (Women’s spending drives the world economy at roughly $20 trillion annually, which is 40% larger than China’s economy.)

Innovating with Women-Centered Design in mind calls for products and services to be designed for, with, and by women based on the real pain points they experience in daily life.

Importantly, it begs businesses to move away from making everything pink and move towards putting women at the center of their business strategy.

Image: myrtool.en.made-in-china.com

The benefits of Women-Centered Design

Using a WCD approach to innovation and investment has substantial economic and social benefits for innovators, investors and users themselves by identifying untapped social and market opportunities around women’s bodies and lives. It also reduces the risks associated with gender-neutral design, which can result in less effective or even dangerous products for women.

We all know the classic seatbelt example, whereby seat belts were tested using crash test dummies with sizes and weights representing the average male. It should come as no surprise that women are 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured than men in car crashes! While physical danger is the extreme end of the spectrum, comfort and practicality are a regular burden for women. Ask any pregnant woman what it is like to put a seatbelt on. “Does it go above or below my belly?” Hmm. Or think about smart phones. Their size (and consequent comfort factor) is based o the average size of a man’s hand.

Image: https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/seat-belt-during-pregnancy-tips-to-wear-comfortably/

The early emergence of health apps, and their failure to account for women’s most important vital sign, the menstrual cycle, is another example of where gender-neutral design got it wrong.

And what about safety equipment? Ill-fitting and poorly structured safety equipment, such as oversized vests and hardhats, is a serious hazard to female employees. Designing these with women also in mind would dramatically improve female safety and productivity .

Gender bias exists everywhere

Historically, females have been excluded from human and animal clinical research trials. When female animal subjects had been used, the reproductive organs were often removed to stop hormone fluctuations from affecting the results. Newsflash: the menstrual cycle is omnipresent in women’s lives, sometimes as long as 40 years throughout their lives.

This begs the question: what does this mean for the efficacy of drug treatment?

Women experience higher rates of adverse drug reactions than men do.”

There is wide body of research that suggests that women are disproportionally affected by side effects due to miscalculations, or limited (or non-existent) understanding of how medications will be affected by the different stages of the menstrual cycle. This is not just a matter of reproductive health but understanding how the existence of the cycle itself can impact other health issues for women. I could go on and on with examples of how gender-neutral design negatively impacts women, or marginalised groups because

when products are considered “gender neutral” yet are built without consideration for women’s needs, there are negative and even dangerous consequences for women users.

The transformative potential of Women-Centered Design

Utilizing WCD principles can fundamentally improve the design and uptake of products, services and programs. At the same time, WCD has the potential to maximise return on investment because it creates space for understanding the complex factors that impact women’s decision-making as users and consumers.

One example of a company practicing WCD is Vancouver-based Lunapads, a women-owned social mission driven business that helps people have more positive and informed experiences of their period, and by extension, their bodies overall. Their sustainable personal hygiene products — period panties and reusable pads — have been developed with women’s environmental concerns and socio-cultural preferences at the forefront of their design strategy.

So how can one actually do Women-Centered Design?

At the Menstrual Health Hub, we have developed four principles and simple questions under each to get you started. These can help you consider important factors when building and testing your product, service or program.

Image: Menstrual Health Hub (MH Hub)
  1. Socio-cultural factors: What contextual beliefs or practices (political, religious, etc.) could impact how women use this product/service?
  2. Biological factors: How does the product/service account for women’s reproductive and physical functions?
  3. Economic factors: How does the price point of the product/service compare to and impact the users overall earnings?
  4. Environmental factors: What infrastructure is needed to improve women’s use or uptake of the product/service?

Starting simple unleashes endless possibilities. Understanding the complex gendered factors that fundamentally impact women’s decision-making as users, consumers and influencers can improve the efficacy of products, enable better product/market fit, build stronger relationships with customers, and increase the bottom dollar of a business.

The gender gap is not just a moral imperative anymore, it is a market one!

For more information on WCD, get in touch with us at info@mhhub.org.

Menstrual Health Hub

A global female health impact consultancy working with the public & the private sector to strengthen collective impact & increase innovation around the globe.

Milena Bacalja Perianes

Written by

Social Impact Innovator, Femtech Expert, Gender Specialist: Co- Founder of the MH Hub http://mhhub.org/

Menstrual Health Hub

A global female health impact consultancy working with the public & the private sector to strengthen collective impact & increase innovation around the globe.

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