Gender Bias In Design

Three women lead the Lucid Motors design team, (l. to r.) Joann Jung, Sue Magnusson and Jenny Ha.
New guard: Three women lead the Lucid Motors design team, (l. to r.) Joann Jung, Sue Magnusson and Jenny Ha. Courtesy of Lucid Motors

The lack of input by women in everyday product designs can have unintended, even deadly, consequences

It’s generally not a good strategy to ignore half of your prospective customers, employees, partners or clients. And yet that is exactly what happens every day everywhere, with governments, policy makers, brand owners and product designers.  

There are about 7.6 billion people in the world, and women make up 49.6 percent of them, according to 2019 World Bank data. Even so, what the award-winning author and activist Caroline Criado Perez calls the “gender data gap” is omnipresent in nearly every aspect of our lives. And the findings are not positive for females in this world.  

In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez cites product designs that discriminate against women and can pose safety risks as a result.

In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez cites product designs that discriminate against women and can pose safety risks as a result. Courtesy of Harry N. Abrams

In her 2019 book titled “Invisible Women—Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” she documents case after case in which women are slighted in ways that often can inconvenience, discriminate or even cause serious harm or death.  

“One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate,” Criado Perez writes. “Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even: men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all. Because when we say human, on the whole, we mean man.” 

The 36-year-old, Brazilian-born Criado Perez came up with what she calls the “Henry Higgins effect.” In the 1956 musical “My Fair Lady,” she writes that “phoneticist Henry Higgins is baffled when, after enduring months of his hectoring put-downs, his protegee-cum-victim Eliza Doolittle finally bites back. ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ he grumbles. It’s a common complaint—and one for which the common solution is to fix the women. This is unsurprising in a world where what is male is seen as universal and what is female is seen as ‘atypical’.”   

Caroline Criado Perez

Caroline Criado Perez argues that a unisex, one-size-fits-all approach to product development carries inherent risks and challenges. Courtesy of Rachel Louise Brown

With 32 pages of footnotes, the exhaustively researched “Invisible Women”—which won numerous prizes, including the 2019 Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award, and is now published in 24 languages—makes a compelling case for the damage done, and opportunities lost, due to this pervasive, male-default mindset.  

Criado Perez, who lives in London, has a degree in English language and literature from the University of Oxford, and studied behavioral and feminist economics at the London School of Economics. Her research and advocacy have attracted attention. She was the 2013 recipient of the Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award and received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honors 2015. In 2020 Criado Perez earned Finland’s HÄN award for promoting equality.  

The Default-Male Approach  

Generally speaking, she writes, a unisex, one-size-fits-all approach to product development carries with it inherent risks and challenges. Here are a few examples.  

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is primarily based on male sizes and characteristics, and the makers generally adapt these products for women by simply making them smaller. A 2016 U.K. Trades Union Congress (TUC) report found that “less than 10 percent of women working in the energy sector and just 17 percent in construction currently wear PPE designed for women.” The TUC notes that differences in chests, hips and thighs can affect the way the straps fit on safety harnesses. The use of a “standard” U.S. male face shape for dust, hazard and eye masks means they don’t fit most women. The same with safety boots.  

And the issue is not just comfort, notes Criado Perez, but “ill-fitting PPE hampers women’s work—and can, ironically, sometimes itself be a safety hazard. Loose clothing and gloves can get caught in machinery, while overly large boots can cause tripping.” And in this time of the airborne COVID-19 virus, it’s clear to see how ill-fitting face masks can pose a major hazard to the wearer.  

A high percentage of healthcare workers—an estimated 70 percent or more—are female, and yet most masks are designed for Caucasian men, with a high nose bridge, and do not account for the elevations of the face inherent in people of different ethnicities, races and gender. From a regulatory perspective, most mask regulations tend to focus on filtration, which is vital, but becomes much less relevant if the mask doesn’t conform properly to the face and allows leakage around the edges.  

Liz Daily is a Chicago-based soft-goods designer who has spent the past decade combining industrial design training with her knowledge of fabric, pattern making and apparel construction. She has devoted much of the past year working on fine-tuning fabric face masks. She notes that “fabric does not behave like plastic—it has its own rules. Seam type and finish, thread type, grainline and pattern design can completely change the outcome of a product.”  

But it’s not only materials that make a difference in the end product’s effectiveness—it’s also preciseness of fit. The same principles largely apply, regardless of the material used. In measuring the contour and size of various individuals’ heads and faces, the differences can be significant, she notes. Race, ethnicity, gender, hair volume and the like all need to be carefully taken into account.  

“A lot of times, I think the attitude is, ‘It won’t make that much of a difference,’ or ‘It’s close enough’,” she said in a phone interview. “You have to really look at the anatomy and do the tests and get the feedback. That just isn’t work that can be skipped.”  

As for gender-related design differences, Daily suggests that “The temptation is to flatten the idea of a ‘general woman’. There isn’t this diversity of views about different types of women … I think it’s just more intuitive for male designers to imagine [such differences] for themselves, and then there is like, ‘And this is for the women.’ There’s like an idea of one woman. I think that’s a human thing to do, and that’s why it’s so important to have more female industrial designers. That’s why it’s important to make the case for all the different types of women you know and what their experiences are like, to just bring a little more sensitivity and scope to the experiences of women.”  

About Vehicle Design 

Criado Perez goes on to note that inattention to such details can have deadly consequences for women when it comes to vehicle design.  

When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured than a man, and 71 percent more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt use and crash intensity. She is also 17 percent more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed, and for whom. The book details in length why this is.  

Criado Perez briefly notes that the differences go way beyond height. There are pelvic differences and differences in upper bodies. “Women have less muscle mass in their upper bodies, so that makes them more susceptible to whiplash resulting from a rear impact. None of that is accounted for in the current crash test dummies that are used.” 

Additionally, automotive crash test dummies were introduced in the 1950s and for decades those physical models were based on the physical characteristics of the fiftieth percentile male. Female crash test dummies were only introduced in 2011 and yet are still not widely deployed. And, she adds, despite car crashes being the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma, “we haven’t even yet developed a seat belt that works for pregnant women.” 

The book lists many other documented examples of products designed to default-male characteristics, from farming tools and smartphones to the width of piano keys. Even virtual reality (VR) headsets tend to produce more motion sickness in women because product testing is conducted mainly on male subjects while overlooking the differences in eye functions of the two sexes. 

Pushing for Change  

San Francisco-based designer Ti Chang is another outspoken advocate when it comes to both designing for women and for women in design. She earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a master’s degree in design products from London’s Royal College of Art.  

Chang is cofounder and vice president of design at Crave Inc., a 9-year-old firm that produces sophisticated sex toys such as vibrators that also can be worn as jewelry. Crave states online: “All of our products are designed and developed by our women-led team in our advanced R&D center and micro-factory in San Francisco. We then oversee every step of the manufacturing process across our global supply chain with all products undergoing final [quality control] and fulfillment back at our facility …”  

Commenting on general design trends, she cites the all-too-common product development practice of “shrink it and pink it,” by which male-dominated design teams take a product that was already designed for men and adapt it for women by simply making it smaller and pink.  

Late last year, Chang posted on Twitter: “Most people assume that the products we use in our physical world are created for all genders. Because the products we buy are (usually) not gendered, we naturally assume that we as women have been accounted for in the design of those objects. After all, we are 50 percent of the population, right? 

“This is unfortunately false. When the everyday products we use are designed by teams that are 85 to 95 percent male, how can the female experience be accounted for? When there are barely any stakeholders in the creation process, women’s experiences in physical spaces are ignored.”  

Numbers Don’t Lie  

To underscore her point, Chang points to data. A 2018 report by the U.K.’s Design Council stated that in the United Kingdom, while women account for 63 percent of the students studying art and design, males account for an estimated 95 percent of the jobs in product and industrial design. The same report notes that women occupy only 17 percent of all design manager positions, and that women working as product, clothing and related designers earn 18.3 percent less than their male counterparts. (See the 42-page report here: (   

Commenting on the study in a January article she contributed to Core77, a New York-based design portal, Chang wrote: “Unfortunately, the report doesn’t break down the fields of study into specific categories, but it seems unlikely that 95 percent of industrial design-specific students would be male. In my experience, and the experiences of many women I have spoken to, the classroom experience was nearly 50/50. Most women, including myself, didn’t think gender disparity would be such a problem because it seemed balanced until we got out into the real world.” 

Meanwhile, the latest annual salary survey of U.S. industrial designers by Coroflot, a long-running career community focused on the design and creative professions online, gathered data from 10,307 working industrial designers. Of those respondents, 81 percent were male and just 19 percent female. While appearing better than the U.K.’s numbers, they are still dismal, Chang says.  

In that same article, she noted how early last December she wrote about the Design Council’s findings on her personal Instagram account, asking what was happening to all the female industrial design graduates. She said replies poured in from male and female allies. Then Yanko Design, an online magazine with nearly 1 million followers reshared her post, and the dialogue exploded. Chang recounts what happened next: “Both on my post and Yanko’s reshare of my post, countless men argued that the statistics are false and added the below commentary, which ironically supports the underlying issue: 

  • “Men are natural problem solvers and women aren’t.” 
  • “They work less hours on average and won’t make sacrifices (such as 70-hour work weeks) which are necessary in order to reach leading positions.” 
  • “Women can’t take the pressure; it was common to see a girl cry.” 
  • “Women don’t have to sacrifice as much as men do.” 
  • “I could take care of 10 children, and it would barely start to resemble the effort I put into having a successful design career.” 

“As appalling as these statistics are,” Chang wrote, “the misogyny that emerged in the 1,300 comments after Yanko Design reposted them were more shocking. This post has since received 17,000+ likes, demonstrating that these shocking stats clearly struck a nerve in the industrial design industry. For many women like myself who have been in this industry for years, we are not surprised, because they definitely reflect our lived experiences. We had long suspected this, but we had never seen such concrete stats until now.”  

Recently Chang teamed with Caterina Rizzoni, an industrial designer at product design consultancy Kaleidoscope Innovation of Cincinnati, to launch an initiative called Design Allyship. They say they founded this effort “to provide designers with actionable resources to improve the condition of historically marginalized designers in the industrial and product design industry. These tools are meant to be shared, distributed and used to start conversations that guide others towards allyship, acceptance and the uplifting of all designers.”  

“Allyship,” they explain, is the ongoing practice of solidarity and partnership by someone who is in a position of power or privilege. The website——offers a free, 18-page guide on “How to be a better ally to women in industrial design.” Its aim is to help combat gender inequality in the design industry.  

Chang and Rizzoni do not advocate men should only work on “men’s products” and women on “women’s products,” but rather stress that the design process is improved when designers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences come together to collaborate.   

IDSA Focus on Inclusion  

Others are taking steps, as well, to try to improve the diversity of the industrial design profession—not only for women but for others who may find themselves disadvantaged, discriminated against or largely excluded. The Dulles, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America in July 2020 established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council (DEIC).  

This group of volunteers, noted IDSA Executive Director Chris Livaudais, began work almost immediately by formulating ideas and recommendations that will create positive change across various spectrums, with the aim of boosting diversity minority representation in programming; supporting minority and low-income communities, while increasing access to industrial design opportunities; and serving as a catalyst to transform the design industry to better serve and reflect our diverse country and world.  

Additionally, IDSA is stepping up its long-standing commitment to women in design via a series of steps (see sidebar).  

High-Power Partners 

In a separate but not totally unrelated initiative, the Montreal-based World Design Organization in August 2020 announced it was partnering with a United Nations subgroup called U.N. Women in Asia and the Pacific “to work together to identify design solutions to support the prevention of violence against women and girls.”  

Violence against women is learned, the groups stated. It is, at its core, driven by a basic acceptance of gender inequality and the belief that women and girls are less valuable than men and boys. “A critical path to prevent and respond to this type of violence is therefore to instill early on, the foundations of gender equality guided by empathy, understanding and mutual respect. And while enacting systemic change is difficult, evidence shows that violence against women can be reduced in years, not generations, as previously thought.” 

WDO President Srini Srinivasan added: “We need to recognize that design is an important and integral part of the development process, and our intent is to encourage government, industry and community to think about design as a means to solve problems.”  

It is somewhat ironic that design is seen as the solution to some of these difficult problems related to discrimination and bias against women, and yet women currently hold an insufficient number of seats at the table when it comes to effecting change. 

Next Steps 

Chang hosted an hour-long Instagram Live chat with Criado Perez on Feb. 17, and they concluded the session by posing the question as to what can be done to start addressing these issues.  

For starters, Chang said, “If you want to learn about the experiences of women, you don’t have to study them. They’re not extinct. Just hire them. The more diverse your team is, the more thoroughly your team can examine a problem from all different angles.”  

Criado Perez cited three key points:  

  • Instead of thinking about the best person for the job, think about the best team for the job.  
  • Collect sex-disaggregated data. This is crucial, as it helps you to make realizations you might otherwise miss if focusing only on considering all the data together. That’s one of the root problems with mask design. Most designers use five gender-neutral head forms, and yet there really is no such thing. “They’re trying to make it unisex, and that’s just not the reality of how our bodies work,” she noted.  
  • Men are not gender neutral. That is at the heart of many of these problems—the default male. It’s considering the average man, usually the average white man, as being representative of the average human. Instead, always consider the many variations among all types of humans. 

Just paying attention to these points would make a big difference, Criado Perez asserted. Two of them have to do with simply changing mindsets.  

Also, adopting the sunshine principle—focusing on openly discussing and shining an unflinching light on these critical issues—appears to be the best approach to raising awareness and eventually moving the needle toward a more equitable end result.  

And importantly, be an ally. That’s a good place to start.  

NOTE: To view an 18-minute YouTube clip of Caroline Criado Perez discussing her book in an April 2019 presentation, go to: 

By Robert Grace | June 7, 2023

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