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What I’m Reading: Invisible Women

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

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I recently heard journalist Caroline Criado Perez interviewed on the podcast 99% Invisible. The podcast overall is focused on “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” It just so happens that it is aptly named for this episode which dives into Perez’s latest book: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

The book explores the data gap in research and design—how so many of our systems (think: healthcare, education) and the products we use each day (think: cars, ovens) fail to consider women in their basic design. Designing for men is often the default and the range of outcomes can vary from lost time to lost lives.

One example Perez outlines in the podcast interview is the standard for crash test dummies used in automotive design. These dummies are based on the “50th percentile male” as the default and all safety tests are based on this. Women’s bodies are significantly different from men’s, with the result being that cars aren’t designed to fit women, putting them at a much higher risk—women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die in a collision. It wasn’t until 2011 that the US introduced female crash test dummies, but even these scaled-down male dummies leave room for error in design.

Of course, a full book of examples like this one can lead to shock, frustration and perhaps anger. With my own background in user research and user experience design, the frustration that I feel stems from the fact that reversing this concept of the “default male” is so simple. When conducting user research for a digital design—a website, mobile app, product interface—you consider who your users are, and you go out and talk to them. You spend time observing them in their day-to-day activities or you simulate an experience so you can observe them using the design as they would normally. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And then you change what doesn’t. 

The book lays out all of the hundreds of examples of times when researchers and designers either didn’t consider women as part of their user base or they just didn’t care to get their insights. The invisible women phenomenon is not one created by the inaccessibility of women or their unwillingness to provide feedback—it’s the lack of asking.

In the first example Perez provides on the podcast, she outlines what can happen when researchers or designers take the time to gather insights from the other 50% of the population. Once the city planners in Karlskoga, Sweden took into account women’s travel patterns in their snow-plowing policies, the result was fewer injuries and ultimately saved money for the city. This assessment was done in an effort to provide gender-neutral policies across government services.

We may not all be in a position to change our local government’s policies or adjust the safety regulations for car manufacturers, but if we look around us it is likely that there are plenty of other ways that our products and the world around us have been designed for the default male. Is it the freezing temperatures at your office? The discrepancy in restroom accommodations? Or perhaps something related to the product or service you and your company provide?

My challenge to you is to look harder for the invisible women, talk to them, and break the cycle of the default male assumptions.