Ashwini Deshpande
Mar 8, 2021

It's past time to eliminate gender biases in design

From surgical instruments to crash test dummies and virtual assistants, gender biases and stereotypes have been built-into products causing real harm, says the co-founder of Elephant Design.

Crash test dummies designed as average males has skewed car crash safety to be more beneficial to men.
Crash test dummies designed as average males has skewed car crash safety to be more beneficial to men.

What is design?

Usually, it is a creative solution to a perceived problem or challenge. And in our field it is often a planned action to make a product, brand or experience better for its intended audience.

But when we speak of creating outstanding experiences, we need to be asking a few crucial and perhaps, rather obvious questions about who the experience focuses on. For whom is it being built and what will it actually do to the intended audience?

If we don’t ask these questions, one will find there are so many unconscious biases we live with, without ever being aware. 

Media reporting and communication, for instance, often bears responsibility for pushing the old stereotypes.

Here is an example of media coverage for an exceptionally accomplished sportsperson that stopped me in my tracks. While it may have been done with a hint of admiration, what it actually did was conform to a stereotype. I have not come across any male athlete being referred to or introduced by the number of children he has. Have you?

We routinely come across advertisements that show a male protagonist being the bread-winner with woman being the ‘dependent’ one. Here is one example from one of India's largest insurance brands that completely endorsed this subservient, dependent position of women rather nonchalantly.

There are many such examples and I am sure each of us can recall one or another.

Biased by design

This same gender bias is also inherent in product design; the healthcare space provides many illustrations of this. Take laparoscopic surgery, for example, where for years the standards of 'grip strength' of male and female surgeons has been debated, even though these instruments and the procedures themselves are all about precision and not brute strength.  

The startling fact is that 85% of women surgeons in the field have to undergo treatment for their wrists, necks, backs and shoulders from time to time. But why? Well, the truth could not be more obvious: Nearly every surgical instrument in the world is designed for men – and guess what? All the dimensions, angles and weights are designed using anthropometric data of men!

This isn’t limited to surgical instruments. Each and everything in the world is designed for men to use. Hard to believe?

Most of us drive cars. We are instructed to always wear seat belts while driving or travelling in cars and there is some sort of an assurance in our minds that wearing this makes our ride safe. Safety of cars, especially the efficacy of seat-belts is tested through a car crash test that uses mannequins with similar weights & dimensions as a real human. This practice that has been around in the automobile development since the 1960s. But would you believe that up until 2011, there was no female car crash dummy ever utilised in these tests? Statistics hence tell the rest of the tragic tale: In an identical impact, women are 45% more likely to have injuries. This was not simply a minor design flaw – it costed lives. This non-inclusive and thoughtless practice suggests that an entire gender might just be expendable!

But this phenomenon is universal. Everything in the world is typically designed for the white male who is approximately 70 kg and about 5 feet 7 inches tall. A male, who is both middle aged and middle class. 

L E T   T H A T   S I N K  I N.  

It is a revelation that needs to spur a revolution in the world where considerations like ethnicity, education, race and several other details are simply ignored in the interest of some absurd homogeneity. 

While today, a lot of us simply overlook such biases and can benignly blame it on the robot or the machine that might discriminate against us next, we need to ask the fundamental question – who designs these machines or apps or systems? The answer is clear: us humans, of course.

A classic example of this can be seen in AI-based assistants that make our lives easier and there are a great number of them across several intelligent applications – Siri, Cortana, Alexa. Notice the trend? When it comes to machines being in a servile position where we instruct them to carry out tasks, the default name & voice they have is that of a woman. Even the cover girl for the robotics revolution, Sofia, who caused quite a stir in the world of tech was an embodiment of the ‘sexy female bot’. For some reason, the collective imagination simply transfers its biases from flesh and blood to chrome and alloy. 

The problem, of course, begins at the briefing stage during the development cycle. It is also our responsibility to question these biases, educate ourselves about them and begin right. The next time we decide to utilise our smart, creative chops to develop the next pathbreaking idea– can we please check the biases and try incorporating a more universal approach? 

The best design is the one that truly benefits everyone, regardless of our race, gender, genetic makeup – or otherwise.  


Ashwini Deshpande is co-founder and director of Elephant Design.  

Disclaimer: (all images belong to their rightful owners. They are used here for illustrating the content of the article and have no commercial bearing)

Related Articles

Just Published

5 hours ago

Grab plans US IPO: As it looks to bolster its ...

Experts from Forrester, R3 and Superunion provide insight on what opportunities the listing, expected to be the largest-ever US IPO by a Southeast Asian company, will open up for marketers in the region.

6 hours ago

Ending the duopoly's free lunch

Should tech giants pay to use publisher content? Seasoned digital media and adtech professional Hari Shankar explains how we got here—and possible ways forward.

6 hours ago

My campaign: The making of British Airways 'The ...

Digitas UK chief creative officer Emma de la Fosse remembers how OgilvyOne assembled a 'core squad of ninjas' to develop a world-first campaign for the airline in 2013.

6 hours ago

In a tough year, Havas Media loses focus

AGENCY REPORT CARD: Here’s how Havas Media survived a challenging year in 2020, with top management departures and slowing business.