10/03/2021 Anna Sutherland

BITE exclusive: Anna Sutherland in Creativebrief

The pandemic has exposed sexism in design: Let’s innovate a more inclusive future

Anna Sutherland, Senior Designer at Echo unpacks the importance of inclusive data and design that results in products that are better for everyone.

Front-line workers have indisputably been the true heroes of the pandemic. Putting their lives on the line to keep us safe, their tireless efforts have been instrumental in helping us all weather the storm.

Imagine the outrage, then, when reports circulated in April 2020 that a large percentage of key workers’ lives were at risk because of ill-fitting PPE. Some could barely see over visors that were too large for their face, while others had to tape shut the gaps around their jawline. Many had to roll up the sleeves of their oversized, fluid-repellent gowns.

What was the common denominator for these shared experiences of design failures? They were all women.

Powerful innovation comes from designs that will work long-term and adapt to changing consumer desires.

Design’s unnerving reluctance

When 77% of NHS workers are women, it is truly wrong that PPE has not been designed with their needs at the forefront. Instead, men’s bodies have been prioritised, and a disproportionate amount of women’s lives have been put at unnecessary risk.

Almost a year later, not much has changed. One in five female doctors are still concerned about inadequate PPE, according to the Independent, arguably more so given the new, more infectious strains of the virus.

Yet, to me, this is neither shocking nor surprising. Design has a long history of suiting men’s needs above women’s, and the ongoing lack of appropriate PPE is just another example of sexism within the sector. Over the past year, design has not innovated itself to resolve these critical and dangerous flaws. Women working at the frontline of this pandemic are being put at risk. We need to ask what is driving this unnerving reluctance to create design that suitably safeguards them.

It is no secret that the industry has historically ignored women’s bodies. From cars that are 71% less safe for women, crash test dummies are based on male physiology, to voice recognition technology that cannot recognise women’s voices because algorithms are tested on male data sets. The examples of inequality in design are numerous.

The provenance of this issue largely stems from a lack of women around the design table. As men are channelled far more into creative and engineering occupations, the products they create far better suit their own needs than that of their female counterparts’. While gender parity in design is slowly increasing, women still only made up 22% of the UK design industry in 2018.

Sufficient data on female bodies is equally limited, meaning that entrepreneurs lack the information they need to make compelling cases for inclusive design. They are therefore less likely to get funding and investment. As a result, products for women remain of the ‘shrink it’, ‘pink it’ and ‘price it up’ variety, rather than genuinely catering to their needs.

A one size fits all approach

This rings true in the context of the pandemic. As a result of competition and price battles to produce PPE at speed and low cost, it’s unsurprising that designers took a one size fits all approach. As the virus renders the future unpredictable, few companies are looking 15-20 years ahead. Instead, they focus on tackling the here and now.

Yet powerful innovation comes from designs that will work long-term and adapt to changing consumer desires. Take deodorant brand Sure as an example. Challenging the previously wide and clunky model better suited for men’s larger grip, the new can was moulded to ergonomically fit women’s hands. The result is a product that suits women’s needs that will ultimately last for future generations.

It is critical to invest in design and innovation as we navigate our way out of the pandemic. This entirely novel landscape has indeed created challenges, but also new opportunities to rethink the way in which we live and redesign the post-COVID future.

Following the lockdown boom in e-commerce, many brands have accelerated their drive toward innovative packaging that fits through a letter box. Navarro’s flat wine bottles made from recycled PET, or Wild’s refillable deodorant unite important sustainability credentials with practical pack designs to help consumers make more conscious choices, without even having to open the door to the postman.

The key learning from these innovations is that lockdown can inspire, rather than hinder, truly progressive design. In the case of designing for women’s bodies, the past year has shone a concerning but much-needed light on the limitations of the current design world. Yet, the problem is not exclusive to gender. Not built for women’s smaller frames, standard PPE also doesn’t accommodate for women who wear religious head coverings. Evidently, gendered design intersects with factors such as faith and race, meaning that we must look at different demographics’ unique and individual perspectives when designing products.

Successful universal design often stems from designing for those with distinct, more complex needs.

Inclusive design benefits everyone

Yet, the commercial reality is that manufacturers will always design for the broadest market. It is easy to argue that it makes simple commercial sense to optimise products for the majority, as that is where economies of scale are found.

Nonetheless, successful universal design often stems from designing for those with distinct, more complex needs. OXO’s Good Grip range, for example, began with the goal to develop products appropriate for people with arthritis. By questioning how to make a product better for those often ignored by mainstream design, the OXO innovation team actually created tools that were better for everyone in the long run.

There is no such thing as the average person, particularly when that average is calculated in relation to white, able bodied men. In fact, something designed using this average male data is highly unlikely to suit the majority of men, most of whom sit outside of the mythical average. It’s time to close that gap and start investing in design that meets individual needs. In many cases, it can determine the difference between life and death.

The pandemic has triggered an inconceivable number of changes in our lives. Let’s make sure that the impetus to design a more inclusive future is one of them.

Read the article on Creative Brief here.

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