A couple of days ago, I was reading this brilliant article on “Discrimination by Design” by ProPublica, whose work I keenly follow. The article points out some of the ways in which design discriminates amongst different people in the society and hence treats them differently. This got me wondering about certain things around me that I have certainly found awkward, but haven’t really thought about them from a discriminatory angle. But then, in the ‘man-made’ world, what else could one expect?
How many of us have gone to big shopping malls or fancy showrooms, and have noticed that there are washrooms only for men and women? In the progressive (or at least that’s what we believe to be) society we live in, we very well know that the binary concept of gender is no longer valid. And yet, while these entrepreneurs are thinking about how to make their businesses big, they have no interest whatsoever in thinking about gender-neutral washrooms and changing rooms. It holds true for most of the offices as well.
In fact, you would be surprised to see offices where it’s nearly impossible to find a decent washroom for women! I was reading a year-old article by Time that details out the problems that the washrooms have and how they are discriminatory towards women, and I was shocked to realize how sexist the public places around us have been architected. The discrimination has been so discernible that Sarah Schindler, a law professor from University of Maine, has aptly termed it as Architectural Exclusion. And why would this happen? It’s all because the workplaces were never made for women. Women were supposed to sit at home while men were the bread-earners.
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Don’t even get me started on government’s outlook towards creating public spaces keeping women in mind! If it weren’t for the restaurants that have cropped everywhere, women wouldn’t have an option to attend to nature’s call while they are on the road. The officials who are responsible for the public infrastructure in our country have never bothered about it because men never had a concern about it. It has always been easy for them to just use the roadsides to feel the bliss!
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You would find enough evidences of the rampant sexism in ‘man-made’ sports world as well. For instance, in Basketball, the height of the net is 10 feet tall – much higher than the average height of professional women players in basketball which is 6 feet. Despite several athletes and sports experts raising this issue time and again, no heed has been paid to revisit this norm.
Now, when I talk about design, it isn’t just restricted to physical spaces. It extends beyond the everyday objects that we touch and feel, and even covers the software and applications that we interact with. Most of us are avid users of Whatsapp and can talk at lengths about how it has revolutionized the world of messaging. But how many of us have really paid attention to how sexist some of the emoticons are? If you look closely, you’ll realize the doctor, the engineer and the policeman, all being men while women are busy getting nails, massage and haircut done and being princesses! Snapchat has over time garnered huge amount of bad press around the clear discrimination that their filters show. The filters reveal a bias towards the western mainstream social media looks including slim face, bigger eyes, and sharp and pointed nose. You would wonder why not one but so many of the most popular apps end by coming up with designs that are discriminatory at so many levels, including gender, race, among others. This is bound to happen when the workforce in such companies isn’t truly representative of genders and races, and has an absence of diverse voices.
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Go beyond physical spaces and software world, and you would see gender discrimination even present in the way the clinical experiments are designed. A couple of months back, ProPublica published yet another eye-opening article on our not-so-perfect drug-safety system that excludes women out of the clinical trials, thereby risking their health. Even worse, the same article also outlines that pregnant women are perhaps the most underrepresented group in the entire clinical research process.
These are just a few examples of how you can experience discrimination by virtue of design in the world around you. You can find many more such examples in some of the mind-provoking books such as “Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-made environment” by Leslie Weisman and “Design and Feminism: Revisioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things” by Paola Antonelli and Joan Rothcshild.
It’s time that the architects, the designers and the planners look back at the public infrastructure, the architectural designs and the software applications and design them for human beings other than men as well. The equal sign has been hanging crooked for a very long time. Let’s fix it now!
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