Crash-test dummies based on the ‘average’ male are just one example of design that forgets about women – and puts lives at risk
When broadcaster Sandi Toksvig was studying anthropology at university, one of her female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” said the professor, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” Toksvig and her fellow students looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” the professor continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”
Women have always tracked their periods. We’ve had to. Since 2015, I’ve been reliant on a period tracker app, which reassures me that there’s a reason I’m welling up just thinking about Andy Murray’s “casual feminism”. And then there’s the issue of the period itself: when you will be bleeding for up to seven days every month, it’s useful to know more or less when those seven days are going to take place. Every woman knows this, and Toksvig’s experience is a neat example of the difference a female perspective can make, even to issues that seem entirely unrelated to gender.
For most of human history, though, that perspective has not been recorded. Going back to the theory of Man the Hunter, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence. And these silences are everywhere. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future, are all marked – disfigured – by a female-shaped “absent presence”. This is the gender data gap.
These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact on women’s lives, every day. The impact can be relatively minor – struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm, for example. Irritating, certainly. But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety tests don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like dying from a stab wound because your police body armour doesn’t fit you properly. For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.
The gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. In the 1956 musical My Fair Lady, phoneticist Henry Higgins is baffled when, after enduring months of his hectoring put-downs, his protege-cum-victim Eliza Doolittle finally bites back. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” he grumbles.
When ‘women’s work’ is deadly
The formula to determine standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. But a recent Dutch study found that the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower than the standard values for men doing the same activity. In fact, the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35%, meaning that current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women. This leads to the odd sight of female office workers wrapped in blankets in the summer, while their male colleagues wander around in shorts.
Not only is this situation inequitable, it is bad business sense: an uncomfortable workforce is an unproductive workforce. But workplace data gaps lead to a lot worse than simple discomfort and inefficiency. Over the past 100 years, workplaces have, on the whole, got considerably safer. In the early 1900s, about 4,400 people in the UK died at work every year. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 135. But while serious injuries at work have been decreasing for men, there is evidence that they have been increasing among women. The gender data gap is again implicated, with occupational research traditionally focused on male-dominated industries.
Every year, 8,000 people in the UK die from work-related cancers. And although most research in this area has been done on men, it’s far from clear that men are the most affected. Over the past 50 years, breast cancer rates in the industrialised world have risen significantly – but a failure to research female bodies, occupations and environments means that the data for exactly what is behind this rise is lacking. “We know everything about dust disease in miners,” Rory O’Neill, professor of occupational and environmental policy research at the University of Stirling, tells me. “You can’t say the same for exposures, physical or chemical, in ‘women’s work’.”
Cancer is a long-latency disease, O’Neill says, so even if we started the studies now, it would take a working generation before we had any usable data. But we aren’t starting the studies now. Instead, we continue to rely on data from studies done on men as if they apply to women. Specifically, Caucasian men aged 25 to 30, who weigh 70kg. This is “Reference Man” and his superpower is being able to represent humanity as a whole. Of course, he does not.
Men and women have different immune systems and hormones, which can play a role in how chemicals are absorbed. Women tend to be smaller than men and have thinner skin, both of which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to. This lower tolerance threshold is compounded by women’s higher percentage of body fat, in which some chemicals can accumulate. Chemicals are still usually tested in isolation, and on the basis of a single exposure. But this is not how women tend to encounter them.
In nail salons, where the workforce is almost exclusively female (and often migrant), workers will be exposed on a daily basis to a huge range of chemicals that are “routinely found in the polishes, removers, gels, shellacs, disinfectants and adhesives that are staples of their work”, according to the Canadian researcher Anne Rochon Ford. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, miscarriages and lung diseases. Some may alter the body’s normal hormonal functions. If these women then go home and begin a second unpaid shift cleaning their home, they will be exposed to different chemicals that are ubiquitous in common products. The effects of these mixing together are largely unknown.