The crash tests with female dummies have allowed the incorporation of improvements such as adapters for the safety belt for pregnant women. Credit: Current Value.

  • Innovation

The challenge of designing a less sexist world

Technology introduces the gender perspective into design to put an end to male bias, which has limited not only scientific progress and its achievements, but even the conquest of space. From air conditioning to medicines, this paradigm shift incorporates gender differences to enhance usability, but especially to improve health and safety.

ANTONIO LÓPEZ | Tungsteno

While the data confirm that technology has neglected women throughout history, new projects are now paving the way for non-sexist and more ergonomic designs, with such everyday devices as seatbelt adapters for pregnant women or all-female portable toilets. Such inclusive designs have also reached the tech sector, including multi-million-dollar (and traditionally male) industries such as that of video games. In 2019, Google launched a gender neutral controller that is better suited to female hands (slightly smaller than those of men, according to a NASA study). The goal is for them to be able to play without making abnormal movements —which a conventional joystick, designed for male hands, forces them to do.

Ergonomics for the conquest of space

Adapting a design to the female body is not only a question for the market, but can be crucial to the advancement of research in specific fields such as space exploration. The example of the first all-female spacewalk in October 2019 —which had to be delayed because NASA only had one medium-size spacesuit available— highlights the consequences of using a male pattern for product design, a problem that is also very relevant when carrying out scientific studies.

Today's spacesuits were designed in the 1970s and have changed little throughout the history of the conquest of space, in which only 15 women have taken spacewalks, compared to more than 200 men. However, NASA seems to have taken note and has announced the creation of a new spacesuit for the astronauts of the Artemis mission, which is expected to take us back to the Moon, and with a woman aboard for the first time. According to the space agency, the new suit will be more adaptable in size to accommodate a wide variety of bodies.

The first all-female spacewalk was postponed for seven months due to a lack of appropriately sized space suits aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: NASA.

The data bias

Taking male/female differences into consideration in clinical decision-making is crucial to the advancement of science in general and to women's health in particular. A study published by Ohio Northern University explains how in recent decades clinical trials have not always adequately included women, or analysed gender-specific differences in the data. These shortcomings have undoubtedly hampered progress in understanding women's reactions to different medications, or how diseases such as strokes manifest themselves in females, and even why women are more likely to regain their language ability after a stroke, for example.

However, the same study also details some of the milestones reached in the acknowledgment by science of this necessary differentiation between the sexes. For example, since 1977, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed women of childbearing age to participate in research, provided that both they and the researchers agree. The FDA has also noted in numerous regulations the importance of examining differences in drug safety and efficacy among population subgroups to identify gaps in existing knowledge. The US Office of Research on Women's Health was established in 1990 with this goal in mind, and it reaffirms the need for continued research in areas of gender-based biology to reduce health disparities between men and women.

The gender data gap also affects safety, for example by not considering the different effects of an impact in an car accident on a woman versus a man. Credit: Insafe Seatbelt.

In the field of technology, the pattern is repeating itself. In Invisible Woman, the best innovation and tech book of 2019 according to the Royal Society, Caroline Criado compiles a selection of articles that reveal how design has neglected women for decades and what impact this has on their health. The author dives into the gender data gap, the root of systemic discrimination against women since information is gathered around a male standard. For instance, unlike the earlier joystick example, the current trend to increase the size of smartphone screens makes it more difficult for women to use them. Paradoxically, companies like Apple are following this trend, even though women are more likely to own an iPhone branded smartphone than men.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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