This month, we are producing its second annual Women in Engineering special edition. This endeavor has been a labor of love for our staff, and we’re proud of how the issue turned out. (If you haven’t received a copy yourself, check out the digital editions, where it will be posted shortly.)
Ironically, I’ve been in the midst of reading Caroline Criado Perez’s fascinating book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Her work should be required reading for anyone who works in a design-related field, whether consumer or industrial facing.
Throughout history, men have been the default model for how a product should be designed or how systems should work — and given that women comprise about 51% of the Earth’s population, that can be a serious problem. Perez gives some insightful examples of this, in data-driven stories on topics as far-flung as heart attack prevention and city snow clearing programs.
I found her examination of the automobile industry particularly fascinating. For decades, government-mandated crash tests used a single type of crash test dummy: one modeled after a 50th percentile male. In the 1980s, researchers argued for including a 50th percentile female, but were ignored. Not until years later did many countries begin to use female crash test dummies, but even then, there were flaws. Some tests only use female dummies in passenger seats. Sometimes, the female dummies are simply scaled down versions of the male dummies.
Simply scaling down the male body is problematic. Women tend to sit further forward then men when driving, due to their on average shorter heights. They also tend to sit more upright, to better see over the dash. There are structural dissimilarities between the sexes; for example, women have less muscle on their upper torsos and necks, which makes them up to three times more vulnerable to whiplash than men. And try asking a selection of your female friends and relatives how well seat belts fit them.
The resulting data is very concerning. Perez notes that while men are more likely to be involved in crashes, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured than men, 71% more likely to be moderately injured, and 17% more likely to die — even when these crashes are controlled for height, weight, seat belt usage and crash intensity.
One way to close this gender gap in design is to ensure there’s less of a gender gap in critical design fields such as engineering. And that’s another strong reason why we should all be encouraging the young women in our lives to consider STEM programs, as they ponder their future careers.