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Sorry Ma'am, that's not for you; Default gender bias in this men-run-the-show world

Apurva Purohit     May 19, 2019

March 29th was going to be a momentous day. It was the day for the first ever all-women spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Unfortunately, NASA had to put this on hold, for a reason that left half the world rather confounded. They couldn't find a second medium-sized spacesuit for one of the female astronauts leading to one of them dropping out of the prestigious mission.

Now before I proceed any further, let me put into perspective just how significant this walk was. Ever since the space station was assembled in 1998, only an all-male duo or a male-female duo has walked together in space; that's 214 spacewalks. The month of March would've seen Christina Koch and Anne McClain create history but alas, their dreams, along with those of many women, will have to wait.

Now, let's wind back a decade - in 1999, a female police officer in UK revealed that she had to undergo a breast reduction surgery because of the health effects of wearing her body armour which did not accommodate for standard female anatomical construct. After this case was reported, another 700 officers in the same force came forward to complain about the standard-issue protective vest, designed with an average male body in mind

Forget complex items like spacesuits and body armours. Let's talk about central air-conditioners, especially those in offices. Most women find these spaces frightfully cold. It's hardly a surprise though because according to a study from 1960s, the formula to derive the indoor climate regulations is based on a model that considers the metabolic rate of an average male. The same formula overestimates the female metabolic rate by 35% leading to daily discomforts most women suffer from.

It makes you so angry, doesn't it? Brrr and Grrr you say and I agree. So huddled under a shawl sitting in mid-summer in Mumbai, what am I trying to get at?

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Well, for starters, can you see the recurring theme in all these examples here? If you, like me, are starting to observe how easily unfair the world seems to be to an entire gender, you're spot on! The more you read about this, the more you realise that we live in a world designed by men, for men. And sadly, whether you look at science and technology, economics and business, city planning, films, art, or literature, all of them seem to be, markedly and conspicuously, missing the female perspective.

In fact, we are so used to thinking of men as the default entities that women end up being an extension of the male species. And the pre-ordained idea that 'men run the show' and that the world revolves around them, carries forward in how public places are designed, how articles of everyday use are built to accommodate a typical human being - who is by default male, and how all medical research gets diverted to solving problems based on a sample size consisting, yes, of males!

This is the shocking realisation which dawned upon the writer and activist Caroline Criado Perez, leading her to write a brilliantly detailed book titled 'Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men' where she highlights how women have been unknowingly treated as second class citizens in several spheres of life.

She began researching gender bias after discovering that medical data around heart attacks was based on male symptoms, causing clinicians to miss heart attack cases in women since those symptoms were considered atypical. And soon she realised that a can of worms had been opened, as more such instances reared their ugly heads, some bordering on inconvenience while others being almost fatal to women.

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For instance, women often struggle with levelling the headrest in automobiles, it never lands itself right. The kitchen cabinets are often far too high for us to reach because when the standard kitchen layout was being designed decades back, the person in mind was a 6 ft. tall British man.

Standard hand tools like wrenches tend to be too large for women's hands to grip tightly leading to them suffering from a higher rate of sprains, strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men. Look at the Mumbai locals, for example, most women can't reach the hand straps without stretching.

Now, think about potentially life-threatening conditions like a car crash. When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, and is 17% more likely to die. This, because historically cars are designed for men, putting us at a higher risk for frontal and rear-end collisions.

In fact, the most commonly used car crash dummy is 1.77m tall and weighs 76kg possessing male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. And sadly, even when a female dummy was introduced, it wasn't really female; it was just a scaled-down male dummy. Isn't it appalling that in an era where we are quick enough to publish articles and reviews with a sharp critique on design flaws and investments in R&D by companies, something like this is expediently disregarded? I haven't even gotten to pregnant women, yet!

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Dig deeper and you will see, the core problem for all these glaring inconsistencies is the fact that 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 we've conveniently assumed he represents humanity as a whole when in reality, he doesn't.

Thankfully, all is not bleak; things are changing, ever so slowly but steadily.

For example, Vienna has implemented more than 60 pilot projects since the early 1990s, such as Women-Work-City, an apartment complex created by and for women that aim to rethink urban planning with the whole population in mind. In fact, the efforts have been so effective that the United Nations Human Settlements Programme included Vienna's work in its 2008 registry of best practices. In California, a nonpartisan group created the Women's Well-Being Index in 2016 to better understand "how women are faring in terms of health, economic standing, and political participation across the state."

But as is obvious, these are mere exceptions to the rule. We, as a society, need to do so much more to bring the spotlight back on to what the 'female' part of the world needs and requires. We need to ensure women don't have to bear the brunt of a cookie-cutter approach where individuals and companies alike subscribe to the one-size-fits-all theory, overlooking the importance and well-being of half the world's population.

Now on that forward-looking note, I'd like to get myself a drink at the bar but hey, the barstools are too high for me to sit on comfortably. And by the way, could someone switch off the AC, please?

(The author is President, Jagran Prakashan Ltd.)

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