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Women are vastly underrepresented in medical research and product design, not only resulting in day-to-day annoyances but also in dangerous effects on overall female health.
Is your phone too big for one-handed use? Have you ever seen a CPR dummy with breasts? Is it hard to wrap your fingers around a power tool?
Times have changed, and societal awareness of gender bias and inequity has increased throughout the years, sure. However, attention isn’t enough. Actions speak louder than words, and what we continue to see is the exclusion of women even in the most mundane of spaces, with the most common tools, and we’ve witnessed women being silently pushed to the margins.
Let’s start with the most annoying of our problems; enormous cell phones. Smartphones are getting larger with each passing day, and while this might be fun for the men in the room who want more giant screens - for no other reason than equating “bigger” with “better” - for women, it renders the phone useless, or rather, an exasperating tool to use.
According to a Healthline study, the average length of an adult man’s hand is around 7.6 inches, while a woman’s hand averages about 6.8 inches. Furthermore, it states that for an optimal grip size, it’s essential to make sure the tool is comfortable to hold and requires a minimum of force to use. This would mean that a tool with a proximity to the overall hand length does not have an ideal grip size—notably, Apple’s latest iPhone 14 Plus measures 6.7 inches.
In Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, it’s pointed out that there is a systemic gender bias in tech. “Most of the people who’ve been designing the phones are men, so they’ve been designing for the male hand size,” she argues, highlighting that these designers forget almost 50 percent of the population.
“To the boys at Apple - we know you are all obsessed with size. But performance matters too”, wrote feminist writer Sophie Walker (@SophieRunning) on Twitter.
This is without mentioning Apple’s “comprehensive” health tracker app, which launched in 2014 and failed to include the most common tracking necessity; periods. “It just forgot periods existed,” Criado Perez told DigitalTrends. “Why’s that? There weren’t enough people who had periods on the design team.” And yes, today, iPhones include the period tracking option, but why did women have to complain for it to be added?
There is more bias in the health department other than forgetting to add a period tracker function to an app; life-threatening repercussions seriously affect women. For example, women in the UK are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed and die of a heart attack than their male counterparts because they don’t receive the same standards of care as men. This is because doctors don’t recognize the symptoms (stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea, or fatigue). After all, they don’t fit the male standard on the NHS guidelines.
Women also don’t fit the male standard when it comes to drug testing, most medical trials, if not all, have used predominantly male subjects, from cells and animals to the male anatomy. What this results in is medicine only made for male bodies, and it doesn’t take into account human bodily functions such as hormonal cycles. Such as, a 2015 “female Viagra study” unironically recruited 23 men and only two women for the trial.
Moreover, Gabrielle Jackson points out in an article based on her book Pain and Prejudice that medicine has always viewed women as merely reproductive bodies and that the reason they have historically been excluded from clinical trials is due to the paternalistic view that to avoid compromising their child-bearing capacities, they should be excluded from trials.
It is possible to see this - or even recall it from personal experience - when it comes to the effects the COVID-19 vaccine had on women's menstrual cycles, such as longer, shorter or a lack of periods altogether. It has since been deemed "not a concern" by scientists, who, by the way, didn't even consider it to be a side effect of the vaccine they famously tested for at least 12 months.
However, the logic of this damages all women when these drugs affect their health because the drugs weren't tested on female bodies in the first place. Also, it seems that the men that are so intent on pointing out the inherent differences between male and female biology are suddenly not considering that same argument when it comes to the possibility of different reactions to medications. Moreover, what seems to be the case is not that women are being deliberately excluded from design and research, but men seem to forget that women exist.
When market research, clinical trials, and medical studies fail to consider women and female bodies, systemic biases will continue to rule our everyday lives. This is dangerous and a sign of our inability to reach equality. Using sex-disaggregated data, companies and governments can gain a deeper understanding of how men and women respond to products and services; doing this will guarantee that, maybe one day, everyone’s needs can be met equally.
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