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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Garcia

Gender-Neutral Technological Design

The majority of technology currently used in society is a result of engineering and design from 30-60 years ago. Many of the new features on computers and handheld devices, emerging air and spacecraft, and in medicine have lengthy design, test, and review processes before becoming available for public and/or private use.

There are many variables to consider when creating interfaces for technologies that work with humans. One of these variables is gender: how should technologies be designed to operate effectively and equally with both males and females? It is never simple to apply this perspective to any design, but it is often necessary. Considering this necessary perspective helps identify confounding or restrictive variables that may interfere with design requirements or constraints. Many aspects of design can benefit from this perspective, as the process incorporates different experiences as a basis for ideas and visions.

For a period following the industrial and technological revolutions, operators/workers were predominantly male. A consequence of this era was that much of the technological infrastructure used was gender-restrictive. The clothing, equipment, and technologies used by workers were not designed during an era where women were given the same opportunity as males in the workplace. To this day, the long-term effects of gender-specific design present a multitude of inconveniences and hazards to many women. The purpose of this post is not to argue that all products created for human use ought to be designed gender-neutrally, but to shed necessary light on the negative second and third order effects that may arise if gender is not appropriately considered in the design phase.

Technologies that are used with high frequency in society, such as seat belts and prescription medications are not necessarily designed for equal protection/safety for both the male and the female. The safety/crash rating tests that vehicles are required to undergo prior to being available on the market are often conducted with test dummies that have the physiology of the average American male (weighing ~197.8 pounds and measuring 5’9 feet). Comparably, the average American female (weighing ~170.5 pounds and measuring 5’3 feet) is significantly smaller and lighter. Manufacturing companies are not required to conduct additional safety tests with test dummies of varying weights and heights. This can be concerning, as women are 47% more likely than males to be seriously injured in a car accident. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, the governing body of automotive safety ought to demand more extensive testing with crash dummies of varying physiological compositions. Increased safety testing in the automotive industry could ultimately call attention to the need for enhanced ergonomics and the inclusion of adjustable/adaptable vehicle safety features unique to the passenger.

In the pharmaceutical industry, many medications and drugs are withdrawn from the U.S. market because of the statistically greater health risks for women. The inadvertent consequences of women’s exclusion/under-representation in clinical drug trials result in adverse drug effects in women. Most pharmaceutical drugs are administered on a fixed dose mg/kg basis, potentially leading to higher concentrations/doses in women with lower body weights. The risks associated with higher drug/medicinal concentrations in the body cannot be effectively predicted without additional testing in varying physiological compositions. In the same regard as the crash test dummy, this notion raises significant concerns for many women, who are inevitably at a higher likelihood of susceptibility to side effects than men. Differences in gender and body composition ought to be included in clinical drug testing/development to enhance patient treatment outcomes and to reduce the risk of adverse side effects.

In the aerospace community, specialized pilots are required to wear full-coverage G-suits while flying in compact cockpits for long periods of time. These constraints require the use of unique urination techniques/technologies for pilots to relieve themselves during a mission. Formerly, pilots would urinate into a bag (using a wearable device) mid-flight, or they would drastically reduce hydration levels to avoid having the urge to urinate. The inability to utilize this wearable technology created unique challenges for female pilots, as they were unable to efficiently relieve themselves mid-flight. Fortunately, the integration of the new Aircrew Mission Extender Device (AMXDmax) helps all pilots cope with the challenge of urinating in-flight. The AMXDmax is a hands-free, battery-operated compression short that conceals either a cup or a pad (depending on gender) beneath the uniform for pilots to relieve themselves. This new technology reduces the complexity of urinating in the air; all the pilot has to do is release their bladder. When the AMXdmax senses urine, it processes the fluid into a collection bag. This is one example of how integrating the needs of both male and female pilots can improve performance and save money.

These examples highlight the need for inclusion and diverse perspectives in human engineering and design. A failure to properly consider both males and females in design positions has dangerous consequences and a multitude of short and long-term negative externalities in cultural and technological development. Shifting to gender-inclusive design respects and acknowledges the gender identities of all populations and works to remove associated assumptions and biases. For the safety and empowerment of all people, those in positions of leadership should consider all members of the team and their specific needs, not just the characteristics and needs of the majority. Thinking about the implications of these perspectives contributes to the important and on-going discussions about the future of gendered technology, how design decisions are made, and how cultural biases and belief systems influence technological trust, reliability, and performance.

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