My commute home today was much like any other: the hasty shuffle onto BART, the gentle glow of phone screens on faces, the diminishing space between densely packed bodies.
At one point, I glanced up at the grab rail. This is what I saw:
I imagine the designer who created this must have included some sort of safety manual. In that manual, surely there’s an image showing proper use. It would look something like the two hands on the left: rail snug against the curve of the palm, firm grip with comfortable fingers.
I’d like to venture a guess: the hand in that safety manual is male.
The other hands you see in this photo paint a funny scene. One manages to get four fingers on the rail, the clear winner of the right-side hands. Another clings on, but the pinkie finger — refusing to conform — dangles off. The last struggles the most and yet seems content, fingers thrown up in a comical peace sign.
You probably already know: the hands on the right are female.
I did miss one hand though — all the way to the right. The one holding the strap, that sweet design concession to shorter riders, the average woman, all those ‘other’ categories. And I’d agree, that strap helps. Except when you’re sharing the same space with twenty other people and all of the four straps are taken.
Our world has been predominantly designed with the male user in mind. And it makes sense, given that the default in so many contexts has been male: language conventions, historical figures, mental models. And there’s really no point in fixating on what’s already been. But I do see an immense value in simply taking note.
We have to be aware of the shortcomings of the past in order to design a better future. And this isn’t to say that better future should be designed for women. But at minimum, it should be designed with women (also) in mind.
Right now, the tech world is focused on improving diversity in the work force. But the question is, how do we make that happen when our default mental image of an engineer, a C-level exec, or any other non-support role is male? One Medium writer used the female pronoun in his tweet about programmers. The responses ranged from confusion and anger to surprise and delight.
The chain of cause and effect goes both ways. We don’t use the female pronoun to describe programmers and CEO’s because there just aren’t that many women in these roles. But maybe there are so few women in these roles because no one ever made it seem like they could be. There’s a lot to be done to improve diversity in tech, but maybe the smallest change can have much larger effects than we think.
We are products of our conditioning, and society up to this point has conditioned us expect things to be male-centric. Changing this won’t feel natural at first — in fact, it will take a conscious effort. But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: are we really content with things as they’ve been? Are we satisfied with designs that account for only half their users? Can we agree that the way of progress is one that is inclusive rather than exclusive, accommodating rather than alienating, and universal instead of limited?
The status quo can be a huge monolith to climb as a woman, and who’s to say the climbing gear will even fit? But I can tell you this: it’s easier to climb when you see friends at the top, encouraging you forward rather than forcing you back.
The only way to change things for the better is through a sustained conscious effort on all our parts. So let’s make it happen.