Sugared Puppy-Dog Tails: Gender and Design

When I was a child, there was a rhyme my mother used to recite to me. Here’s how it goes…

What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails
And puppy-dog tails.
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice.
That’s what little girls are made of.

Personally, I resented this.

Puppy-dog tails obviously wag furiously, and frogs, I’d been told, can jump up to eight feet. The dynamism of tails and frogs seemed so much more delight- ful than the comparatively inert properties of sugar and spice.

I found hope in Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, a character in the cult 1960s British chil- dren’s television series “The Thunderbirds.” Although a “girl”, and thus clearly made of sugar and spice, she was formidable. She was the London agent for International Rescue, a secret MI6-like organization whose charter was to save people and groups from evildoers and disasters. A 26-year-old British aristocrat who eschewed the social scene, she was beautiful, intelligent, and independent, not to mention fabulously dressed and accessorized. She had an enviable collection of vehicles, which included a six-wheeled pink Rolls-Royce called FAB1 fully loaded with machine guns in the grill, bulletproof glass, water skis for travel on water, and radar- assisted steering. Lady Penelope provided the foundation for my youthful aspirations. She put James Bond, 007, in the shade. There was simply no way to bond with Bond. I didn’t want to be a distractible, philandering fop; I wanted the brain, the haute couture, and the arsenal of formidable tech- nology. Lady Penelope has a number of more recent coun- terparts, my favorites being the Powerpuff Girls, who are tough and fearless and destroy villains while (as their name suggests) being made sugar, spice, and everything nice.

Whether their creators intend so or not, poems like “What Folks Are Made Of” and media characters like Lady Penelope and the Powerpuff Girls embody beliefs about how the world should or could be, which they communicate through their appearance, through their (re) actions, and through what they experience. Such representations lead to “incidental learning” about who we can be and what is possible/appropriate for us to do, and in this way, these characters embody mes- sages about gender-appropriate behaviors. Rosie the Riveter and Mrs. Miniver were female characters who were created during World War II explicitly to promote appropriate female gender roles—Mrs. Miniver maintained the middle-class home while making sacrifices, and Rosie beckoned women to the munitions factories. This kind of incidental learning also goes for learning masculinity and, more broadly, national identity; many PhDs have been exploring idealized American masculinity as embodied in film characters played by actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood. Sergio de la Mora’s 2006 book, Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film, elegantly articu- lates the role of film in creating the hyper-masculine machismo that was so central to Mexican national identity after the Revolution of 1910.

Like media characters, products embody messages about who we can be. Of course, products are gendered based on who is associated with their use. When I was growing up, knitting needles and sewing machines were female, and guns were male; Kaffe Fassett, the male knitwear designer, and Annie Oakley, the gun-toting, free-spirited woman of the Wild West of America, cured me of these assumptions.

It is possible to render visible these kinds of cultural assumptions and biases by noting our reaction to simple inversions. Just recently, I bought a male friend of mine a new home gift—a tool set with flowery handles and a pink case. He laughed and gave me a quizzical look; he instinctively knew he was not the intended user demographic, even though the tools themselves were of standard size and perfectly usable. (Notably, my women friends have never laughed when I bought them tools in standard (manly?) black or yellow.) In 1989 the Barbie Liberation Front pulled off a stunt where they switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls–gender assumptions about likes and dislikes were laid bare as Barbie growled fighting words and G.I. Joe crooned, “Math is hard.”

Designers are not passive bystanders in the production, reproduction, reinforcing, or challenging of cultural values. We actively create artifacts and experiences. We design products with implicit or explicit assumptions about how products will be used and by whom.

We mentally simulate the product user who is part of an imagined story of the product in use—these imaginary people are drawn from our everyday lives and usually have a gender, perhaps a shape, size, age and ethnicity. Thus we embed imagined, gendered others into our designs, inadvertently reproducing cultural norms because they seem so “natural.” And so in a chain of reification and reproduction, products are wired in subtle ways that reflect and reinforce existing cultural assumptions.

Theorists, observers, and designers who decide to take an alternative perspective— who, like the Barbie Liberation Front, decide to take steps to ask questions that challenge “naturalness” and embedded assumptions—often find that when one puts women at the center of analysis, assumptions about the user as male become clearer and one discovers fresh approaches to old questions. With an eye to the question: “What if the world were different?”, here are some observations I have made in the past couple of weeks:

Ergonomics: Early pilot seats were not designed for the aver- age female body, and only in recent years have car seats and steering wheels become highly configurable and thus able to accommodate the slightest of adults—who are usually women. Recently, I bought a framed backpack that was designed with the female shoulder-to-hip ratio in mind, and it is the most comfortable backpack I have ever owned, allowing me to carry much more weight than I could in the past. My “weakness,” as I perceived it when using my old backpack, was actually a design flaw in the product, which was intended for a male skeletal and muscular frame.

Socio-spatial zoning: Environments are also socially structured with gender in mind. Real estate agents talk about houses in terms of gender roles. Women favor romantic master bedrooms and extensive bathroom areas. Men are all about paneled dens, home workshops, and large garages. Of course we can resist these interpretations—the point is, there are imagined people doing imagined things and the imaginings usually involve assumptions about the gender of the doer. These positionings become more important when there are physically and socially enforced (rather than suggested) barriers to use, where gender roles are designed into the physical places we inhabit and visit.

In her book Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment, Leslie Weisman points out “the social and physical space reflect and rebound upon one another.” She offers compelling arguments for the ways in which people are “zoned” into different parts of buildings, streets, and cities according to their gender and social status; something she calls the “spatial caste system” of “sex-inscribed territories.”

Here’s an everyday example from my own experience. When I was in India recently, I was delighted to discover there are “ladies only” lines for airport security. In technology-centric Bangalore, this means the security line is short for women, while the line of gadget-laden men snakes around the pillars and posts. This the upside of the downside of the unequal gender balance in the technology industry. A more common example is restrooms. Women’s facilities routinely have baby- changing tables; more often than not, men’s restrooms do not. This is a clear indication of who is expected to change babies’ diapers. This design ensures that a particular gendered practice of parenting remains in place. One could argue that this makes sense statistically, because more women than men change babies. But this is a chicken-and-egg problem; if there were more gender- neutral changing facilities, would those statistics change over time?

Aesthetics: We have all heard that to appeal to the female market we need to make corners rounded and pinkify every- thing. Drag queens and other self-conscious performers of the “feminine” (Miss Piggy is perhaps my favorite embodiment of this) all know that to be truly female you have to render everything pink. An aside: Lady Penelope’s FAB1 was decidedly pink. Personally I am all for pink, and I couldn’t care less whether that is a physiological or a cultural imperative. But I am not powerless in the face of pink. This is a preference and a choice, and if the product is not pink, I don’t feel like it therefore cannot have a place in my life. Moving beyond color, it is an accepted view that women tend to be more playful with appearance and tend to tailor environments—real and virtual—more than men. Brenda Laurel, the creator of “Purple Moon,” a game designed specifically for girls, reports that girls tend to spend more time creating and designing the game environment and their character appearance than boys do. Extending this, women spend more time filling out their profiles online, and tailor their avatars more frequently and with more embellishments.

Interactions: The literature on information-processing differences between the genders is a muddy mess of confusing results: Are men or women more spatial/abstract/process/parallel in the ways they think…? And so on and on and on. My jury is out on most of this work, but I think contextual factors are often not taken appropriately into account on these studies. What is known is that the gender typing of artifacts can result in a reticence— a reduced confidence—when it comes to using that artifact. This kind of analysis suggests that even if information processing styles do have physiological and neurological substrates, they are also culturally learned and honed. So what- ever the provenance, men and women differ in their adoption and appropriation of products.

In 1984 Sherry Turkle wrote in The Second Self, “In our culture, girls are taught the characteristics of soft mastery— negotiation, compromise, give-and-take as psychological virtues, while models of male behavior stress decisiveness and the imposition of will.” This can have an effect on problem- solving style: “programming style is an expression of personality style” and males “tend to see the world as something to be brought under control” while women “are more likely to see the world as something they need to accommodate to… beyond their direct control.” Although this was 25 years ago, discussions about learned cognitive style and confidence are as important today as they were then. Researchers like Laura Beckwith have shown that women’s confidence levels can affect something as simple as whether spreadsheet-debugging tools are used or not. She discovered that if users are allowed to choose not only “right” and “wrong,” but also more tentative options such as “seems right, maybe” or “seems wrong, maybe,” women were much more comfortable using the tools.

Infrastructure: Code is also gender coded. In my own work with Elizabeth Goodman, we found women and men using online-dating sites differ in their information-processing, information-filtering, and communication strategies. Women tend to create detailed profiles and carefully review results and recommendations for people who may match their criteria. Women take a lot of time to consider the candidates. Men, by contrast, create profiles and then proceed to send “winks” and connection requests to as many women as possible. One could contrast these strategies as “sharpshooting” versus “scattershot” approaches. As a result, women can’t see the wood for the trees and are drowning in connection requests and men are wondering where the action is. Trying to accommodate these differences so that everyone gets a balanced experience means interface and interaction-design changes, but it also has implications for the ways in which the machine learning behind the recommendation algorithms is “tweaked”—and thus gender differences in information processing get inscribed into the engine itself.

Organizational and institutional factors: Some argue that this is an institutional problem, and I am wont to agree with them. The lack of women in powerful product/technology-design positions partially maintains the dominance of mainstream (or “malestream”) design practices that assume products are gender neutral, while considering women users as an afterthought. Certainly, most product-development teams are largely male. So, even without intending to, design decisions for an application will likely skew toward that which is more understood, comfortable, or familiar for the team—that is, a male view of how the world works and how the product will fit into that world.

This may seem far-fetched, but it is not. Early voice- recognition software did not recognize women’s voices because there were no women available when training the recognition algorithms, and the all-male team members did not think to make sure to find women during the training process. Sarah Jain’s study of car airbags points out how the initial design of airbags assumed an adult-male form. As a result, women and children were routinely injured when airbags deployed. In her 2006 book Injury, she points out that “airbags provide an excellent way to see how bodies are built into both social and technological systems. The air- bag…was calculated to fit men of average height and weight without seatbelts on.” She goes on, “Consequently as a cor- relate of height, 42 percent of women compared to 24 percent of men received facial injury from the airbags.” For smaller people, including children, the injuries were more severe, including amputated hands, broken limbs, and fatal head injuries. No one intended this; they simply designed for a “one size fits all” strategy—the one size just happened to be a man of average height and weight, and that assumption has not been questioned. Seatbelts don’t do so well in this assessment either—many are not adjustable and are not designed for small people. Even though unintended, these are indications of negligence born of a setting where to consider gender is akin to being a bore, or adding work, or being a whiner. And no, abstracted personas are usually not compelling enough to give a team of male designers a really good feel for what being female is really like.

It is my opinion that designers should think about gender at a level of sophistication beyond color and shape. We should be reflective and conscious of the assumptions of use and user that are being built into our products. We should know how we are reifying and/or reinforcing behavioral norms or challenging them. And just as we recognize white space in graphic design is not an absence of content, we need to be conscious of who is not present in the cast of designed-for characters. While I was researching this column, I noticed that on About.com, “ergonomics” is defined as “the science related to man and his work, embodying the anatomic, physiologic, and mechanical principles affecting the efficient use of human energy.” Definitions as well as designs privilege genders. We need to be careful about how we define and describe our craft and our science; the publishers and editors of the International Journal of Man-Machine Studies realized this when they changed the name of the journal to the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies in 1994. Unexamined assumptions and unnoticed elisions are not benign, and they do not make for a sensible market strategy.

On that note, the “Thunderbirds” complete series nine-disc DVD box set avail- able on Amazon in the UK has a lineup of male puppets on the cover. Lady Penelope seems to have been visually written out of the promotional cover mate- rial. Now, what’s up with that?

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