Thursday, December 20, 2012

On "female" being an optional extra

Yesterday, a co-worker asked me to take a look at his website selling racing bikes, and offer him constructive criticism. However, what jumped out at me most was nothing to do with website design, but was rather to do with product labelling. He sells "bikes", and "female bikes".

Here's the thing. Despite the horrid pinkness of all his women's products, I'm glad that he sells bikes designed for women. There are average anatomical differences that mean that a bike designed for women will be a more comfortable ride for most (but not all) women than a bike designed for men. My issue is that the bikes designed for men are not "men's bikes" (or "male bikes", to use terminology consistent with his website), but "bikes". Being male is seen as the default, being female is to be different, to have special needs that require extra work to cater to.

This is a common attitude in our society, closely tied to the fact that being male, is to be seen as superior. If you disagree with that statement, consider this. While it would be acceptable for a woman to choose a man's bike, if it suited her needs better, a man choosing a woman's bike would, at best, raise eyebrows. A woman choosing a male product is perhaps upgrading, perhaps merely expressing a different presence. A man choosing a product designed for women is downgrading, making his masculinity questionable. This double standard is not ok.

To go to another example of how this attitude is prevalent in our society, many events offer only "unisex" t-shirts. "Unisex" clothing is designed to fit a male body, but women are considered fussy if they want a women's cut. Here's the thing though, the fit of a unisex t-shirt fits the average woman no better than a women's t-shirt would fit the average man. "Unisex" does not actually mean "unisex", it means "we could only be bothered designing one style, so we designed for men, because no ["real"] guy would be caught dead wearing women's clothing, but you can wear men's clothing, so deal with it". This was something that had long annoyed me, but really crystallized when I read a fantastic post written by Greta Christina, which managed to collect all the jumbled half-thoughts I already had on the issue, and put them together far more eloquently and forcefully than I could have.

Yes, these issues are rather trivial, but they are symptomatic of a society that is not as gender neutral as we would like to believe. What this post boils down to is this. Be aware. If you see a product, and then an equivalent product designed for women, chances are, the "standard" product was actually designed for men. If a product is a-gendered, consider whether it really is a-gendered (many are), or if it's a product designed for men, and women are simply expected to make the best of the situation (frequently the case). Do not mock or laugh off women who are dis-satisfied with having to make the best of products designed for men. Finally, if you design or sell such products, consider if you can improve the way you design and market your products, so that you do not re-enforce the idea that the male gender is the default, and so you better meet the needs of your whole market, and not just the stereotypically male share.

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