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What If Women Designed the World?

In private and public spaces, design choices that ignore women put everyone at a disadvantage.

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If women were architects, feminist writer Melusina Fay Peirce argued in the late 1860s,  they would make houses without kitchens. Instead, people would share separate buildings for cooking and laundry. Women needed to be economically and emotionally independent from men, Peirce argued in a series of essays in The Atlantic Monthly. She suggested that they create groups and charge their husbands membership fees for access to domestic work through collective bargaining.

Today, in Lima, Peru, more than 100,000 women are paid to cook food at Comedores Populares, which provides inexpensive or free meals to nearly half a million people every day. While there are more openly nontraditional families and living arrangements than there were in the 1800s, the unpaid or low-wage work of cooking, cleaning and childcare still primarily falls to women. This binary is facilitated by design, in the products we use and the spaces we live in. If private kitchens, for example, represent a gendered division of labor, what happens when they become public? A home without a kitchen relies on a community that prioritizes affordable food and treats domestic work as a valued profession. It’s one ambitious solution to one piece of a pervasive, though at times subtle, problem: At home and in cities, in offices, bathrooms and online, design choices made by men in male-dominated fields make women’s lives more difficult. Employing women as the world’s makers could vastly improve women’s lives, because their needs would be better prioritized.

“Dwellings, neighborhoods, and cities designed for homebound women constrain women physically, socially, and economically,” urban historian Dolores Hayden wrote in her 1980 essay, “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?” Many of the immediate solutions that help women have more mobility involve exploitive labor. By sending children to daycare or picking up fast food, women rely on other working women in “low-paying non-union jobs without security,” she wrote. Hayden’s solution was built on the ideas of feminists before her: group living arrangements that “eliminate residential segregation by race, class, and age” where men and women were required to do an equal amount of chores and child care.

Increasingly, housekeeping is outsourced to new technology and appliances like coffee makers, vacuum cleaners and even the Amazon Echo that promise ease but, some argue, also up the ante for a well-kept house. Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite argued that new products don’t necessarily save time. Sometimes, they create household problems that need to be solved, delivering big promises that then “leaves women to clean up the mess when the technology fails to deliver on its promises — the true cycle of capitalism.” Each new product advertisement subtly suggests that women won’t be full contributors to society if they don’t keep up with an endless parade of domestic innovations. They don’t actually change anything about the division of labor (at the last count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women spend twice as much time as men on domestic tasks); rather, they teach women that the carpet could always be cleaner and dinner could always taste better. “Despite our high-tech cooking and cleaning machines, we still spend the same amount of time at home working to keep our houses in good condition. And we produce more and more waste to do it,” said architect Anna Puigjaner, who has visited communal domestic spaces around the world.

Women account for only 24 percent of U.S. computing jobs, and it shows. Female voice-activated assistants normalize female subservience. Researchers found that voice-activated personal assistants like Apple’s Siri did not understand phrases like “I was raped” and “I was beaten up by my husband.” The woman’s voice seems at first capable of personal help, perhaps even friendship, but digitized voices are only so understanding as the men who taught them to speak. A data set made by Google that trained artificial intelligence to speak using Google News articles associated the word “he” with “architect,” “financier” and boss.” On the other hand, “she” was linked to “nurse,” “receptionist” and “homemaker.”

The male-dominated tech industry does not prioritize women’s safety and creates products that can quickly become tools for stalkers and abusers. Apps that purport to help curb sexual violence by having both parties sign a legal contract actually perpetuate a feeling of sexual obligation. When you consider that consent can be withdrawn at any time, the app starts to look like a way to protect someone who has been accused of rape and not the other way around. Individual users are expected to take steps to scrub their digital footprints while the sites themselves go largely unchecked. Data brokers like Spokeo, MyLife, and BeenVerified offer personal information like phone numbers and place of residence for a low fee. “It makes me wonder why these sites would dig their heels in the ground and insist that their business model is appropriate when it potentially puts so many people in danger,” wrote an anonymous woman whose rapist likely found her address on Spokeo. Hundreds of apps including Find My iPhone, Find My Friends, and KidGuard allow location tracking that can easily be exploited. According to one academic study, some apps encourage intimate partner surveillance through advertisements while other apps’ customer support staff turn a blind eye to these scenarios.

Apps designed to help track periods often assume that women are trying to conceive a child and are in heterosexual, monogamous relationships. Some do not allow a way to track common experiences like an irregular cycle or an abortion. The first version of Apple Health, advertised as a complete health tracker, didn’t even include period tracking. These apps can easily be exploited by marketers as well as by abusive partners. Internet-connected home devices like Amazon Echo, cameras, thermostats, and lights are vulnerable to hacking, but they also have been reported as a tool that abusers use to spy on or disorient the victim. Wearable tech and cell phones are no different. “Usually, one person in a relationship takes charge of putting in the technology, knows how it works and has all the passwords. This gives that person the power to turn the technology against the other person,” wrote Nellie Bowles for the New York Times.

In office culture, women can suffer a disadvantage facilitated by their surroundings. One recent study found that women felt increasingly surveilled and conscious of their appearances in open office plans. Because all of the desks were identical, women began using makeup and clothing to signal their hierarchy at the office. Beyond that, small pants pockets, which prioritize silhouette over functionality, make it difficult for women to access everything they might need at work. “I honestly believe the fashion industry is not helping women advance,” said fashion designer Camilla Olson. “We [women] know clearly we need pockets to carry technology and I think it’s expected we are going to carry a purse. When we’re working, we don’t carry purses around. A pocket is a reasonable thing.”

The typical U.S. city is not exactly designed with women in mind, either. Hostile architecture, like benches that are intended to deter homeless people from loitering or sleeping, also affects public access to shared spaces. A deliberately uncomfortable bench would make it more difficult to nurse or rest, while an inhospitable park meant only for passing foot traffic undermines any sense of community accountability that could dissuade harassment. A 2012 study found that men comprise 59 percent of the drivers on the road and drive one and a half times the distance that women do.  In public spaces like sidewalks and subway cars, women frequently experience harassment. In New York City, women spend $26 to $50 more per month on public transportation, taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts. Often an Uber feels safer than public transportation, although that isn’t necessarily true. Cars have not been designed with women’s safety in mind, either, with drastic consequences. The federal government only began requiring that automotive manufacturers use crash dummies that resemble a female body in 2011. A study at the University of Virginia found that women are 47 percent more likely than men to have severe injuries from a crash. “Manufacturers and designers used to all be men,” said David Lawrence of the Center for Injury Prevention Policy & Practice at San Diego State University. “It didn’t occur to them they should be designing for people unlike themselves.”

Other than kitchens, perhaps the clearest visual marker of the gender binary is the public bathroom. The first U.S. law to split bathrooms by gender was passed in 1887, when Massachusetts required factories that employed women to provide them with separate bathrooms. The idea that women need a private bathroom is tied to Victorian-era idea that they were weaker and needed protecting. It wasn’t until 2011 that a women’s bathroom was built off the floor of the House of Representatives so the 73 female House members no longer had to walk down crowded, tourist-filled hallways to use the restroom. Men’s bathrooms tend to have more fixtures because urinals take up less space than stalls do. Women tend to take longer to use the bathroom, partly because they have more reasons to use the bathroom, like to change a baby’s diaper, change a tampon, or apply makeup. In Congress and many corporate workplaces, dress codes of constrictive pantsuits and pencil skirts simultaneously police women’s bodies and make it difficult to use the bathroom quickly. Women in offices and public spaces spend more time waiting in line, or holding it in. “As one of the last totally gender-divided spaces in U.S. society, bathrooms give concrete daily form to a social system in which men are dominant and women are perceived as other,” wrote activist and professor Judith Plaskow. The growing push to have more gender neutral bathrooms will increase bathroom safety for everyone. A new law went into effect in New York state this month that requires all men’s bathrooms have changing tables. While this directly helps fathers, it also encourages a more equitable division of labor between men and women.

It’s also important to acknowledge that on a larger scale, public bathrooms in the U.S. have been used as a space of violence and surveillance against African-Americans, transgender people, people with disabilities and very poor people. In some cases, self-appointed bathroom guardians have falsely used concern for women’s safety as an excuse to exploit a basic human need. In London in the 1980s, the research group Women’s Design Service pushed for more accessible bathrooms as part of a larger push to make cities better for women. “It was a prime example of how to think about women’s issues in an intersectional way,” said one of the group’s co-founders, Vron Ware. “When you start to break the category of women down,” she said, “you uncover almost every aspect of human experience which ought to have an impact on design of public facilities: Not just the usual questions of childcare, safety, and accessibility but also age, cultural background, sexual orientation and so on.”

Commercial feminism prioritizes the goal of increasing the number of women in leadership positions, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that women, like men, can become abusive when in power, even in supposedly feminist businesses. Women shouldn’t replicate traditionally male, capitalist power structures and mistake it for equality. Skilled labor in all fields, including domestic, should be valued with a living wage. In order for the world to account for women’s needs and concerns, women need to be the world’s makers, being paid the same as men to design the homes we live in, the buildings we work in, and the products we use. To do that, women just might not have the time for cooking and cleaning.

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