June 18, 2019
In 2015, NASA celebrated over 50 years of spacewalking. Three years later, in March 2018, the agency called off the first all-female spacewalk due to a shortage of smaller-sized spacesuits. The walk-back led to a Twitter storm, with women sharing hundreds of stories of their own ill-fitting work uniforms and oversized ‘standard’ gear; but “It’s not just spacesuits,” one woman tweeted: “It’s public spaces like bathrooms, cars, cockpits, office air conditioning, microwave installation heights, Oculus, military fatigues…an endless list.”
In December, I wrote about the phenomenon of patriarchal coding. A feeling that today’s VR headsets were not designed with women in mind set me on a trail of research that revealed I’m not alone in feeling this way and that the majority of the products and systems we use every day are designed by and for men. This phenomenon affects every aspect of women’s lives – it even endangers our lives – and it’s unintentional for the most part, which makes it all the more frustrating. Sexism is so ingrained in our society that women’s unique needs and biology (like the fact that we have breasts) are excluded from reality, even of the virtual kind.
My main point then was that wearable technologies – the body-worn sensors being integrated into organizations’ EHS efforts, exoskeletons taking a load off workers’ backs, and VR headsets being hailed as the future of job training – exhibit coded patriarchy and risk further alienating the female workforce. Wearables that are replacing or supplementing traditional PPE (personal protective equipment) cannot succumb to the same biased or negligent design as have automobiles, office buildings, etc., for the future economy and growth of the workforce depend upon improving job prospects and working environments for women.
The history of man
Women and the female perspective are largely missing from human and world history (as is often the non-western point of view) and entirely absent in the fundamental research underlying the foundations of modern life, including economics and urban planning. The star of the show is “Reference Man,” a 154-pound Caucasian male aged 25 to 30, who has been taken to represent humanity as a whole when it comes to the design of everything from power tools to the height of a standard shelf. Take medicine: Though women process drugs differently, medications are tested only on men. Cars: For decades, car safety testing has focused on the 50th percentile male. The most common crash-test dummy is taller and heavier than the average woman, with male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. This is how “standard seating position” was determined. Women, however, sit further forward in the driver’s seat and thus are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash. In 2011, the US began using a female crash-test dummy, though not an anthropometrically correct one. Testing with a pregnant dummy? Forget it.
Beyond product ergonomics
It’s annoying that so many gadgets we use are one-size-fits-men, and it’s dangerous. The world is less safe for women because we haven’t been factored into the design of not only physical products but also the software behind everything. Consider navigation apps, which provide the quickest and shortest routes to a destination, but not the safest; or voice recognition and other AI tech, which is male-biased and also becoming indispensable to how we interact with our devices and how systems make major decisions affecting humanity. Google’s voice recognition software? 70% more likely to accurately recognize male speech. Apple’s Siri? When she launched, she could help a user having a heart attack but didn’t know what “I was raped” means. (Side note: the heart attack symptoms healthcare professionals are taught to identify are actually male symptoms.)
Last year, Amazon had to scrap an experimental recruiting tool that taught itself to prefer male candidates for software development and other technical jobs. How did this happen? Because the computer model was trained to observe patterns in resumes from the previous ten years, most of which were submitted by men since the tech world is notoriously, overwhelmingly male. What’s frightening is that in a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder, over half of U.S. HR managers said they would make artificial intelligence a regular part of HR operations within five years. That means women will have to combat unfair algorithms in addition to unconscious bias in order to advance in the workforce. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says it’s up to businesses to prepare a new generation of workers for AI-driven changes to the workforce. In a world in which AI will impact – and perhaps determine hiring – for every existing job, the fact that women and minorities are disproportionally left out of the teams behind the AI revolution is tragic.
The data gap at the heart of the workplace
Occupational research has traditionally focused on male workers in male-dominated industries. Few studies have been done on women’s bodies and job environments, so there is little occupational health and safety data for women. The uniforms in most professions are therefore designed for the average man’s body and the why behind trends like the increasing rate of breast cancer in industry remains unknown. Relying on data from studies done on men may explain why serious injuries in the workplace have gone down for men but are increasing among women workers. This despite that, for the last three years, women have been entering the workforce at more than twice the rate of men. (You do the workers’ comp math, employers.)
When we talk about using wearables for EHS applications, oftentimes we’re speaking about body-worn sensors that can detect biometric and environmental data affecting a worker’s health and safety. The software behind these applications might send an alert to the worker or wearer when a reading reaches a certain threshold, but how is that threshold – the danger zone – determined? Say we’re tracking a worker’s exposure to a particular chemical. Women and men have different immune systems and hormones; women also tend to be smaller, have thinner skin, and have a higher percentage of body fat than men—differences that can influence how chemicals are absorbed in the body. Without female-specific data, the threshold at which a wearable device is set to alert the wearer would likely be higher than the toxin level to which a female worker can be safely exposed, putting women at greater risk of harmful exposure. The problem is two-fold: We don’t have data about exposure in “women’s work” and we’re clueless when it comes to women (increasingly) working in male-dominated industries. At this point, it would take a working generation of women to get any usable data on long-latency work-related diseases like cancer.
No PPE for you
Construction is one of those male-dominated industries in which standard equipment and PPE has been designed around the male body. Though there is little data on injuries to women in construction, a study of union carpenters did find that women have higher rates of wrist and forearm sprains, strains and nerve conditions than their male counterparts. To comply with legal requirements, many employers just buy smaller sizes for their female employees but scaled-down PPE doesn’t account for the characteristics (chests, hips and thighs) of a woman’s body. Moreover, it doesn’t seem cost-effective for employers to meet the order minimum for those sizes when women make up less than 10% of the construction workforce. Giant overalls are one thing, but the straps on a safety harness not fitting around your body? How is a woman supposed to perform at the same level as a man if her clothing and equipment are a hindrance? If oversized gloves reduce her dexterity, a standard wrench is too large for her to grip tightly, or her overly long safety vest snags on a piece of equipment? Already a minority in the sector, women don’t usually complain about ill-fitting PPE. Instead, they make their own modifications (with duct tape, staples, etc.). And it’s not just women; dust and hazard eye masks designed for the Reference Man also put many men of color at a disadvantage.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. A standard-sized bag of cement could be made smaller and lighter so that a woman could easily lift it. Exoskeletons might be a solution, but so is going back to the drawing board: Jane Henry’s SeeHerWork, for example, is an inclusive clothing line for women in fields like construction and engineering, fields with lucrative, equal-pay careers and massive labor shortages—fields that need women.
Designing the workplace
Guess what? Men are the default for office infrastructure, too, from the A/C (women tend to freeze in the workplace, which hurts productivity) to the number of bathrooms and stalls (a single restroom with urinals serves more individuals). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent nearly two-thirds of all reported cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, which indicates that workstations are less ergonomic for women. Open office plans are conducive to socializing and breaking down hierarchies, right? No, they actually encourage sexist behavior. A 2018 study documenting the experiences of women in an open office designed by men – lots of glass, identical desks, group spaces – found that the lack of privacy created an environment in which female workers were always watched and judged on their appearance. Designers today are beginning to use virtual reality to design factory layouts and workstations, even assembly processes, but that doesn’t mean they’re factoring in female anatomy or putting headsets on women workers to get their input.
I spoke with Janelle Haines, Human Factors Engineer at John Deere, who uses virtual reality to evaluate the ergonomics of assembly, about her experiences performing evaluations on women workers. Most of the people she gets to put in a VR headset are male; however, there are a few female employees available at times for evaluations. “Fitting the job to the worker hasn’t [always] been a focus. Even in the last fifteen years that I’ve been studying ergonomics, there has been a huge shift in learning to focus on ergonomics. It has become a kind of buzz word…There are some jobs that have been at John Deere for years and years, since we started building combines, that aren’t a great fit for women, but going forward with new designs we’re using VR to make sure the workstations and what we design do work for women.” Ergonomics aren’t a new area of study, but Janelle points out a promising shift in thinking and a deliberateness that’s necessary “going forward.”
The future of work: Uncomfortable = unproductive
Smartphones have become standard work tools in many jobs. Men can use the average smartphone one-handed; women cannot (smaller hands). This kind of oversight cannot be carried into the next wave of mobile: Wearable technology. That women have different muscle mass distribution and vertebrae spacing, lower bone density, shorter legs, smaller wrists, lower centers of mass, etc. matters when it comes to the design and application of wearable devices like partial and full exoskeletons, connected clothing and gear, augmented reality smart glasses, and virtual reality headsets. Early decisions in developing transformative technologies can create a weak foundation for the future of that tech.
Already women are at a disadvantage in VR. As far back as 2012, researchers found that men and women experience virtual reality differently and a growing body of research indicates why. Motion parallax (preferred by men) and shape-from-shading (preferred by women) are two kinds of depth perception. What creates a sense of immersion for men is motion parallax or how objects move relative to you, and this is easier to render or program in VR. For women, it’s shape-from-shading, meaning if a shadow is ‘off’ it will ruin the immersive experience for a woman. As shape-from-shading is more difficult to emulate, most VR tech uses motion parallax. Then there are the poor ergonomics of most VR headsets for women (too heavy, too loose, etc.). Why does this matter? Because VR is being hailed as the future of learning and job training; VR is going to be crucial for filling millions of vacant positions and for upskilling the workforce as automation advances. When one half of the population experiences the technology differently than the other half, that’s an unequalizer, especially when all indications point to people spending more time in VR in coming years.
Stop defaulting to men
The long legacy of researchers overlooking women – not wanting to pay for double the testing – has looming implications at a time when we’re collecting data from more and more ‘things’ and powerful computers are making important decisions for us. It’s bigger than a spacesuit; we’re making decisions based upon biased, incomplete data, feeding that data into algorithms that can exacerbate gender and other inequalities, create risks among certain populations, and encode prejudices into the future. The answer? First, inject more diversity into the labs and back rooms where the future is being designed and engineered. Second, hire female designers and stop using men as a default for everything!
In writing this article, I drew heavily on the efforts and writings of a number of inspiring women; including Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” Abby Ferri of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and Rachel Tatman, research fellow in linguistics at the University of Washington.
The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and speaker lineup, available on the conference website.