The World is Designed by Men

90% of the world is designed by men.

This is my usual opening line for speeches on diversity in engineering.

It's followed by a long pause.

I didn't always start my presentations like this, I changed it about four years ago. I got sick of being polite and nice about diversity. Being polite about it hadn't, and isn't, going to change diversity in engineering.

It's a sobering realisation that women have had little influence on the design of our built environment. It's not something I like to say, but it wakes people up. It wakes me up. It gets me uncomfortable.

A world designed by men is not a new concept. This article by Kat Ely "The World is Designed for Men" provides many examples of male design and how it has a negative impact of the people they forget in their design - women. This goes for any homogenous group designing for a broad range of people.

One example is how the original crash test dummies were all male shapes and sizes so the design of seat belts and airbags in cars are less safe for women. As a result of this design, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash. It has changed. In 2011 (yes just 8 years ago) car manufactures finally required female crash test dummies.

This lack of diversity in design has a very real impact on people’s lives.

One reason for this lack of diversity is how we are representing women’s roles in design and engineering. Often when aiming to encourage more women, campaigns go for ‘things girls will like’ including the colour pink, shoes or makeup. I have heard many times, “oh chemical engineers design makeup so we should run a workshop where the girls design makeup!”

IBM was a great example of this in action with their ‘Hack a Hairdryer’ campaign which spectacularly backfired when IBM tried to "reengineer misperceptions about women in tech, and to focus on what really matters in science". Oops.

Women can get pushed to stay in our pink, gendered lane when it comes to design. The usual lists of engineers and scientists are often swamped by blokes who have invented great things and you have to search for the women. It’s not easy to find female role models presented in engineering or the media.

Scrolling through CNN’s list of ‘20 designs that defined the modern world” there are just three women featured. Yes, just three, in the modern world. Want to know what they are credited with designing?

The bra and the mini skirt. Yep. Classic women designing women things.

Right now, women make up less than 13% of engineers in Australia. In the 1990s is was about 9% so it hasn’t really shifted in 30 years.

It’s a tricky perception to change. We are not seeing women in science and engineering in our society. According to The Global Media Monitoring Project (2015), women are only the news subject for science, technology, research and discoveries at a rate of 1 in 46.

To balance this equation and have women designing our world we are going to have to make changes.

We need to normalise women as engineers and scientists by showing role models to inspire young women in schools. We need to show them women who are just like them designing our world. The Superstars of STEM program by Science Technology Australia is a fantastic example of this.

We need to normalise women designing and building our world. We need to get women in the room when the design decisions are being made. Men in the room making the design decisions need to look around the room and ask, “am I forgetting about anyone?” when making decisions.“What would their perspective be?”

We make decisions all the time - on our own, in meetings, in teams or when we present ideas and strategies. There is one simple question to ask yourself - who is not in the room? Followed by how can I include them in this decision?

Felicity Furey