The world has been designed by men, for men, and women have had enough

Smartphones too big for women’s hands, seatbelts couldn't have been designed by anyone with breasts

Nasa astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, one of two women due to take part in a historic spacewalk, which had to be cancelled because of a lack of available spacesuits to fit them. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Two Nasa astronauts were on the verge of making history recently by becoming "the first women to walk in space unaccompanied by men". It turns out that, until now, space has been the cosmological equivalent of Gilead, and we never even noticed.

Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled to take the first ever all-female spacewalk last week. But the plans had to be abandoned when the astronauts went to dust off their space suits and discovered that, having expected to find six, only two were in decent working order.

(It turns out the International Space Station is a lot like the average household occupied by school-going children on a Sunday evening. You’re sure you had six school tracksuits, but you can only find two, neither in the right size.)

Across the board, women were left out of clinical trials until the 1990s, because of our deeply inconvenient insistence on having ovaries and uteruses.

Both women needed a medium size, and there was only one, so they had to go on their space walks separately, accompanied by a male astronaut.


Further probing reveals that when Nasa was designing the current space suits 40 years ago, it only bothered with three sizes -- medium, large and extra large -- to fit “most astronauts”. By “most astronauts” they meant “most men”. It’s not the first time the world’s self-proclaimed greatest scientific minds have managed to overlook the other 49.5 per cent of the population.

Let me introduce you to Reference Man. He’s between 20 and 30 years old, 70kg, Caucasian, 170cm tall, lives in a temperate climate, enjoys a Western lifestyle, and has a lot to answer for. Reference Man was developed originally as a means of measuring the impact of radiation in nuclear accidents. It’s thanks to Reference Man that we only discovered around eight years ago that the impact of nuclear radiation is much more catastrophic for women than it is for men.

These days, Reference Man's reach extends well beyond the field of nuclear radiation. As the activist Caroline Criado Perez shows through data in her book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, "male" is still the default setting for humanity across many fields. It's the reason why smartphones are too big for women's hands, and women are more likely to feel sick when using a VR headset. It's the reason office buildings are permanently set to Man Degrees Celsius -- roughly five degrees colder than if women had a say.

We don't actually know if many modern drugs are as safe and effective for women as they are for men.

In healthcare and science, there is nothing metaphorical about all the ways in which women are overlooked. When researchers did a landmark 1989 study on aspirin and heart disease, they managed to include 22,000 men and – oops! – not a single woman. Researchers investigating interactions between flibanserin – dubbed the “female Viagra” – and alcohol, used a study group of 25 participants, of which only two were female. Across the board, women were left out of clinical trials until the 1990s, because of our deeply inconvenient insistence on having ovaries and uteruses.

So we don’t actually know if many modern drugs are as safe and effective for women as they are for men. Which may be part of the reason why more women than men die of cardiovascular disease – something that (oops again!) we only just noticed.

Once you become attuned to how much of the world has been designed by men for men, with an advisory council of men, and men giving out all the awards for design to other men, you can’t stop noticing it. History books have mostly been written from the male point of view. Most of the statues lining our streets are of men. Male sports get more coverage. Books written by men get more reviews. A car seatbelt can’t possibly have been designed by anyone with breasts.

Neither can the rest of a car’s safety features. Criado Perez points out that although men are more likely to be involved in road crashes, women are 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured in them, and 17 per cent more likely to die -- the most commonly used car-crash dummy is designed on a “default” male body.

It is Reference Man, or variations of him, on whom we conduct medical trials, design safer cars, heat offices and build space suits. We elect variations of Reference Man. We choose iterations of him to run our companies and our legal systems.

A few times a year – one of them being International Women’s Day – there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing about institutional gender bias, but nothing much changes. But the data’s in. We need to stop just observing gender bias and treat it as something like a bad flu pandemic: track it, monitor it; develop inoculations against it; educate people on the symptoms and risk; and treat it aggressively wherever it shows up. Let’s begin by measuring the impact of the gender bias pandemic on Reference Woman.

She’s aged between 12 and 92, lives on earth, and has had enough.