Design Matters: Engineering Design is Facing an Unconscious Bias Problem


As a research assistant within the environmental science department in university, I worked with a team to develop a mapping system in an effort to make LIDAR-type (Light Detection and Ranging) images more affordable. 

I became a research assistant to get more experience with data collection, but all semester I struggled to log hours in the field. This wasn’t because I lacked the skills to do the work. It was, in fact, because I was too short to independently launch our study’s camera, which was affixed to a kite. 

Design Matters: Engineering Design is Facing an Unconscious Bias Problem

The prototype had been designed by my supervising graduate student, a man well over 1.8 meters tall. After several failed and painful attempts to launch a kite twice my size, my fieldwork was assigned to another research assistant, who was tall and male. Despite the best intentions, our research lab designed a product that excluded users under 1.8 meters tall.

This problematic event is not uncommon. Products and applications are frequently designed without thinking about how others will use and interact with them. This issue isn’t limited to STEM fields. Unconscious bias in engineering design affects diverse populations across the globe, not only females within the industry.

Engineering has an unconscious gender bias problem

The discussion of gender bias is typically restricted to elements that affect a woman’s career within the engineering discipline or related industries, such as hostile work environments, inadequate representation within the industry, wage gaps, or the lack of career mobility. However, these are just symptoms of a much larger problem. Blind spots within the design process aren’t just a minor annoyance or frustration. They can be deadly.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is part of social and evolutionary programming. Culture, family, and personal experience hardwire human brains to make unconscious decisions. Biases help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. 

Unconsciously our brains cluster people into groups based on traits to help make sense of our surroundings. The downside is that the potential for prejudice is hard-wired into human cognition. These unconscious biases skew how we perceive the world.

Unconscious bias isn’t limited to gender, race, class, or age. There are many different types of unconscious bias:

  • Beauty Bias – judging people based on how they look.
  • Affinity Bias – gravitating towards people that are the same as ourselves.
  • Horns Effect – focusing on one negative trait, overlooking the whole person
  • Confirmation Bias – searching for evidence to back up first impressions.
  • Attribution Bias – how we perceive the actions of others.
  • Conformity Bias – changing opinions to conform with the group.
  • Halo Effect – when we focus on one great feature and overlook everything else.

These effects are real, but the current generation of designers were educated before unconscious bias was understood. Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work explaining unconscious bias, but tools like the Harvard Implicit Bias Test are still largely unknown to professionals.

How does unconscious bias affect design in engineering and technology?

When unconscious bias seeps into product design, it can lead to serious consequences. Products are being designed without women’s needs in mind. As a result, many uncomfortable, useless, and even dangerous products enter the market. Every day, women feel the impact of unconscious bias. Some of these situations are so familiar, you might not even realise they are a result of unconscious bias.

The consequences of these design flaws vary in seriousness from minor annoyances to life-threatening. Have you ever had difficulty reaching something on the top shelf? That’s because shelving is designed with male norm heights in mind. This might not seem like a big deal, but it puts females, and shorter males, at a disadvantage.

Unconscious bias in design:

  1. Space Suits: In March 2019, Christina Koch and Anne McClain were scheduled to install new batteries on the international space station (ISS). After intense preparation and training with two differently sized suits, McClain decided that medium-sized was a better fit. A spokesperson for NASA cited that the agency resources were lacking – only one medium-sized spacesuit top was available. Due to a lack of properly fitting equipment, Anne McClain had to forfeit her role to a larger male colleague, and NASA had to cancel its first all-female spacewalk.  Although large systematic problems affect women at work, it is easily overlooked how bias manifests to deny critical career-defining experiences that build the collateral for future professional progression. Women in a male-dominated industry can struggle with even the simplest of things due to gender bias in design, such as finding appropriately fitting workwear.
  2. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): From life vests to body armour, women struggle to find appropriately fitting PPE. PPE manufacturers have begun to design smaller sizes but have done so not with the female physique in mind. A woman’s shape often causes PPE to fit uncomfortably and can even cause it to malfunction. A police officer was fatally injured because her body armour didn’t fit appropriately. Some organisations, such as the Trades Union Conference are raising awareness and pressuring employers to ensure women wear the proper PPE, but it is still a widespread problem. Improperly fitting PPE can leave women stuck with an unsavoury choice: endanger personal safety or sacrifice your career.
  3. Crash Test Dummies: Although the automobile has been around for over one hundred and thirty years, safety testing procedures were slower to evolve. It might be shocking to discover that female crash test dummies weren’t required until 2011. Car manufacturers utilised a standard crash dummy based on the body dimensions of an average man. This oversight raises a female driver’s risk of serious injury by 47 per cent.
  4. Airplane Assumptions: Certain military planes require minimum weight restrictions due to the risk of neck injury from an emergency ejection from the cockpit. This risky business has grounded many female pilots. The pilots that fly on are faced with liability waivers and hold harmless agreements. Are female pilots more responsible for safety testing and regulations on planes than male pilots? Of course not. But, they still bear disproportionate responsibility for greater personal risk.
  5. Office Temperature: How did we decide on the perfect office climate? According to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, most office buildings set temperatures based on a formula from the 1960’s based on the metabolic rates of men. Companies are catching on to this bias, but lower utility bills might be incentivising this shift in behaviour.
  6. Smartphones: Women’s hands are, on average, around 2.5cm smaller than men’s, so why are smartphones screens getting bigger? Texting one-handed on a 12cm or bigger iPhone can be difficult to impossible for many women (and small-handed people, in general).

How can we change:

As an individual, there are several ways you can help fight unconscious bias in design.

  1. Examine your own bias: The first step to controlling your bias is to acknowledge it.
  2. Stop making assumptions about behaviour and appearance: your positive or negative bias associated with a certain look or trait can cause you to under or overestimate someone.
  3. Surround yourself with people who think differently: similar minds will have similar unconscious bias. Organisations and designers fail to grow when they cannot see the world’s diversity through a broader lens.
  4. Speak up: we have the power to prevent or continue to enforce unconscious bias.

How can our industry fight its bias?

According to Deloitte’s Insights on Designing Equality, “To counteract the implicit gender biases that may be holding women back, organisations can apply the five stages of design thinking to engage employees and iteratively redesign facets of the work environment that may be creating barriers for women.”

An inclusive approach to design thinking can help reduce gender bias:

  1. What do women want? Interviews, focus groups, observations, and data analytics should be used to determine what both users want
  2. What unique challenges may women face in recruitment, retention, and advancement in the industry? What can managers, colleagues and organisations do to combat these?
  3. Collaborate and ideate with an inclusive team
  4. Test solutions with inclusive employee feedback and participation
  5. Improve or reject solutions based on inclusive feedback

In order to have female first designs, society and industry need more female design engineers. However, the addition of more female design engineers will not alone be enough. The input of female design engineers must be valued, demanded even. Without inclusive input, women will continue to be subjected to poorly designed products that do not meet their needs and may even endanger their safety.

Solving the problem of unconscious gender bias in design engineering requires the cooperation of all. Applying an inclusive approach to design thinking can lead to more female-friendly designs and workplaces. Once we recognise our own biases, we can choose to tackle them with conscientious behavioural changes.

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