SNV Story No. 2: Standards and gender in design

Exclude no one – the world is diverse and colourful

What do a cement bag, stereotypical children’s rooms and unisex washrooms have in common? They all served Natascha Hess as inspiration and motivation for her bachelor thesis at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland in Basel. Car crash test dummies, personal protective equipment, navigation systems, the size of mobile phones or hand tools – no object is gender-neutral today. “Normen und Gender im Design” (Standards and gender in design) shows how the gender data gap affects norms and standards as well as the design of products. This thesis is not about finger-pointing, but about an outstretched hand.

Natascha Hess describes herself as a fair-minded person, for she cannot look the other way when people are excluded for all kinds of reasons and feels compelled to take action. She discovered design after completing an apprenticeship as a stone sculptor and the vocational baccalaureate. After her studies in Product and Industrial Design, she is currently doing an internship in product design and signage. Natascha Hess spoke to us and gave us an insight into her bachelor thesis.

Three locations – three insights
The topic of standards first came up for Natascha Hess during her apprenticeship, in connection with the weight of cement bags. For health reasons, these have been standardized in the industry since 1999 at 25 kilograms, rather than the previous 50 kilograms. But this is still a considerable weight and effort for women over time. It is interesting to note that there is already a gender-specific guideline for women here, which is 15 kilograms – only the industry has not applied it so far. That was the first reason for Natascha Hess to take a closer look at body standards.
From apprenticeship to university: the Ingvar Kamprad Design Centre at Lund University. Natascha Hess is on an exchange at this Swedish university town and encounters universal design (one size fits all) and inclusive design (one size fits one). Design approaches that address equality, something she did not learn about in her Swiss studies. An example of “design for all” is a meeting place that everyone can use and that does not restrict anyone on the basis of gender, age, physical or mental health. Examples of inclusive design are products with many variations, which are individually adjustable or have a modular structure. That the Swedes also apply this design idea in the real world can be seen, for example, in the washrooms, which are all exclusively unisex in the entire student town.
From campus to museum: The fascinating exhibition “Gender and sex. Discover now” at the Stapferhaus in Lenzburg invites visitors to playfully explore the question “What is gender?”. Based on these personal experiences, it was clear to Natascha Hess what she wanted to write about in her bachelor thesis – about design that excludes no one.

“Ask a hundred people what inclusion means and you’ll get a hundred different answers.
Ask them what it means to be excluded and the answer will be uniformly clear:
It’s when you’re left out. (Holmes, 2018, p. 4)”

Switzerland and body standards
Imagine you are a car manufacturer. For which body standards do you design your vehicle? There is a good chance that the car is designed for the average man and is so variable that it can also be adapted for women (with a woman being considered a small man according to the frequently used definition). The automotive industry still does not have a crash test dummy that correctly reflects the physical characteristics of a woman. For example, the female Hybrid III dummy with a height of 152 centimetres and a weight of 54 kilograms is representative of very few women. What are the consequences of such oversights? Natascha Hess quotes from an American study:

“According to a study by the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics,
the risk of serious injury in a car accident is 47% higher for women than for men,
even though men are more likely to be involved in car accidents. For moderate accidents,
the risk is even 71% higher. (Shaver, 2012)Women are also 17% more likely
to die in a car accident than men. (NHTA, 2013)”

The American data is shocking. But what about Switzerland? The simple and honest answer is that we do not know. This has nothing to do with the quantity of data collected, but with the quality. In the data that the Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) receives for compiling accident statistics, the male/female aspect either does not play a role or the encryption of the data for the purpose of protecting privacy does not allow for any conclusions to be drawn. A clear call from Natascha Hess for more data to be collected separately by gender.

Norma – the typical female body
It has been known for some time that the calculation of averages is tricky. Natascha Hess gives an impressive example in her thesis.

“Dr. Robert L. Dickinson and his collaborator Abram Belskie measured the data of 15,000
young adult women and, using the average figures, created ‘Norma’, a woman of typical
female physique,or in other words: the ‘normal’ American woman. At a lookalike
contest in Cleveland in 1945, women competed against each other to see who most resembled Norma.
The result, however, was anything but expected: None of the women who participated matched
Norma’s average measurements. (Rose, 2016, pp. 5–7) […] Most doctors and scientists of the
time interpreted the result differently. They concluded that American women ate an unhealthy
diet and had a poor body shape. (Rose, 2016, pp. 7–8)”

Today, ISO standards are used to define clothing sizes, such as SN EN ISO 8559-1 and -2. However, the fact that one and the same clothes size can turn out very differently for different brands has more to do with psychology and marketing strategy than with the underlying standard.

Gender-neutral is when you do not see it at all
Body standards are just one piece of the puzzle towards inclusive design. Comprehensive usage data, analyses of requirements for the different target groups as well as critical comments from consumers are important elements. The kitchen is a place that is already being designed for many different people. People love to cook and talk about it. For example, there are kitchen assemblies that are adjustable in height, knives for left-handers or products for people with special needs – such as rubber handles for a better grip, knives with ergonomic handles or cooking utensils for children.

The object itself does not need to be seen as having been optimally designed for everyone. “Something is gender-neutral when you don’t even notice it,” explains Natascha Hess. She mentions clothes rails that can be pulled down without any effort as an example. Ideal for all those who have less strength, are smaller, sit in a wheelchair or can no longer stretch without pain as they get older. The small example of the wardrobe shows that many target groups benefit when companies think beyond the “normal person” when it comes to consumers.

“Kat Holmes addresses a significant aspect in her book ‘Mismatch’:
‘There is no such thing as normal.’ (Holmes, 2018, p. 91) One typical problem is
when the target group is oversimplified. As a result, people forget to incorporate
human diversity back into the design process. There is a dangerous concept lurking
behind it: the normal person. (cf. Holmes, 2018, p. 91)”

Gender in standardization work
As the issue is increasingly recognized by those involved in standardization, the different standardization organizations are also reacting. ISO and CEN have included a check box “Accessibility and design for all” in the application form for new standards, where applicants have to declare whether the standard contains barriers for certain population groups. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UNSDG) is currently examining the gender issue in the context of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and surveying members on the topic as part of its Gender Action Plan.

“Urs Fischer, CEO of the SNV, was one of 39 managing directors of standardization organizations
to sign the ISO Gender Responsive Standards Initiative of the United Nations
Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which provides for the inclusion of all genders
in the creation of standards and, above all, to ensure the same conditions for
women and girls as for men. (Lea Leibundgut, Programme Manager SNV, 2021)”

The development is still in its early stages. The daily work of the standardization committees will show how the sensitization on a theoretical level is taken up in practice.

Society defines – not standards
Gender is a social construct, while standards are based on biological sex. One can understand that companies move in a zone of conflict that some skilfully resolve and others deliberately reinforce. The economic reason behind this is to produce something that sells. Buyers therefore have an important voice – they dictate the range of products with their behaviour.

An example from the children’s room, where stereotypes dominate thinking, is the gender-neutral line of Lego. The Swedish company commissioned its own study beforehand and found out that girls become more self-confident by using “boys’ toys”, while boys are more likely to suffer from the stereotypes. Seventy-one per cent of the boys surveyed feared that they would be made fun of if they played with “girls’ toys”. A fear that was also shared by their parents, according to the study. “Parents worry more about their sons being teased than their daughters when they play with toys associated with the opposite sex,” said Madeline Di Nonno, Managing Director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which conducted the study. Nearly 7000 parents and children aged 6 to 14 from China, the Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA were surveyed. (Source: Spiegel Wirtschaft, 11 October 2021)


Discrimination because the issue is not on the radar
Natascha Hess is convinced that “design for all” makes the world more colourful and better for everyone. The first step is for companies to address the issue as well as create informative data. “People are excluded today unintentionally. You can only act from your own perspective. As a woman, I can’t know what it feels like to be a man. It’s about being aware that there are things you don’t know. Obtaining missing knowledge and assembling mixed teams are key factors in being diverse,” concludes Natascha Hess. She expresses the same wish for standardization work: “Look at the issue from an unbiased point of view. Standards and design should be based on facts, without political or social colouring.”

What it is all about: sharing and passing on knowledge
Natascha Hess does not yet know which direction her career will take her. But she can very well see herself participating in standardization work with sufficient accumulated professional knowledge and life experience. “If you know something, you should share it with people so that everyone can benefit from each other.”

An experiment: female drills and male mixers
Let us introduce Mega Hurricane, the powerful mixer, and Dolphia, the stylish drill. The International Journal of Design has ventured into a design experiment that impressively showcases gendered product design. (Source: International Journal of Design, Case Studies, 2012)

“The hand blender became the Mega Hurricane mixer with a large ergonomic handle,
intense colour contrasts, different surface materials and matte dark colours that make
it look complex and dangerous to the user. The drill became Dolphia, inspired by a
gentle dolphin in bright pastel colours, with a glossy finish, stylish grip surfaces
and ventilation holes. It conveys an organic and simple product language that is
easy to understand for the user and appears not to require much
effort. (Ehrnberger, Räsänen, & Ilstedt, 2012, p. 93)”

Modern design


«Mega Hurricane»

Additional information:

Bachelor thesis: “Normen und Gender im Design”
Natascha Hess, 2021 – University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, Academy of Art and Design Basel

LinkedIn profile Natascha Hess

Recommended reading
“Das Patriarchat der Dinge” – Rebekka Endler
“Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” – Caroline Criado-Perez
“Gender Design: Streifzüge zwischen Theorie und Empirie” – Uta Brandes

Stapferhaus exhibition
Trailer «Gender & Sex: Discover now» – exhibition until 22 May 2022

SNV article
"Der genormte Mensch ist männlich"



Lego macht keinen Unterschied mehr zwischen Jungen und Mädchen
Spiegel Wirtschaft, 11 Octobre 2021

"Visualising Gender Norms in Design"
International Journal of Design, Case Studies, 2012

ISO Project Committee to develop guidelines for the promotion and implementation of gender equality

Achieving gender parity has been high on the agenda of the international standardization organization ISO for some time. In 2019, together with many of its members, as well as the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV), it reaffirmed its commitment to further action on gender equality by signing the UNECE Initiative on Gender Responsive Standards. That same year, ISO approved its Gender Action Plan. The first phase (2019–2021) was about taking inventory, and the second phase (2021–2023) will address the challenges.

However, the aim is not only to incorporate gender equality into standardization; standards should also provide guidance on how to address the issue of gender equality in organizations. For example, a new ISO project committee wants to issue a guidance standard to help users integrate gender equality into their internal and external strategies and processes. Interested experts can participate in the work of the ISO Project Committee ISO/PC 337 Guidelines for the promotion and implementation of gender equality through SNV membership.

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