In the man’s world we live in, simply having a female body can result in inconvenience, embarrassment, and even tragedy.
Last week, I wrote an article about women standing in lines to use public bathrooms. It wasn’t actually about toilets, but about why holding women to male standards is discriminatory. Some people’s knickers got tied in very tight and uncomfortable knots. It provoked a lot of outraged and indignant responses.
It was particularly troublesome that I said toilet lines are an example of the way in which male bodies are prioritized by society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used the word “androcentrism” to describe this prioritization and male centeredness in detail in 1911. It’s really just another way of saying, “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world.”
This is a very consequential thing we have to live with. It’s also a perfectly understandable and predictable thing in a world defined by men in the near absolute absence of women for millennia. Sometimes the result is inconvenience and embarrassment, other times it tragic.
Take car fatalities. Crash test dummies are used to determine safety ratings, design decisions and consumer purchasing decisions. Until roughly 2003 all crash test dummies were male forms. Safety standards didn’t actually create safer driving environments for the vast majority of women, indeed it put them at greater risk. The lack of female models resulted in years of disproportionately high female mortality. Today, roughly 35 of the 200 test-crash figures used approximate women’s shapes, such as having wider hips and “some have chest-jackets simulating breasts.”
The Atlantic’s Rose Eveleth recently described how popular self-tracking apps measuring body metrics today simply fail to consider women’s bodies. These may seem like no big deal, because “whiny wealthy women” can always pony up the extra money to buy a smaller phone and an iPad. But, the exact same exercised principle means that the newest artificial hearts can save 86% of men, but only 20% of women. Heart disease is currently the “number one killer” of women in the United States.
This default has sometimes had really absurd results. In 1992, in her book The Mismeasure of Woman, Carol Travis cited research on the effects of drugs on breast cancer in which the only subjects were men.
Despite the fact that just more than 20 years ago the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated diversity in its clinical trials, these pronounced gender and racial gaps persists. “Medical research that is either sex- or gender-neutral or skewed to male physiology,” wrote the researchers of a study of disparities in medicine, “puts women at risk for missed opportunities for prevention, incorrect diagnoses, misinformed treatments, sickness, and even death.”
It gets better though, until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which eliminated overtly discriminatory gender pricing, women paid financially for not having male bodies. Prior to the Act, 38% of women seeking individual insurance coverage were rejected, charged a higher premium on the basis of their gender (this was legal in 42 states), or had to purchase coverage that excluded the “pre-existing condition” of having been pregnant. Pregnancy is construed, as Travis put it, “as a disability, rather than, say, an additional ability,” a matter of subjectivity in the end.
In effect, having a female body was a limiting and expensive preexisting condition. (Women who’d survived domestic violence and sought prior medical attention were also uninsurable. The violence, unlike other crimes, was considered a “preexisting condition.”)
The way that insurance companies successfully commoditized this male-centeredness takes place every day. Women pay more for a non-standard, female “shrink it and pink it” marketing, not because the products and services are different, but because gender pricing is cheap, legal, and highly profitable. In France, women have had enough and after widespread protests, France’s finance ministry is investigating “the invisible woman tax” levied on thousands of products and services.
Androcentric design also has deleterious effects on sex segregation in the workforce. Workplace technologies are frequently unconsciously designed in ways that reinforce traditional gender norms, favoring male professional dominance. For example, airplane cockpits were initially built at a time when women were not allowed to be pilots. The typical specifications met the needs of 90% of men, but meant that 70% of women, smaller, could not meet safety standards in the same space. This was then used to sustain the exclusion of women.
In the military, analysts realized with dismay that the majority of female candidates would not be able to pilot newly designed planes, so they redesigned the space so that more than 80% of female pilots could fly. These adaptations were not mandated in the private sector, where small differences in initial conditions in new industries become much larger ones over time and are highly consequential. Today 97% of commercial airline pilots are men. Socio-technical adaptations that take gender into account cannot by themselves assure equitable results, but they substantively help.
Bathrooms actually illustrate many issues at once. Public bathrooms were never actually meant to accommodate the needs of women in the public sphere, because they were barred from participating in it. Historically, a lack of or imbalance in toilets has been used to not just convey implicit hostility in the public sphere, but to justify women’s exclusion in schools, workplaces, and governance. For example, Yale Medical School and Harvard Law School both used the absence of women’s facilities to argue that they could not attend. In the United States, women in the House of Representatives didn’t get a bathroom near the Speaker’s Lobby until 2011. It matters that the vast majority of architects, engineers, construction workers, and legislators are not affected by this problem.
Which gets us to law. Jurisprudence is still frequently based on “reasonable man” standards that assume male bodies and experiences. A man is far more likely to be threatened by another man who is not an intimate partner and is of roughly equal size and strength. Women, however, are most likely to be assaulted and killed by an intimate partner, most frequently a man, on average larger. In addition, our largely “sticks and stones” approach to crime is highly gendered in ways that hurt men and women. It is one that prioritizes visible, physical violence (masculinized) over invisible, psychological, and emotional harm (feminized). Ideas about “imminent harm,” and self-defense continue to ignore these critical differences. As a result, harms to women are minimized and women’s survival strategies are criminalized and excessively punished. The average prison sentence for men who kill spouses is two to six years. Women? 15 years. Tens of thousands of women are in jail or dead because of these standards.
Do men face similar situations? Sometimes. Most frequently in the domestic sphere. For example, stroller heights might be uncomfortably low, but, with more fathers spending time engaged in childcare, that’s changing fast.
These problems are framed, for the most part, in very unhelpful and stark binary terms, which is problematic in and of itself. But, our entire world remains one standardized along those lines. Marketers in particular aren’t keen on embracing sex/gender neutrality because so many have made more money rejecting it. Products and services can be designed in ways that meet the majority of people’s needs, regardless of sex/gender far more equitably.
This is where I say, yes, war disadvantages men’s bodies—spectacularly. That, however, is the result of patriarchal mores, not their deconstruction. For obvious reasons there is no reversible comparison when it comes to global institutionalization in law, media, medicine, and technology. And, just about now, somewhere in the manosphere, someone if furiously typing, “Stop whining, women over there are really suffering,” which actually means “Shut up and consider yourself lucky that we treat you as well as we do.” The idea that women’s rights are measured in terms of competition with other women is just about as sexist as something can get. It demonstrates an utter inability to imagine a world where women’s rights aren’t being traded and regulated by men. Besides, even using this perspective’s patriarchal framing, its obvious that it’s better to be a “whiny,” “retarded bitch,” than a dead, compliant one.
It’s a shame our society generally fails to teach girls to have higher expectations and boys not to feel threatened by their realization. The worst part about people’s responses to the suggestion that we find ways to address women’s needs in public spaces was the reality of many women’s low expectations and desire not to offend anxious and angry men.
We are socialized in infinite ways to quietly adapt to this situation. Objections to understanding this problem don’t reflect how people feel about, say, reducing lines for women. Instead, the irrational response illuminates deep-seated social anxieties about what it means when women demand that their needs be equitably met. This isn’t anyone’s “fault,” just a problem we should identify as legitimate and try and find solutions to.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.