Designing against Stereotypes

Whitney working as a wild land firefighter in Colorado

Whitney working as a wild land firefighter in Colorado

Stereotypes are a tricky thing. We have them because it helps our brain make sense out of an incredible amount of information. Rather than managing everyone as an individual, we can more quickly make sense of the world by using stereotypes. But that is just the problem- a stereotype is “a widely held… and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person.” They are broad generalizations and therefore not an accurate reflection of real people.

Gender is complicated, partly built on physiological differences and partly driven by cultural influences. Cultures communicate expected gender roles, in part, via stereotypes. Sadly for women, many stereotypes are damaging—women aren’t as strong as men, women aren’t as intelligent as men, women aren’t as effective as managers… Although stereotypes do not reflect reality, regrettably, it appears that for the most part, we become what we are told we are.

BECOMING WHAT WE ARE TOLD

Women are not as good at mathematics and sciences as our male peers, right? That’s what the stereotypes tell us, and surely stereotypes are based on something. Yet new research indicates this is not an inherent problem but rather a stereotype of cultural making. A large worldwide study found girls’ performance in math was related the equality of the society, and in fact, in the countries where there was full gender equality, girls outperformed boys. Additional research from Israel bolsters this finding and hints as to why this could be. The Israeli study followed girls and boys for many years and found that when graded blindly, girls outperformed boys, but when graded with gender apparent, the girls suddenly underperformed compared to the boys. The teachers, it appears, were acting on gender stereotypes. Unfortunately the impact was traced further than just scores. The girls who were effectively discouraged in math by their teachers’ stereotypes went into STEM fields less often than expected. We do become what we are told we are.

Design either reinforces or debunks the cultural narrative around gender. Pink princess dolls for girls and red cars for boys tells the cultural story that girls are valued for their beauty and that boys are good at mechanics. The stereotypes that design supports can actually change society. For example, we now see computer programming as a male field. But this was not always the case. In fact, the very first computer scientist was an amazing woman, Ada Lovelace, who foresaw what computers could do centuries before one had been invented. Additionally, the first programmers were a group of female mathematicians who programmed the first computers used during WWII. But in the 1970’s, the field shifted from a female field to a male field. This can be traced to the first personal computer, which was designed and marketed to attract young men and boys. A computer was designed for boys and the cultural stereotypes around computers shifted, making computer science suddenly a male profession.

DEBUNKING STEREOTYPES WITH DESIGN

This story reveals how influential designers can be in shaping gender stereotypes. I see it as a call to action. If we want women and girls to live up to their potential and express their diversity, we must design products that empower everyone and tell a story about her that revolves around strength, intelligence, and success. Here are some products I feel are designed against stereotypes:

NIKE TRAINING CLUB

Nike Training Club is a workout app from Nike that is touted as “Your Personal Trainer.” At its core, it is about strength and power. Interestingly, all the trainers and guest athletes who lead you through workouts are women. Not sexualized women, but strong women who are really good at what they do. This app is not aimed at women—it is co-ed. Yet with their lineup, Nike is sending a powerful message to men and women alike that women are strong and tough. I think it’s empowering when my husband comments on how the female trainers make it look so easy and destroy him.

JILL AND JACK KIDS

As a social children’s clothing company, Jill and Jack Kids’s mission is to “create products that promote gender equality [and] help to prevent bullying by eliminating harmful gender stereotypes.” And it is not just girly stereotypes they are smashing—it’s all gender stereotypes. According to their statement on what they do, they affirm that “we need more girls who know that they can solve tough, real world problems, and more boys who are interested in collaboration, not just competition. To get there, we need to change the messages that we are sending to kids.” I love their photos of boys in T-rex shirts that say “half of all T-rexes were girls.”

LILY PAD ARDUINO

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Designed and developed by Leah Buechley, the Lily Pad Arduino is a serious piece of electronic equipment that can be used to make your own wearable electronics. By brilliantly combining programmable electronic modules with textiles, the Lily Pan Arduino pulls many women into electronics DIY who wouldn’t have been attracted otherwise. Here’s to bringing more women into tech.

DYSON VACUUMS

Dyson revolutionized home products by pulling them out of the ‘for-women only’ category. By using solid engineering and making hi-tech and exciting products, Dyson attracts all kinds of men to housework by enticing them with their technical vacuums. A great way to spin stereotypes around gender.

MAGIC CABIN’S CARPENTER’S ESSENTIAL KIT

“Magic Cabin has been guided by the simple notion that children's lives are enriched by ample time for open-ended, creative, imaginative play.” They share fantastically crafted wooden toys, none of which are made or sold along gender lines. For example, their Carpenter’s Essential Kit depicts pig-tailed girl proudly working her tools.

- whitney hopkins