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Built-in bias: hidden power and privilege in design

Hidden power and privilege can damage our reputations or place us in harm’s way

Queen Elizabeth’s 1991 state visit to the US began with an official welcome on the White House lawn from President George HW Bush.  While at 6’2” President Bush could be seen easily behind his usual White House podium, all that viewers could see of the 5’4” British monarch was her hat. Queen Elizabeth’s face was almost completely obscured by a set of microphones atop the podium that covered the rest of her. In a documentary Elizabeth R (1992), which included a short bit about her visit, a narrator commented, ‘Unfortunately no one adjusted the podium. So instead of the head of state, the world’s press and television would see only the hat of state. Through the perversity of publicity, this is to become the talking point of the trip.’  

Two days into her state visit, as she began the first-ever address to the joint Houses of the US Congress by a British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth opened her speech by saying ‘I do hope you can see me today from where you are’. Her remark drew a steady round of applause, laughter, and even a standing ovation. This embarrassing incident called public recognition to the fact that the Queen had been disadvantaged by an insensitive design. At the time, none of the official White House staff members hosting her visit considered that a gender bias in the design of a product – the podium and its microphones – which worked just fine for tall men like President Bush, would overpower the Queen, thus, albeit unintentionally, diminishing her stature in the eyes of the public.

Rexfeatures 5983642a

Rexfeatures 5983642a

Source: Doug Mills/AP/REX/Shutterstock

What happened to the Queen decades ago still happens every day to thousands of speakers in schools, colleges, universities, convention centres, city halls and houses of worship, who are shorter than the average male for whom most podiums are designed. The podium, a symbol of power and prestige, creates a gendered space that all too often disempowers women and diminishes their credibility, not only at the event itself, but also long afterwards in commemorative photographs and video recordings that take on a life of their own. 

Insensitive designs can embarrass us, damage reputations, and endanger us, placing us in harm’s way. Whether we realise it or not, built-in biases in the design of products, spaces and places convey power and privilege, often advantaging or disadvantaging one gender over another. And whether we realise it or not, the design of the products we use, the neighbourhoods we live in, the schools our children attend, and the buildings we work in every day, play an integral role in our health and well-being. If we have problems using them, we tend to blame ourselves. At best, poorly designed products, spaces and places may annoy you; at worst, they may injure or even kill you. For design shapes our lives, and built-in gender, age and body biases can affect the quality of our lives in profound ways.  

Built-in biases in design can widen psychological, social, cultural and generational divides that privilege one gender, age or body type over another. The burden tends to fall disproportionately on women, children or the elderly, the petite or oversized, in addition to those with visible and invisible physical disabilities – anyone not ‘average’.

‘The podium, a symbol of power and prestige, creates a gendered space that all too often disempowers women and diminishes their credibility’

In 2015, over two decades after Queen Elizabeth’s podium incident, at the third Democratic Presidential Debate held at St Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – the nation’s first woman Presidential nominee – was disadvantaged by a gender bias in architectural design. During a five-minute commercial break, Clinton had exactly one minute and 45 seconds to exit the gymnasium to head to the ladies’ room – and exactly one minute and 45 seconds to return to her spot on the stage. She didn’t make it in time. Bound by the schedule of live TV, ABC news hosts David Muir and Martha Raddatz proceeded without her as her podium sat empty. It turns out that the men’s room was much closer to the debate stage, advantaging her male opponents, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who returned with time to spare. Clinton’s aides had been concerned about the long walk to the ladies’ room even before the debate and had expressed their concern to the organisers, but no closer options were available. Instead, the only female candidate was just warned to be speedy. Her missing moments from the podium became the news story of the night and prompted jokes from comedians and commentators alike.

The recent avalanche of bombshell revelations about sexual harassment and misconduct, resulting in the public firing of scores of celebrities in the US starting with film producer Harvey Weinstein and sparking the explosion of the #MeToo movement throughout social media, in some cases may have also been abetted by design. Both the secluded location and the design of the office of Matt Lauer, fired from his 20-year co-hosting role on NBC’s Today programme due to ‘inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace’, played important roles in enabling him to prey on his female co-workers. A hidden button under his desk allowed him to lock his office door. Just hours after NBC dismissed Lauer, Variety disclosed the button’s existence stating ‘It allowed him to welcome female employees and initiate inappropriate contact while knowing nobody could walk in on him, according to two women who were sexually harassed by Lauer’. 

‘A hidden button under his desk allowed him to lock his office door’

Multiple women came forward to file complaints, including a former NBC employee who told the New York Times that in 2001 Lauer locked the door by pressing the button under his desk, asked her to unbutton her blouse, which she did, then pulled down her pants, bent her over a chair and assaulted her to the point where she eventually passed out and woke up on the floor of his office. Initial press coverage stated that Lauer had installed the button himself, but the Washington Post later clarified that the mechanism was standard in older offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, corporate home of NBC. Which leads one to question, how many others used – or continue to use – the button the same way? 

Built-in impediments – from irritating to life threatening – can be found across fashion, product and building design. Innovative, cutting-edge designs, from adjustable podiums to bathroom steps for children, can work for all genders, ages and body sizes, and create level playing fields that advantage us all.

Kathryn H Anthony is the author of Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places (Prometheus Books, 2017)

This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy