Friday, March 29, 2019

One Size Fits...

The titles of the articles, both out of the UK, are designed to appeal to an idea that the world is sexist, that women aren't seen and valued. The BBC lists "Seven ways the world is not designed for women;" The Guardian calls out "The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes." And both articles seek to speak to the difficulty that women have when the "average person," for whom many products from space suits to cellular phones is designed for, is perhaps more accurately described as the average American man.

But The Guardian hints at a deeper problem, noting:

The use of a “standard” US male face shape for dust, hazard and eye masks means they don’t fit most women (as well as a lot of black and minority ethnic men).
And this is a problem that has been around for quite some time:
The high death rate in the Air Force was a mystery for many years, but after blaming the pilots and their training programs, the military finally realized that the cockpit itself was to blame, that it didn’t actually fit most pilots. At first, they assumed it was just too small and that the average man had grown since the 1920s, so in 1950, they asked researchers at Wright Air Force base in Ohio to calculate the new average.

One of these researches was a young Harvard graduate named Gilbert S. Daniels. In his research measuring thousands of airmen on a set of ten critical physical dimensions, Daniels realized that none of the pilots he measured was average on all ten dimensions. Not a single one. When he looked at just three dimensions, less than five percent were average. Daniels realized that by designing something for an average pilot, it was literally designed to fit nobody.
This is, of course, not to say that when the "average" is based on a man, that it won't cause problems for women, who don't typically conform to men's average heights, weights, reach et cetera. But it's a problem for more than just women. It's a problem for literally everyone who doesn't conform to whatever the determined average is (or averages are, depending). Now, this is a problem with a simple solution. But the simple solution is also an expensive one; returning to the pre-Civil War custom of having everything custom-sewn to the specifications of the user. Given modern make-on-demand technologies, this wouldn't be a particularly difficult thing tp put in place, but the loss of economies of scale would be telling very quickly.

And that's the somewhat inglamorous reality of the situation. That most of this is not driven by sexism or racism, but simply finances. Having all crash-test dummies be the same lowers costs. Having clothes sized into predefined dimensions lowers costs. Not send up a spacesuit for every individual astronaut on a space station lowers costs. Sure, women and people of other ethnicities than the one used to calculate the average lose out in this, but that sort of myopia is a hallmark of the human condition. People tend to see the world as a reflection of themselves, rather than something that independent of them.

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