design, gender and equity
July 6, 2004 03:42 PM

I'm starting to feel really silly categorizing my blog entries. It's as if, each time I select from the list, I'm randomly selecting one of the items when every possibility is somewhat valid.

Which is to say. This is in part my musings on our response to design, and in part a theory on inequity in design and our response to it. It isn't just about geekery (as it's design in all forms) or just about media (though it's sort of essentially about the medium and means of conveying a message) or just about gender (though I'm thinking a lot about the difference between "masculine" and "feminine" versus "male" and "female" and our failure to separate these things from each other).

Yeah. Let's rethink my entire category system later.

Now, let's talk about the fractal explosion of ideas about gender and design that came from my reading of this comment from Eris's blog: overtly feminine style signals diminished credibility to many.

There are, of course, many perspectives one could take on this. There's the possibility that "feminine" stylings don't equate in people's minds to a less credible product; there's the possibility that they do. Speaking of which, for the rest of this discussion, let's assume your product is information, and the "femininity" is in your visual presentation only - there are other "gendered" cues in language and organization.

So, what is a "feminine" design element?

The problem with "feminine" as a word is that, divorced from your perception of what women as a group are and/or want, it doesn't have a lot of consistent meaning. We have ideas about what it means to be "feminine" (soft, nurturing, enduring, devouring) that contradict each other.

But. I think we do mean something specific when we talk about design being feminine. I'm simply not sure what it is.
It could be a pale color palette and swishy fonts (web design)
It could be floral patterning (gift wrap)
It could be smaller, more curved, and available in a wider range of colors than its "rugged" counterparts (backpacks)
It could be hot pink and scripty and Venus-symbolic (feminist t-shirt)
It could be what a variety of people are touting online as "feminine web design" (example 1 : example 2 : example 3)
It could be the sort of brand identification of products like tampons or Oprah or "women's television".

From those examples, we could say that "feminine" design is strongly visual but also non-confrontational. It's frequently ornamented, not necessarily floral (though there are many extreme examples of that), and is rarely spare and minimal. It favors the figural and human over the abstract. Pastels are definitely a theme, but dramatic or extensive use of any colors might be construed as feminine.

Okay, fine. Given those criteria, I'd say this site is a good example of "feminine" design. It's not ragingly floral and scripty, but its palette is colorful and its main graphic element is figural (and pink/red in and of themselves are instand "feminine" cues).

Let's assume we're agreed on this definition of "feminine" as far as design is concerned.

There are aspects of "feminine" design, then, that diminish usability on the web. Our eyes read certain fonts better, for instance, and scripty fonts are not among them. Color, used in excess, can become a distraction for the eyes (not to mention issues of colorblindness and contrast for various folk). The same is true of graphics.

Yes, shockingly, feminine design, misapplied, is as hard to deal with as any other form of bad design. Perhaps more so. But why would that in and of itself result in dismissal of content presented in (good or bad) a feminine visual style?

I'd theorize that it's because "feminine" styles in general are considered less reasoned, less rational, and less intelligent. Western society values rationalism. While we can now, for the most part, accept that women aren't inferiorly soft, emotional, and instinctual, we still seem to think that emotion and instinct are negative. It comes into play with debate style as well as design on the web. And - because we frequently confuse the feminine with the female, the masculine with the male - it often results in women being dismissed and excluded.

Which brings me to the next idea: are women at a disadvantage on the internet?

Well. It depends. Every internet community is its own bubble. There are certain bubbles that are considered representative of the entire blogging world by other media, and those bubbles consist of more recognized male voices than female or genderqueer voices (they also consist of more straight than queer, more white than other colors, more middle class than poor, etc.). The figures known for pioneering web design and development are predominantly male. You have to look to find the women.

That is not equity. It's analogous to the wage gap between women and men. You can argue that the inequity is by choice, not design of the system, you can be happy or unhappy with it, but there it is, still - inequity.

But, step outside those certain bubbles, and you're in a community of, say, exclusively female Pinoy bloggers between the ages of 20 and 25. There is a bubble for nearly every subset of internet-connected person.

I'm coming from a rather odd place on this one, because I consciously and intentionally don't exist in an online environment that dismisses "feminine" styling, as it is overwhelmingly female (though not particularly feminine). The people I hang with out here are talking about gender and sexuality as a continuum and debating radical versus liberal politics and calling each other on our privilege and are generally on a page about the fuckupitude of the How Things Are (though given to disagreement about the degree and nature of that fuckupitude). So, when I run into bits of sexism elsewhere in the blogosphere, it's always a bit of a surprise that we're still so simpleminded. Oh, I say to myself, are those people still talking about how women are versus men?

Apparently, they are.

In reading the comments and links the spun off Eris's blog entries on gender disparity in the web design bubble [also, see the follow up on Eris's site, if you're interested], I saw people going back to the "women and men have brains that function differently" argument, for instance. It's an argument that I don't have a ready refutation of anymore, because I see it so rarely in my bubble. [Note to self - revisit books filled with studies proving this brain function thing dubious at best.] I saw a few guys arguing that inequity didn't exist, because they didn't believe it existed or because reverse inequity existed in some other way in some totally unrelated context. Dude, that is such an emotional, feminine way to argue your point. Tee hee.

It seems such a basic tenet of polite living that, if the majority of people belonging to a group you don't belong to attest to feeling their group is excluded or dismissed, then you ought to listen to them. I don't believe most discrimination, sexism included, is intentional. I'm not even sure equity is always desirable, but I do think we need to develop an awareness of these gaps.

So, it bothers me that a person can say "yeah, if my site design looks too female, no one will believe my words" amid a discussion of gender inequity and no one will even acknowledge that. Is it tacit agreement? Disregard because she's female? I don't know.

I don't believe women are underrepresented in the blogosphere overall (certainly not if the predominantly female bubbles I come across are to be taken as a cross-section), but I do suspect we're underrecognized in the concept of blogging, just as we're underrepresented in the tech world in general (although, again, not so much in my own tech career).

Is this a problem? I think so. You may think otherwise. It's not an easy problem to solve, though - affirmative-action-style promotion of a few women by the "cool kids" bubble is only a symbolic nod, and confronts the symptom (underrepresentation) but not the systemic issue (association of the feminine with inferiority and females with the feminine). And systemic issues are usually solved one person at a time.

Fortunately, there are an awful lot of smart women and men having this conversation about sexism on the web. They'll get there eventually.

In the meantime, I suppose I ought to step out of my bubble more often.

TrackBack : in feministy stuff « the worst article ever written | Main | the town of dieter »
your wicked thoughts

Girls learn to put way too much effort into appearance every day, while boys are taught to always put on pants; the analog in web pages is a very high risk of over-design for the girls, and underdesigned websites whichare just inoffensive and dull (e.g., mine) for the boys. When boys overdesign, I think they too lose credibility, but I get the impression that they're more likely to not even bother.

Standards on the viewer's end may also be different; e.g., boys may wonder why somebody spent all day drawing an elaborate header---and I get the feeling that the the `many' in `overtly feminine style signals diminished credibility to many' means `many boys'.

While I'm dictating my opinion in this little comment box, let me bitch about my pet peeve, in Eris's css sheet: "font-size: 85%;" Smaller text is the sort of deliberate design feature that always loses points (regardless of the author's credibility otherwise).

these are the thoughts of BK of Washington, Columbia on July 7, 2004 12:44 AM

Hmmm. That's an interesting parallel to draw. I don't think the two things are directly tied, but probably based on a similar root: namely, girls are taught to "express themselves" in this feeling/style way.

I think "many" is often girls and boys in communities where "masculine" aesthetics rule.

Eris and I both use relatively small fonts. The advantage of her % size vs. my px size settings is that visitors can set their own monitors at 72pts if they want, and her site will just be 15% less. Mine will always be 11px, unless you override my CSS by some means.

these are the thoughts of april on July 7, 2004 09:09 AM

I'm still thinking about the post, but I tend to think of tiny fonts as ageist. Using CSS only makes it worse because I can't ctrl-scroll in IE to make the font bigger.

(remove the extra ee's to email me)

these are the thoughts of Tom L on July 9, 2004 06:23 PM

I think everyone has his style when designing a site. There is no such a thing as a "feminine design" or a "male design". The most important thing here is to seek inspiration to create something different each time.

Mark, web designer

these are the thoughts of Mark, web designer on August 10, 2004 05:57 AM

I agree, there are very different approaches to "feminine" vs. "masculine" design - which interestingly enough is why I'm here.

For instance, can you tell the intended audience of these sites?:

Very well written and helpful in reminding me of some "feminine fundamentals" for a new project :-)

these are the thoughts of Craig on March 23, 2005 01:33 PM

please note that your IP address is logged when comments are posted, and comment abuse including spam will be investigated and reported to your internet service provider.

in this section
miss anything? (monthly)
artsy stuff
books & tv & internet stuff
fat & health stuff
feministy stuff
generally political stuff
nerdy & silly stuff
sexually liberated stuff
vaguely personal stuff
work & money stuff
i have a livejournal, too
more info
email me
design by seven ten


about the site wicked thoughts edge of the season arts links we have brains