Gender sensibilities in Architecture
Gender inclusiveness is undoubtedly a huge marker of a progressing society. From a close look at our history it is apparent how ignorantly has gender differences been considered. For a painfully long time 'men' were the default human for all intents and purposes. This cultural positioning of men as the default humans is a phenomenon that transpired across disciplines and industries, even to the extent of medical science. Studies reveal that the common symptoms of heart attack that we are made aware of are not in fact that common among women, now how do you think this will affect the lives of millions of women? Similarly in the field of architecture and design which heavily depends on anthropometry and anthropology, gender differences, or rather the lack of regard for it, have made a considerable impact on the lives of people. What this exactly depicts is the absence of proper data collection from women which inevitably removes them from the sample which ironically is almost half of the users.
On the other hand, design is often practiced in a gender-biased environment, meaning there is a risk of reproducing inequalities. This is important because gender-biased design can have several problematic outcomes. These include: ignoring the needs of marginalized groups; creating designs that are unsuitable or exclude certain users; perpetuating gender stereotypes; and creating new social inequalities.
As much as architects like to quote anthropometric studies and the Vitruvian man, we cannot ignore the fact that even Le Corbusier's Modulor Man doesn't do any justice to the rest of the population. These were the approved scales that were widely treated as the canons of architecture which clearly didn't account for how non-male bodies would respond to spaces.
Then came a point in time when belatedly many started noticing how an entire population is being put at risk. Like in the 1950s when car manufacturers realized how their crash dummy test only ever used male dummies to calibrate their products and they introduced a female dummy - which in fact was only a scaled-down male dummy - which was only used for the passenger seat and not the driving seat, for which 'male' remains the default even today. Benevolent sexism much?
Similarly in architecture when there came a time and place to discuss the presence of women in our everyday spaces, that came with a cost too. These discussions started and ended at the thresholds of our domestic premises. Often these would only extend to the level of providing a view from the kitchen to the backyard so that the women can look out for the children. Designers and architects went above and beyond to make women supremely comfortable in kitchens - the most gendered space in a home. Today, with the development of a pandemic and subsequent lock-downs when the whole world work from home, the spatial autonomy in a household is fairly apparent.
The intersection of gender, sex, and architecture is intricate and pervasive. Some contend that gender is the social construction of masculinity and femininity and that sex is the biological basis of male and female identity. Others completely reject the biological binary of male or female as being "natural." It is obvious that gender is not simple, that it is frequently not determined by biology, and that it is influenced by culture despite the various viewpoints that exist—or perhaps because of them. Breaking down gender stereotypes of both physical space and the behaviors that occur in it is a challenge for architecture. It is an appeal to challenge notions of "man-masculine" and "woman-feminine," and to comprehend the influence of gender on our organizations, our priorities, and our decision-making. In this way, it is necessary to examine and question every step of the design process, from procurement to post-occupancy evaluation. These steps will not only help make our efforts more functional but also enhance the quality of life for all. If a few simple lines on a paper can make one person feel seen and heard while out in the world, then that is reason enough to do it.
The goal of gender-sensitive design is to combat spatial injustices by exposing the various discriminatory patterns that are frequently masked by gender-neutral points of view. It acknowledges that urban environments are far from being gender-neutral. Counter-intuitively, design approaches that aim to "design for everyone" can actually be more prone to bias. When the end-user is unspecified, the imagined user will tend to default to the dominant social group. As well as a refusal to recognize how different genders occupy space differently and have different needs is detrimental in itself. Despite the best efforts of designers, governments, and organizations, remaining neutral is simply a form of discrimination against women and people of colour. What's at risk is that many people may not feel like they belong in civic settings and institutions as a result of their gender identity, which then causes them to participate in public life with caution (and frequently opt out of it altogether).
The most effective way to navigate this is to ensure more participation and promote people from all ends of the gender spectrum to leadership roles to ensure representation. As aptly pointed out by the historian and designer duo Vostral and McDonagh, Design has the power to shape social narratives, making it a useful tool for those seeking to advance gender equality. Design should always be inclusive and strive to disseminate values that will help eradicate inequalities. It goes without saying that as professionals that have such a huge impact on society and the way people lead their lives, architects need to put more effort into sensitizing and understanding these differences. The key is to never invalidate anyone's lived experience, be ready to listen and take action. As we emerge, finally, from our cocoons, we might consider remaking not only the world at our doorstep but also the spaces within.