As digital specialists, we must always ensure that the work we produce has no room for error. We are constantly thinking about the potential downfalls of our work, and often, this includes a potential bias of many kinds.
As users, we consume hours of digital content daily - it’s so integrated into our habits, and we deal with it in such a fast-paced manner, that we often don’t even realise when it’s being biased, non-inclusive or non-accessible to many.
In this article, we are going to specifically talk about gender inequality in the digital age. Because, did you know that digital bias can put women’s lives at risk? Let’s see how and what we can do to avoid this.
Let’s not forget that it was a woman who wrote the first ever line of code! Ada Lovelace was the first individual to highlight the much more advanced capacity for machines to create algorithms. She is considered the author of the very first computer program, and has paved the way for the powerful potential of computers today. Ada was able to achieve this extraordinary feat in the early 19th century … so, how come we seldom hear of other women’s technological achievements nowadays? There definitely are many women in the innovation industry today, yet they still face gender-based discrimination.
Currently, on a global scale, only 22% of AI professionals, 18% of CIO/CTO’s, and 6% of software developers are female, according to UNESCO and World Economic Forum reports. Men still uphold a monopoly when it comes to the digital and technological industry. This is extremely important to know when it comes to investigating digital bias; although social biases are likely to be significant when algorithms are built by humans themselves, it becomes even more significant when these human creators are predominantly male.
For example, there’s a vast gender data gap in many apps that can be life-threatening to women. Health-related apps using data mainly collected from men can often give medical advice that is not necessarily suitable for the female body.
As users, we put ourselves in the hands of this technology often unconsciously yet actively participating in this bias. And as we are constantly exposed to this digital information every single day, we are more likely to accept and even adopt the sexist mindset that comes along with it.
Another example of this lies in the AI of voice assistants so many of us use on a daily basis. These include Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, who have played a part in gender bias and stereotyping. The use of women’s names and voices for these assistants, reinforces the notion of women as those who are subordinate, who offer support, who are not in control and who do not have authority. This doesn’t stop there - reports have shown verbal abuse directed with shocking responses they have been programmed to make. In 2019, a UNESCO report published these findings:
If you tell Alexa "You're hot", she'll answer "That’s so nice of you to say”;
If you tell Siri "You're a slut", she'll say "I’d blush if I could”;
If you tell Cortana "You’re a naughty girl”, she'll respond "Maybe a nanosecond nap would help. Ok, much better now.”
At the end of 2019, over 3.25 billion people used digital assistants, and it is estimated that this will more than double (8 billion) by 2023. That’s a lot of commands being directed to these female slave-like devices inducing sexist behaviours. The way we continue to interact with these devices is integral to developing our ideas about gender.
Nowadays, with only 17.5% of the worldwide tech workforce being women, and only 5% of these in leadership positions, changing these gender biases is not an easy task. However, it is not impossible - technologies still have the potential to counter this effect and support gender equality.
In fact, UX design is one of the only areas of the digital industry that outperforms in terms of gender inequality. In some countries, there’s almost an exact 50/50 split between females and males. This is great news that has a majorly positive impact on product design, however, there are still some challenges.
Despite a 50/50 split, when it comes to senior positions the ratio does not quite reflect this. This can often lead to some inequalities in work flexibility and work leave. So, how can this issue be solved?
By offering parental leave that is equal and fair, as well as offering flexibility around working hours, women can take advantage of this time to have children without it being at the expense of their career.
Companies should integrate a community or program in which men have the opportunity to help support and empower their female coworkers. In order to incite change, men need to be part of the conversation and play an active role.
Promoting gender diversity at the workplace doesn’t stop there - you can also adapt it to your digital products to make them fair and square.
How can you make your products for gender equality?
Use gender-inclusive language in your UX writing
Avoid gendered terms - replace them with gender-neutral alternatives. For example, instead of using “mankind”, use “humankind”
Avoid pronouns entirely if possible.
If you can’t avoid pronouns, use the gender-neutral pronoun “they” and article “their”. For example, use “Each co-worker must present their idea” instead of “Each co-worker must present his idea”.
Never generalise or use stereotypes about roles based on gender.
Don’t overcompensate with clichés and stereotypes. Many apps for women are stuck in the Stone Age, assuming we all like pink, super girly stuff. Designing for women is like designing for anyone else - understand your audience, and do not make assumptions.
Talk to your users! Seek for diverse opinions and when mocking up your design, assume variability in gender identity, sexual orientation, likes, dislikes, etc.
Represent your users in realistic imagery. Women have real bodies and aren’t prancing around with flowers, smiling about how great their periods are. Forget about the perfect young barbie-looking women. It’s important to represent your entire audience. Use gender-neutral language and culturally, racially, and ethnically inclusive diagrams and imagery.
As a team made entirely of women, we’re always very concerned about this topic and strive to design ethical stories and products. We want to promote how important it is to make an intentional effort to bring about changes when approaching gender in UX design, and we hope to inspire others to promote gender inclusivity in order to create the best user-experience to date.