A Man-Made World

Gender and Design Bias in the Architectural World

Design is inherently flawed simply because it is created by humans.

Just as we are beautifully complex, unique and imperfect, so are the things we create. I believe these unique flaws tend to add a certain character to otherwise functional designs.

But what happens when design is not made by a complex diverse group of people, but one very similar, very exhaustingly repetitive type of designer?

What happens when our world is designed exclusively by white men (and therefore unconsciously for white men)?

I embarked on researching this topic in order to fully comprehend both the root of the problems women and minorities face on a day to day basis, and how to (hopefully) help fix them. I began by diving into desk research, reading anything and everything related to the topic. Exploring perspectives that ranged from male written stances on female problems to female driven narratives like “Invisible Women” by the amazing Caroline Criado-Perez.

What I uncovered shocked me to my core, it seemed I was part of the problem.

While I was aware of some of the problems that plagued women, there were many I missed, complexities I brushed aside for fear of not understanding them rather than face them head on. This meant that I as a designer myself, accidentally continued to perpetuate patriarchal design practices.

Below you will find the Bias Octopus. With 3 heads and seemingly endless interconnecting arms, this diagram explains how each type of bias creates a consequence in actual design practices.

We will explore all of these biases here.

Gender Bias

Bias in Gender can be divided in 3 main categories: The Motherhood Penalty, Second Generation Bias and The Hillary Paradox.

The Motherhood Penalty; where mothers are offered $11,000 less [1]in starting salary than childless women. This is compounded with the fact that women are responsible for 75% of unpaid labor[2], which is mostly translated to the hours they are putting it at home, more than 3x what men work in the home. This creates further disparity in the time women can allocate for their work, giving men more time to hone their craft and rise above them.

Second Generation Bias deals with bias that may not be very obvious from a glance, because it is bias created by lack of women in the design and decision making process. This can be exemplified by the fact that the office temperatures around the world always seem to be a little too cold for women. Why is this? Because they were designed for the metabolic rate of a Caucasian 70kg male in the 1960s[3]. This does not mean this was designed in a malignant way, consciously leaving out women. It means it was designed for people like the designers themselves.

Finally, what I like to call the Hillary Paradox. When women reach high levels within any organization (whether it be politics or a corporation) they tend to run into enhanced criticism of their likeability. This likeability they are ranked on is equated with their competence. This means that in order for them to be perceived as productive members of society, they must adhere to traditionally gendered traits. This includes being seen as motherly, caring and soft-spoken, among other things. When these standards are not met, women (disproportionately when compared to men) are admonished and vilified for it.

These three areas all frame the bias that exists within urban and architectural design itself.

Urban Design Bias

Gender Bias has undeniably affected urban design, embedding patriarchal structures into the spaces that define and contain our lives. These can be divided into 2 important categories; zoning laws and the design of public spaces.

The earliest zoning laws in the United States can be traced back to Los Angeles in 1908 and New York City in 1916. Zoning, to put it simply, is the regulation of the use of land within the community as well as the buildings and structures that may be placed upon it. In theory, its purpose is to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the community by separating incompatible uses. [4] By this I mean they have helped separate noisy, smelly factories from single family homes. While this seems like a good idea in theory, in practice its efforts fall exceedingly short. Effectively hindering minorities and women in their efforts to reduce commuting and successfully navigate a full work day alongside homemaking responsibilities.

Urban Zoning Laws have also aided the separation between work life and family life, disproportionately affecting women who tend to be the main keepers of the household. Through the creation of urban sprawl and the constant separation of the worker from their dependents — a tension in both the family and workplace has arisen. Katharine B Silbaugh explained this issue succinctly, astutely pointing to the true root of this particular bias, urban design itself.

“But if discrimination were eliminated today from the workplace, and family responsibilities were shared equally between men and women, gender would remain prominent in our geography. “[5]

This geography she speaks of refers to laws that exclude the combination of work, child care or services in residential neighborhoods. Creating a strong exclusionary control mechanism for women from the workforce and low income families from the suburbs. While change in zoning laws has never gained a lot of traction (probably because it seems a boring subject to tackle politically) they wield immense power when it comes to segregation of genders and races, as well as people from the LGBTQ community. This point came up in my interviews with prominent women in the architectural field, where one participant said:

“They were in Cambridge and my kids were in Watertown. It was hard for me, I ended up buying a parking spot through Craigslist nearby just so I could make it to pickup in time.”

This leads to my second point, the design of public spaces themselves. Because we have inadvertently favored Caucasian men for so long in the design field, the man has become the default. He has become the standard when taking into account users, creating spaces that inadvertently harm women. But women are not just passive receivers of public space, they are users as well.

If you ask any woman in your life, chances are they will tell you they feel uneasy being at a bus stop alone or quicken their pace at a subway station at night. This is because spaces designated for public transportation have not been designed for the safe or efficient use by women. They are designed to alleviate problems along male patterns of travel, like the fact that men usually use public transportation twice a day, when coming to and from work. They are not designed to lessen the load that women bear through the “mobility of care”[6] of their daily lives.

Women tend to aggregate their trips, having multiple stops in a short period of time, more commonly known as “trip-chaining”[7]. This not only creates a greater expense for women throughout the day, but greater opportunities of being exposed to danger at badly lit, ill designed public spaces. These biased designs create a greater dependency for women on private transportation, because the spaces provided publically are insufficient.

Not only are transportation times designed around male patterns, but also around what men carry with them on a daily basis, which is usually no more than a briefcase. Now, compare this to what any woman usually carries; stroller, grocery bags, purses, etc. All of these physical burdens are not taken into account when designing buses, or bus stops themselves.

What happens next is that women who in order to avoid the design flaws of public transportation now travel by private car, have to find parking spaces. They usually end up in some multi-story car park which seems to have been designed with lurkers in mind. The dark corners, packed cars and limited points of pedestrian exit leave women vulnerable to attack. All of these design flaws continue to slowly push women back home, where they are “safe”.

Safe within the patriarchal structures men have conveniently designed for them.

Architectural Bias

These design biases have seeped into the architectural world as well. With glass staircases that fail to take into account women’s dresses or skirts, consistently long bathroom lines and doors that require a heavy shove, it seems nothing is designed for the comfort or use of women.

These gaps may be explained by the lack of female architects that make it to the top echelons of renowned architectural firms, but I came to see that there was more to this design problem, and the problem did not lie only in men, but women as well. Women who have internalized bias to such a degree that they don’t perceive it as ocurring at all.

As part of my research, I had the opportunity to talk to several prominent female architects who have been in the field for 20+ years, and slowly but surely, patterns began to emerge.

Patterns that reflected gender bias that exists outside the architectural field, with one architect pointing out that

“There is a difference, working on exterior is very male. Working on interior is female heavy.”

How is it that even when it comes to designing a house, women are relegated inside while men proudly face the outdoor world?

This gender division of roles within the architectural workplace leaves a lot of very talented architects feeling underappreciated, disrespected and ultimately pushed aside. Women seem to constantly struggle to continue working on their passion, because the spaces they occupy in the field were not made for them.

They were made for the “starchitect”, the lonesome genius that you see portrayed in media. A pervasive myth that begins in architecture school and is constantly reinforced by larger than life architects like Le Corbusier (and more currently, architects like Bjarke Ingels and Frank Gehry).

Le Corbusier designed everything on the basis of his then groundbreaking human scale, the Modulor. Much like Da Vinci, his proposal based itself on the idea that there existed a mathematical relationship between human dimensions and nature. While this all sounds ideal, we should take into consideration what human Le Corbusier deemed sacred enough to use as a standardized base in all of his architecture works.

The Modular is based off (unsurprisingly) a 6ft tall Caucasian male. Where we see again, man become the default. There are few people who match the “standard” proportions he enshrined into the architectural realm of design. Not only does half of the world population become immediately excluded, but most men as well. Like most men before (and after him) his intentions when designing this standard were not nefarious, they were born out of sheer ignorance for the important space occupied by the other sex.

And while there are many architects who realize and actively try to fix these issues they come up against a wall — a wall designed to keep women in their traditional space. Given the refusal of governmental institutions to redefine things like zoning laws and building codes, architects can’t even begin to change physical spaces (like creating truly equal bathroom spaces) simply because the code won’t allow it.

One silver lining that I gathered from my research, was that the women I interviewed all unanimously offered one pivotal factor that helped them break through the many glass ceilings they encountered: mentorship. Having a colleague, whether your superior or not, that you can depend on for help seems to instill the confidence necessary to continue to work in a culture designed to keep women out.

So, where do we go from here?

Knowing all of the issues that plague women in the architectural field (and beyond) seems completely overwhelming. How do you even begin to tackle such a pervasive and at times invisible problem? This information demonstrates the many gaps that exist within the profession that can be filled with smarter, more inclusive design.

This manual for design, or re-design if you will, will be structured based on the following insights gathered from my research and interviews.

1- In order to keep women in the field, we must design a space for them (physically and mentally).

2- An emphasis on mentorship and teamwork is key.

3- Change starts with education and awareness of the problem.

These insights will become the organizing principles for my next step in the process, design, prototyping and iteration.

This is where the fun part begins and we start to see the results of months of research and synthesis. So stick with me, click follow and continue on this journey with me!

We still have a long way to go.

I want to extend a big thank you to all the incredible and talented women who agreed to share their experiences with me, your input was invaluable!
*names were all redacted because of privacy reasons, but you know who you are


[1] “Minimizing the Motherhood Penalty: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why?” by Shelley J. Correll, Gender & Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom,Harvard Business School, 2013.

[2] OECD https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=54757#

[3] Criado-Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York: Abrams Press, 2019

[4] Marsha Ritzdorf, A Feminist Analysis of Gender and Residential Zoning in the United States, Plenum Press. (1994)

[5] Katharine B. Silbaugh, Women’s Place: Urban Planning, Housing Design, and Work-Family Balance, 76

Fordham L. Rev. 1797 (2007). Pg 6

[6] Eric Jaffe, Public Transportation’s Hidden Gender Imbalance. Bloomberg, 2012

[7] Martha Bianco, Catherine Lawson, Trip-Chaining, Childcare,and Personal Safety:Critical Issues in Womens Travel Behavior. Portland State University.

Architect and Strategic Designer

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