Design for Sex, Gender and Health (Celebrating International Women’s Day)

Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 - 1997.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day prompting some reflection on how we design for sex and gender in a world that often fails to consider either seriously enough.

Sex is important and it deserves attention in designing for health. Today the global community recognizes one half of the world’s population, their challenges, struggles and successes and I can think of fewer causes more worthy of such attention. Although sex is biological and brings its own issues with health, gender has social overlays incorporating role and identity that create more complex determinants of health, that require attention when designing programs and policies.

This attention to sex, gender and health requires problematizing the issue in the first place and recognizing that one-size-fits all approaches to social planning and policy do little to address the complexity of how these social determinants manifest themselves and interrelate. Gender is one determinant that is highly knotted up with other health issues such as economic security and employment (PDF), safety, and education. It’s complexity and pervasiveness demand that we consider this as something worthy of attention in our design and health promotion work if we wish to create a more equitable, healthy society.

Designing for health requires that we pay attention to these issues and consider them deeply in all of our work. Sex issues manifest themselves in ways that are unacknowledged, unconscious, or may be at odds with our intentions for promoting better health. It is rare that I’ve seen designers speak of sex and gender in discussing their work. And while health promoters bring sex and gender issues into prominence in their work, yet do not explicitly refer to design principles in such discussion, missing an opportunity to more intentionally shape their actions.

Design is taking some steps to make this a bigger priority. Yesterday’s announcement that global design leader IDEO was creating a non-profit arm that would focus on developmental issues, many of which are related to women’s needs, is a place to put hope for design. Health promotion’s foray into design issues has been on the built environment and on promoting equitable policies for access to health care, which is itself a start.

Bringing both of these fields closer together has the potential to do women and everyone better by considering the locations — social and physical — in which sex influences health and wellbeing and consciously designing situations that improve it. Doing so also means acknowledging where both design and health promotion knowledge come from, ensuring gender equity not only in society, but specifically within the fields of health promotion and design. Can you think of many “rock star” designers that are women? Those numbers are few. And while women are well-represented in the field of health promotion, the key texts and theories largely are male-authored. How this translates into equitable policies and practices for both genders is unclear, but the absence of discussion of these issues in much of the design and health discourse is less so.

While ensuring better design for health equity and promotion it is important to also add health equity and promotion to design through an empowered woman-friendly environment for learning and practice in these two areas.

So as you celebrate this International Women’s Day, consider ways to make sex and gender more conscious in your work and how we might design for both at a foundational level and not just as a means of ameliorating problems that manifest from poor design.

** Picture of Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 – 1997. by Clif1066 used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

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