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Design Defined: The Plough Hypothesis and Design’s Gender Data Gap

(This post is based on the video, “The Plough Hypothesis” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

What do ancient farm tools have to do with contemporary gender inequality? According to the Plough Hypothesis, there’s a direct link.

First introduced by Danish economist Ester Boserup in her 1970 book, Women’s Role in Economic Development, the Plough Hypothesis observes that in many pre-industrial societies, women played a major part in tending the land up until the introduction of the plough.

The Plough Hypothesis

Before the plough was introduced, farming communities used handheld tools like the hoe and the digging stick to prepare the soil. Ploughs changed the game because pulling them requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and bursts of power — physical abilities that favor men. In farming communities that adopted the plough, women were sidelined from agricultural work and kept housebound.

In 2012, a group of researchers tested the hypothesis that these traditional agricultural practices influenced the evolution of gender norms. Their study participants were second-generation immigrants living in Europe and the United States. The study concluded that, generations later and even among individuals born and raised in the same modern setting, those who share a cultural heritage of plough use hold less equal beliefs about gender roles.

Women from these cultures are less likely to work outside the home, and less likely to be elected to government or run businesses.

Women from these cultures are less likely to work outside the home, and less likely to be elected to government or run businesses. In cultures whose ancestors continued to use smaller, handheld tools, the researchers found fewer gender inequities.

For product designers, the Plough Hypothesis offers a lesson about the far-reaching and long-lasting impacts of product development, and a cautionary tale about designing with a data blind-spot.

What is the Gender Data Gap?

It’s unlikely that the inventors of the plough intentionally built a tool that was better suited for men. However, most products, even today, are inherently designed for men.

For most of recorded modern history, the default person that we design for has been a male person.

In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed For Men, author Caroline Criado Perez explains that, for most of recorded modern history, the default person that we design for has been a male person. Despite making up roughly half of the population. women have traditionally been considered “other.”

As a result, most of the world’s data is based on the male body and male experiences. This has created a significant gender data gap.

The Deadly Consequences of Biased Data

What happens when we make design decisions based on data that ignores the measurements, experiences, and motivations of half of humanity? While we rarely, if ever, notice that our products were designed exclusively for men, the consequences of this gender gap are felt by all.

These consequences range from annoying to potentially fatal:

  • For example, not being able to reach a shelf when it’s been placed at a taller (or male) height is annoying.
  • Yet crashing in a car that wasn’t safety-tested with a female crash-test dummy is potentially fatal.

The Plough Hypothesis: A Modern Example

As a modern example of a tool that exacerbates gender inequity, Perez offers the traditional three-stone stove used by 80 percent of the developing world. It’s a fire built between three stones to balance a pot or pan.

Women have been using this tool to cook since the Neolithic era. But these traditional stoves give off toxic fumes and are typically used inside poorly ventilated rooms. Since women still do the majority of cooking in many parts of the world, they’re exposed to these toxic fumes at dangerously high rates.

The three-stone stove is a modern example of the Plough Hypothesis.

A push to replace these traditional stoves in the 1950s was due to a concern that gathering the fuel for three-stone stoves was leading to deforestation (a problem of concern to men). But when development agencies realized agriculture was the bigger factor in deforestation, these attempts were dropped.

More recently, well-meaning groups have attempted to replace the traditional stoves with high-efficiency cookstoves as a matter of public health, but — despite millions spent to persuade people to use them — adoption has largely failed. The three-stone stove users are not interested in a device that increases their time spent cooking, requires regular maintenance, has metal sides that could harm their kids, and costs money they don’t have (for a device they don’t believe they need).

Just as the advent of the plough had a ripple effect, replacing the stoves could impact overall gender inequity in those societies.”

A University of Iowa engineering professor, H.S. Udaykumar, has found some success by developing an inexpensive grate insert for the traditional three-stone stoves, called chulhas, used in India. He and his research team spent a winter in Rajasthan, conducting studies and observing the cooking process as well as probing the reasons for low adoption of high-efficiency cookstoves. Their success is due to their commitment to gathering data from the stoves’ primary users: women!

Just as the advent of the plough had a ripple effect, replacing the stoves isn’t just a matter of public health. The replacement could impact overall gender inequity in the societies where they’re used. Criado Perez cites a 2011 study conducted in Yemen that found that women who lack access to water and to gas stoves spent only 24 percent of their time engaged in paid work. That number rose to 52 percent for women who did have access to those resources. Having more time for paid work means women are able to earn more money and establish financial autonomy, which can help close the gender gaps in society overall.

Acknowledging Racial Data Gaps

Gender is not the only factor that leads to data bias. We must also recognize the intersection of gender and racial biases, as well as other types of bias. The gender data gap just scratches the surface. Beyond that gap is a data gap for women of color and for women living with some form of disability.

The danger of ignoring these data gaps can be seen in statistics related to maternal mortality rates. “Because America has the worst childbirth survival rates in the developed world, and it’s bad for all women, when you separate Black women from the overall female data, the rates just shoot up. It’s absolutely staggering. That’s a gendered racism issue,” Criado Perez said.

If the data were not separated, we may not realize how bad the maternal mortality rates for Black women in the United States really are.

Two Ways to Fight the Gender Data Gap

As designers, what can we do about the gender data gap? First, we have to give women researchers and designers seats at the table.

“Every piece of research I found showed that when you had women involved in research, gender analysis takes place in a way that it doesn’t when there aren’t women involved,” Criado Perez told Huck Mag.

When you have women involved in research, gender analysis takes place in a way that it doesn’t when there aren’t women involved.

Second, we must push for legislation that requires sex-disaggregated data — data specific to women — and requires product and safety testing to involve both male and female participants.

Knowledge is Power

The good news is that awareness of the gender design gap and its far-reaching consequences are growing. As researchers and designers, we’re poised to help spread that message.

How can you make sure the next product you work on takes into account ALL of its potential users? Can you build a diverse team? And can you use better data, that is, data that takes gender and race into account?

Want to learn more? Read our blog post, 7 Ways to Design Better Products for Women.

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