Goalkeepers 2019: Blessing Omakwu on Bias in Design


– I love the phrase “if you
have a brain, you have bias.” It’s a powerful reminder, isn’t it, that to have biases is to be human. It’s what we do with them that matters. Left unchecked, bias
doesn’t just get embedded in our brains. It can become encoded in the design of nearly everything we create. Earlier, I spoke about emojis. Now, let’s talk about the
device used to send them, your cellphones. My first year in university,
I had the Motorola Razr phone. Does anyone remember that phone? (laughing with the audience) I would walk around campus with them and I had these cute pink earpieces. I felt like I had arrived. I mean, first of all, my parents didn’t let me have a cellphone for what felt like an eternity. And then, back then, the smallest phones were often the coolest phones. But today, the average smartphone
is five and half inches, designed to fit the largest male hands. The average man can quite easily use his
smartphone one-handed, but the average woman’s
hand is not much bigger than the phone itself. In Caroline Criado-Perez’s
book, “Invisible Woman,” the smartphone example is just one example of the ways the male body is often treated as the default body. Consider biology textbooks. Male bodies show up much more frequently to illustrate neutral body
parts than female bodies do. Male bodies are used more
frequently for clinical trials than women’s bodies are, even though men and women
can react differently to the same medications. Even the mannequins used in
automobile safety crash tests are almost exclusively male bodies. All of this has real consequences. It means we have less
sex disaggregated data, which leads to women being less likely to receive sound medical advice or respond well to certain medications. It means we’re less
certain of how and whether women will survive car crashes, and we haven’t even gotten
to the compounding effects of racial bias.

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