Is it a brave new world if you’re a woman?

by Sarah Firisen

Rosie-riveter-1There’s never been a better, safer, healthier, fairer time to be a woman than right now. On the other hand, the bar was set pretty low for most of history. Yes, we are no longer chattel, the property of our fathers and husbands. We can vote, hell one of us is probably on track to be the leader of the free world come January. But in reality, there have been other major female leaders before: Margaret Thatcher, what about Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, how much did she do to advance the cause of women in England? How much did either of them do, either in terms of policy or as icons who caused a major shift in public attitude and behavior?

But yes, I’m glad I’m alive now. Even so, let’s not kid ourselves that the fight has been won, even if we end up with President Hillary Clinton come January. No matter where you look, women continue to be undervalued and underrepresented, and that’s the good end of the scale. When I say that there’s never been a safer, healthier and fairer time to be a woman, I really mean in the west. Women are still treated as chattel across much of Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and beyond. But even in the west, we have a long way to go. Even though women are now better educated than men, equally interested in the same careers and with almost as much experience in the workplace, a recent New York Times article cited the depressing fact that not only are women still earning about 87 cents on the dollar for the same job as men, but “when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.” And it seems this is job agnostic and actually also works in the opposite direction: jobs pay more once they start being done by men “Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.”

The pace of technology is moving at an exponentially fast past towards a very different kind of human existence. Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum recently put out a piece of thought leadership coinciding with that organization’s yearly gathering at Davos, describing the upcoming 4th industrial revolution in which he said “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. “

Everywhere you look, there is speculation and predictions of what the world will look like in 5, 10, 20 years. In a world where “Humans need not apply”, work as we know it may not exist for most of the human population. Where technology will fundamentally change the way we live, work, eat and interact with each other in ways that make what we’ve experienced in the past 30 years look insignificant.

But if these predictions are even somewhat accurate, it’s even more important that women’s voices and points of view be equally represented in every way, that our needs are not an afterthought, a square peg that we have to try to jam into a male invented round hole. Unfortunately, if the current state of technology is any indicator, the prospects for technology innovations that equally benefit and represent female needs don’t look so great; most of our new technology seems designed primarily for men and by men, even when the things being designed are only for use by women, like sanitary products, “200 patents, granted since 1976, related to tampons; I’ve found that three out of every four of the inventors behind those patents were men. Clearly men have exerted an enormous amount of control over the look and feel of menstrual products.” And most women using these products have a sense for how that worked out for us; bulky, uncomfortable, impractical for the most part. In fact, when women do get a chance to redesign menstruation products, there’s a paradigm shift in thinking and you get products like specially designed menstruation underwear.

This topic takes an even darker turn when you look at medical devices, “When it comes to health care, male-centeredness isn’t just annoying–it results in very real needs being being ignored, erased or being classified as “extra” or unnecessary. To give another, more tangible example, one advanced artificial heart was designed to fit 86% of men’s chest cavities, but only 20% of women’s. “

There are clearly all sorts of reasons for the above statistics, but they all ultimately point to the same conclusion: “Male centeredness—technological, scientific, legal—has resulted in widespread voids in public understanding of women’s lives.” This stems from multiple causes: the barriers to women entering and succeeding in science and engineering are well documented, men run the world of venture capital and men have the social advantage, “‘Men had more helpful social networks for getting ideas and commercial activities off the ground…A prominent male faculty member may make noise at a university’s technology-transfer office if he doesn’t get what he wants, and he also has relationships outside the university and he’s more likely to know venture capitalists.” Meanwhile, “a female professor doesn’t tend to know as many people in industry.”’ In other words, the odds are firmly stacked against women as this 4th industrial revolution is being designed, sponsored and funded by men for men. In this way, not much has really changed from past industrial revolutions. Certainly not enough.

So future Madame President (hopefully), you have your work cut out for you.