Reference Man -- the reality of living in a world built for men

Have you ever struggled to reach a shelf, found yourself cold in the office or struggled with voice recognition? Does your protective uniform not fit or safety gear fail to protect you? There is a reason.

Eliza Archer
Eliza Archer NewsMavens, Europe
Reference Man -- the reality of living in a world built for men - NewsMavens
First aid dummy. Pexels.

Why this story matters:

The “Reference Man” is the stock standard representation of a human. He is typically Caucasian, aged between 25 and 30 and weighs approximately 70kg. He is the basis on which much data for technological development is centred; voice recognition, airbags and protective clothing to name a few. The Guardian published an excerpt from Caroline Criado Perez's new book, “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for Men”, which highlights this data bias and how this can affect the lives of women. While some of the consequences may be trivial, others may be life threatening.

For example, for female emergency service workers, 95% find that their personal protective equipment does not fit properly, hindering their ability to work. Two examples were provided -- in the first, a female police officer removed her protective vest when it prevented her from using a hydraulic ram to enter a property. She was then stabbed and died as a result of the incident. Women have also reported pain from wearing body armor, with many stating that their vests will rise up leaving their abdomen exposed. In the second, a female officer underwent a breast reduction just to fit into her body armour.

While some aspects of this have more deadly consequences than others, it raises the question: are we truly aware of the prevailing male dominance of our society and how it directly impacts our safety as women? Possibly not.

Details from the story:

  • These differences can also affect ethnic minorities who also fail to align with the Reference Man's measurements.
  • Car safety features also rely on the Reference Man. Women often do not adhere to the “standard seating position”, meaning safety features are not built to accommodate our stance in the drivers seat. Crash test dummies were based on male proportions till as late as 2011 in the US.
  • Furthermore, research into workplace safety is largely focused on male dominated professions, ignoring “female” professions that are constantly exposed to chemicals – such as nail technicians. It is unknown whether exposure to these chemicals on a daily basis, combined with household chemicals could result potentially deadly concoction.
  • These biases also translate into technology. Ever struggled to hold your smartphone in one hand? Chances are your male friends have not. The 5.5 inch screen is based on the size of an average male hand. Speech recognition software is also proved to be 70% more likely to recognize male voices.
  • The absence of a period tracker on Apple's health app was also identified by many as evidence of a male dominated perspective, further emphasised by Siri failing to locate abortion providers while being able to accurately locate prostitutes and Viagra suppliers.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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