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  • Writer's pictureSarah Coloma

3 Reasons Why a Gender Studies Background is an Amazing Design Tool

*This blog post was originally published on March 15, 2020.

Now that I’m almost five years out of school, I’ve had experiences in nonprofits, universities and more recently design communities. Through all of these experiences and as I transition my career toward design, I am so thankful that I spent my undergrad years in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies classes. I initially majored in the program to learn about the history of women’s marginalization in healthcare and how to fight it. Through the program and my transition to Economics, I learned not just about women’s marginalization in healthcare but more broadly about systems of oppression and their enduring effects on policy, products, and services around today.

I see where I can have the most impact. I now believe I can be of greater service by advocating for historically marginalized communities by being in the room where the products and services they use are created. In these rooms, I'll use the frameworks of thought I learned during my undergraduate studies.

Take for instance, facial recognition software like that produced by Amazon. The service was scrutinized for being much less accurate in their misidentification of minorities, especially of dark-skinned women. This becomes more problematic when the software is sold to police agencies, who have a complicated history with minority communities.

Or take for instance, the deaf and hard of hearing community. Communicating while walking is compromised when sidewalks aren’t wide enough or well lit. And classroom participation is affected when students are in traditional auditorium-like spaces. Wider walkways and U-shaped desk configurations in classrooms address obstacles to expression.

Gender studies has proved an invaluable tool, especially as I look for more opportunities in the field of design. Here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Gender studies gives you a critical framework of looking at the world through imbalances of power.

  2. My program was primarily focused on examining policies, and so we learned to ask about the merits of a policy based on its net gains or net losses for the most marginalized people in a society. This process of examination could easily be applied to design feedback sessions.

  3. You learn about your identity and the biases and blindspots that you may bring to a discussion. You learn to ask who is excluded from important policy or business decisions. As a side note, it’s often in a company’s best interest to make their products and services accessible to all. On the one hand, companies must follow certain ADA regulations, so it’s better they design to keep up with those federal rules. Additionally, it could be in a company’s financial interest to make sure their product is accessible so as not to alienate consumers. Due to life expectancy and the rates at which humans survive injuries, most if not all people at some point in their lives will experience limited mobility.

For those that didn’t major in gender studies in college, that’s ok! If you want to learn the frameworks of thinking you might have picked up in a similar program, there’s plenty you can do!

Read books and watch documentaries about systems of oppression

If you’re interested in health, learn about the history of slavery and the exploitation of black people particularly women, for medical research. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Learn about the history of “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, a landmark publication produced by and for women. Learn about the struggle between midwives and doctors. Learn about clinical trial design and marketing to doctors.

If you’re appalled by institutional racism check out books on eviction or read "The New Jim Crow". Learn about gerrymandering.

If you’re interested in finance, watch documentaries like Inside Job or watch movies like "The Big Short." Learn about payday loans and check cashing. Learn about childcare policy and associated tax credits. Learn about debt buyers.

There are so many amazing segments from PBS NewsHour or Frontline about all of these topics. I am also confident that I have so much more to learn and will continue to read as much as possible.

Support Museums

If you’re interested in art or history, read about or visit The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum and learn about each of the women represented at the table. Learn about the struggle to show the exhibit in DC at the Carnegie Library.

Learn about women artists who are seriously underrepresented nationally in museums by supporting the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The National Building Museum has a traveling exhibit immersing visitors in sensory representations of eviction.

Start Small, Think Big

Try not to get too overwhelmed by all that’s out there. Start with just one book or movie or news clip and then move onto another.

I truly believe that the design community should continue to learn about people, their struggles historically and how it affects their interactions with products and services. People who’ve been historically marginalized have different considerations when using products and services that someone with different privileges may not need to consider.

Having more diverse and inclusive teams as well as reading books and the news and watching documentaries opens designers to more perspectives to which they might not otherwise be exposed. Design teams must continue to educate themselves about history and cultures unlike their own if they want to build products and design services that mitigate harm and benefit the wider world.

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