The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes

When broadcaster Sandi Toksvig was studying anthropology at university, one of her female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” said the professor, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” Toksvig and her fellow students looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” the professor continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

Women have always tracked their periods. We’ve had to. Since 2015, I’ve been reliant on a period tracker app, which reassures me that there’s a reason I’m welling up just thinking about Andy Murray’s “casual feminism”. And then there’s the issue of the period itself: when you will be bleeding for up to seven days every month, it’s useful to know more or less when those seven days are going to take place. Every woman knows this, and Toksvig’s experience is a neat example of the difference a female perspective can make, even to issues that seem entirely unrelated to gender.

For most of human history, though, that perspective has not been recorded. Going back to the theory of Man the Hunter, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence. And these silences are everywhere. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future, are all marked – disfigured – by a female-shaped “absent presence”. This is the gender data gap.

These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact on women’s lives, every day. The impact can be relatively minor – struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm, for example. Irritating, certainly. But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety tests don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like dying from a stab wound because your police body armour doesn’t fit you properly. For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.

The gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. In the 1956 musical My Fair Lady, phoneticist Henry Higgins is baffled when, after enduring months of his hectoring put-downs, his protege-cum-victim Eliza Doolittle finally bites back. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” he grumbles. When ‘women’s work’ is deadly

The formula to determine standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. But a recent Dutch study found that the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower than the standard values for men doing the same activity. In fact, the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35% , meaning that current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women. This leads to the odd sight of female office workers wrapped in blankets in the summer, while their male colleagues wander around in shorts.

Not only is this situation inequitable, it is bad business sense: an uncomfortable workforce is an unproductive workforce. But workplace data gaps lead to a lot worse than simple discomfort and inefficiency. Over the past 100 years, workplaces have, on the whole, got considerably safer. In the early 1900s, about 4,400 people in the UK died at work every year. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 135. But while serious injuries at work have been decreasing for men, there is evidence that they have been increasing among women. The gender data gap is again implicated, with occupational research traditionally focused on male-dominated industries.

Every year, 8,000 people in the UK die from work-related cancers . And although most research in this area has been done on men, it’s far from clear that men are the most affected. Over the past 50 years, breast cancer rates in the industrialised world have risen significantly – but a failure to research female bodies, occupations and environments means that the data for exactly what is behind this rise is lacking. “We know everything about dust disease in miners,” Rory O’Neill, professor of occupational and environmental policy research at the University of Stirling, tells me. “You can’t say the same for exposures, physical or chemical, in ‘women’s work’.”

Cancer is a long-latency disease, O’Neill says, so even if we started the studies now, it would take a working generation before we had any usable data. But we aren’t starting the studies now. Instead, we continue to rely on data from studies done on men as if they apply to women. Specifically, Caucasian men aged 25 to 30, who weigh 70kg. This is “Reference Man” and his superpower is being able to represent humanity as a whole. Of course, he does not.

Men and women have different immune systems and hormones, which can play a role in how chemicals are absorbed. Women tend to be smaller than men and have thinner skin, both of which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to. This lower tolerance threshold is compounded by women’s higher percentage of body fat, in which some chemicals can accumulate. Chemicals are still usually tested in isolation, and on the basis of a single exposure. But this is not how women tend to encounter them.

In nail salons, where the workforce is almost exclusively female (and often migrant), workers will be exposed on a daily basis to a huge range of chemicals that are “routinely found in the polishes, removers, gels, shellacs, disinfectants and adhesives that are staples of their work”, according to the Canadian researcher Anne Rochon Ford. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, miscarriages and lung diseases. Some may alter the body’s normal hormonal functions. If these women then go home and begin a second unpaid shift cleaning their home, they will be exposed to different chemicals that are ubiquitous in common products. The effects of these mixing together are largely unknown. ‘Serious injuries at work are increasing among women.’ Model: Nina Trickey. Hair and makeup: Vale Von Der Wehl using Laura Mercier and Kerastase. Assistant: Bruce Horak. Dummies: courtesy of Cellbond. Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian Most of the research on chemicals has focused on their absorption through the skin. But many of the ones used in nail salons are extremely volatile, which means that they evaporate at room temperature and can be inhaled – along with the considerable amounts of dust produced when acrylic nails are filed. The research on how this may impact on workers is virtually nonexistent.

Part of the failure to see the risks in traditionally female-dominated industries is because often these jobs are an extension of what women do in the home (although at a more onerous scale). But the data gap when it comes to women in the workplace doesn’t only arise in female-dominated industries.

Little data exists on injuries to women in construction, but the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) points to a US study of union carpenters that found women had higher rates of sprains, strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men. Given the lack of data, it’s hard to be sure exactly why this is, but it’s a safe bet to attribute at least some of the blame to “standard” construction site equipment being designed around the male body. A female police officer had to have breast-reduction surgery because of the health effects of wearing her body armour Wendy Davis, ex-director of the Women’s Design Service in the UK, questions the standard size of a bag of cement. It’s a comfortable weight for a man to lift – but it doesn’t actually have to be that size, she points out. “If they were a bit smaller, then women could lift them.” Davis also takes issue with the standard brick size. “I’ve got photographs of my [adult] daughter holding a brick. She can’t get her hand round it. But [her husband] Danny’s hand fits perfectly comfortably. Why does a brick have to be that size?” She also notes that the typical A1 architect’s portfolio fits nicely under most men’s arms while most women’s arms don’t reach round it.

NYCOSH similarly notes that “standard hand tools like wrenches tend to be too large for women’s hands to grip tightly”.

In the UK, employers are legally required to provide well-maintained personal protective equipment (PPE) – anything from goggles to full body suits – to workers who need it, free of charge. But most PPE is based on the sizes and characteristics of male populations from Europe and the US. The TUC found that employers often think that when it comes to female workers all they need to do to comply with this legal requirement is to buy smaller sizes.

Differences in chests, hips and thighs can affect the way the straps fit on safety harnesses. The […]

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