How women are excluded from digital world

Saturday December 14 2019

Many of the new feature-rich smartphones are too big for a woman’s hand but fit comfortably on an average man’s hand. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


On the face of it, the world is divided in half, men and women.

But if you scratch the surface of the digital world, you notice a world steeped in favour of men; a world often blind to women.

Before you sneeze at this article as another feminist rant, let’s review a few suggestive examples.

The fastest growing online “language” is emoji. Emojis are used by 90 per cent of the online population. Women use Emojis more frequently and heavily than men.

Until 2016 however, the world of emoji was oddly male. Emojis represented faces of men, ignoring the other half of the world.

A smartphone has become a swiss army knife of sorts in business and social. Therefore, it should be designed with all users in mind.


But that’s not always the case. A woman’s handspan — or the size of the hand — is on average smaller than that of a man.

Many of the new feature-rich smartphones are too big for a woman’s hand but fit comfortably on an average man’s hand.


The handsets are designed with a man’s average handspan in mind and assume that women will somehow figure out a way to cope with the gadget.

As the argument goes, women can buy phones that fit their handspan. Not quite. The smaller versions of smartphones have inferior specifications compared to their larger counterparts.

Besides, phones are ideally meant to be carried in pockets of our clothes, but large phones can’t fit into usually small pockets on most women's clothes.

Women have handbags in which they can keep the too-big-to-hold phones. But designing handbag-friendly phones rather than pocket-friendly ones beat the purpose of creating apps that passively track one’s health.

Smartphones have apps for tracking blood pressure, pulse rate and physical exercises — how would a phone track these if it is in a handbag?

Men have a leg up; they can keep their phones in the pocket and get these data passively tracked as they go about their businesses. Many women can’t.


Think about wearable devices such as fit bits for tracking physical exercise and other health indicators.

A study of 12 of the most common fitness monitors found that they underestimated steps taken during housework by up to 74 per cent. They also miscalculated calories burned during housework by 34 per cent.

In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez notes that these errors arise because digital solutions are often not tested in the women-dominated environment.

The solutions are presented as gender-neutral, but in fact, they are blind to domains dominated by women.

These examples may look like small issues, but in a world awash in technology, these are concerns worth addressing.

We need to involve both men and women - from the design to the deployment of tech solutions.

Because if we don’t, we will be entrenching and amplifying biases that are already too prevalent.

Wambugu is an informatician. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwambugu2