Male bias in PPE design can be fatal for women, warns Caroline Criado Perez

12 Jun 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Delivering the closing keynote at this year’s virtual CIPD Festival of Work, the activist and author highlighted the historic gender data gap and its implications for work

Deeply ingrained, historic bias against women continues to impact on their safety in the workplace, high-profile feminist, campaigner and author Caroline Criado Perez OBE told delegates at this year’s virtual CIPD Festival of Work.

Speaking during her closing keynote address, Criado Perez explained that, throughout history, the male body had been considered the default. As a result, women in today’s world of work were unable to secure proper fitting uniforms and personal protective equipment (PPE), she said.

“PPE is a hugely common problem: 71 per cent of women who work in an industry that requires PPE said it was not designed to fit their body,” said Criado Perez.

Citing a 2017 report by the TUC, she highlighted that the emergency services had the highest instances of ill-fitting PPE, and in these occupations only 5 per cent of women said PPE never hampered their work. She added this issue was “way beyond [that of] comfort, to actually not being able to do your job properly and potentially getting citations because you are making more mistakes”.

Criado Perez said such oversights on female-friendly PPE could prove fatal, especially for healthcare workers on the Covid-19 frontline – not least because virus particles can become trapped in the folds of oversized hospital gowns and place the wearer at greater risk of contracting the virus when removed, because “PPE is designed around one type of body”.

The bias against women in the workplace also extended far beyond PPE, said Criado Perez – something she blamed on data collection traditionally concentrating on men and often ignoring women: “The ‘gender data gap’ is the term I use to describe the phenomenon whereby the vast majority of information we have collected globally, and continue to collect, has been collected on men, male bodies and male-typical lifestyle patterns.

“This means everything in the world, from the office you work in, to the transport you use to get there, to the medical treatment you receive, to the phone in your hand, to the apps on that phone, have been designed to be used by men. The majority of these things don’t work that well for women.”

Regarding the ‘typical’ office environment, Criado Perez explained that women generally feeling colder was “not because women are pathetic”, but because most office temperatures were set according to a formula determined using the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old male, meaning most offices were “five degrees too cold for women”.

She also gave the example of using male data to “determine a unisex standard” when it came to company expenses policies; the costs employees could claim for tended to correlate with things men were more likely to buy, such as uniforms, tools and dinner and drinks at corporate events, rather than emergency childcare, for example.

Criado Perez added that women undertake far more unpaid work and caring duties compared to men, which is a significant driver of the gender pay gap and affects their ability to secure well-paid work. “Women today account for 47 per cent of those in paid employment and 50 per cent of employees, but they comprise 74 per cent of those working part time and 60 per cent of low-paid employees,” said Criado Perez.

“Men are not a standard women have failed to live up to,” Criado Perez said, referring to a theory she dubs the ‘Henry Higgins effect’ – named after the character in My Fair Lady who sang “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” – which describes the tendency to assume problems women face in the workplace and elsewhere could be solved by training them to act more like men. 

“You find it a lot in the workplace, especially with the notion that women need to have confidence training and need to be shown how to negotiate pay,” she said. “The evidence suggests women are doing that, but are just less likely to get a pay rise. So is the issue here something we need to fix in women, or is it a system problem that doesn’t account for the unconscious biases that we hold?”

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