ExperiencePoint

The Pink Taboo: Product design and the politics of gender.
March 3, 2021 | human-centered design
by ExperiencePoint

In the retail world, it costs more to be a woman. 

Walk into a drug store and you’ll notice a discrepancy in pricing; shampoo, deodorant and razors have heftier tags in the women’s aisle than they do in the men’s. Go to a hair salon and a woman will dole out more cash than the man in the chair beside her, even if she’s getting a comparable cut. Head to the dry cleaners and see that women’s shirts cost more to clean, despite often being smallerliterally consisting of less shirtthan their male equivalents.

The Pink Tax

Known as the “pink tax,” the surcharge on being a female consumer seems downright sexist and points to one of the problems of designing gendered products. Is this practice a form of effective price strategy? Or does it exploit pre-existing societal inequalities and paint all women with the same stereotypical brush?

Moreover, in an era that recognizes increased gender nonconformity, gendered products can alienate non-binary customers. These customers might avoid your brand or opt for the cheaper and more “neutral” male products, which serves to further “other” women and femaleness.

Is FemTech sexist?

The othering of women is a criticism that has been levelled, similarly, at the FemTech industry. As we’ve seen previously in our blog series on Women, non-binary people and human-centered design, mainstream technology is largely designed by men for men, making basic everyday tools like smartphones and cars less safe and usable for women and non-binary people. FemTech doesn’t rectify this; it introduces a new genre of tech designed almost exclusively for cis women’s biological needs, such as birth control, fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding. In other words, technology designed for men focuses on a myriad of communication, fitness, information and transportation toolsthe stuff you need to live an active modern lifewhereas women’s tech focuses on women’s bodies.

Reducing women to their biological function is an age-old trope of patriarchy. But the problems extend beyond that. When women are defined by their biology, the needs of trans women are overlooked. And a label like FemTech excludes trans men and non-binary people who often need these services and products, too.

Is gender-less product design the way forward?

Possiblyat least in part. And certain companies have blazed new paths in a gender-free direction. Clothing brands such as the London-based Riley Studio and the Hong Kong Cosmos Studio offer a range of androgynous styles. The Los Angeles-based 69 goes even further, describing itself as a “non demographic” company, meaning styles are designed without a specific gender, race or body type in mind. Thinx, a Canadian-founded absorbent underwear brand, has explicitly inclusive messaging: “For people with periods.” 

Is femininity now taboo?

What about your customers who want an elegant, form-fitting satin slip dress? Or jasmine-and-rose-scented face wash? Or a fuschia handbag with a Chanel-style chain?

Some feminists think femininity is a socialand thus patriarchalconstruct. Others think this line of reasoning is a form of misogyny itself, vilifying colors and qualities traditionally associated with women, while venerating masculine ones, viewing them as neutral, standard and progressive. Consider, for example, the typical offerings of gender-neutral clothes for kids. Neutrality would imply a compromise along the traditional spectrum of gendersay, a blue, loose-fitting androgynous dress. Instead, gender-neutral dressing frequently means that all kids are dressed like little boys.

In the next part of our series, we’ll look at the way that human-centered design can help you truly get past the binaries and stereotypes of gender, without defaulting to a "male" standard. Stay tuned!

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