are the devices we use sexist?

By | December 9, 2020

Are women physically suffering more than men when it comes to computing?

Does the tech industry not only favour men but also design itself around them?

And if that’s true, is the COVID-driven trend of working from home exacerbating the problem, leaving a legacy of back and neck pain for women around the world?

Heavy questions, so let me start at the beginning. I’ve long noticed how stock photos of women and devices tend towards (or perhaps I should say the websites and company brochures that use stock photos tend towards) those of women+laptop or tablet in poses away from a desk. I offer a selection throughout this piece and on the blog. My study is not scientific, but it’s been enough to annoy me: why are women and computers represented differently than men and computers? Why is a woman and her computing device more often than not shown in a less workstation-like pose than a man and his? And then I looked around, and saw that there might be some truth behind the sexist cliche. Women, my unscientific survey found, tend to not only sit at desks, but seem more likely than men to also sit on cushions, on the floor, on an easy chair, suspended from the ceiling (maybe not.) So could there be some truth in it?

And if so, what does that mean?

So I looked for some academic research on this. I couldn’t find a lot, but what I did worried me.

There’s a paper last year from Iran’s Qom University by Hamidreza Heidari, Ahmad Soltanzadeh, Elham Asemabadi1, Hoda Rahimifard and Abolfazl Mohammadbeigi that sampled 150 people, male and female, and categorised their computing postures using a laptop into 16, from squatting on the floor to sitting up in bed. It found some key differences between how men and women sat. Women were more likely to use a cushion when sitting on the floor (cushion under laptop or chest.) The paper doesn’t reach any conclusions on this (and I’ve yet to hear back from the authors) but my reading of the data is — while the sample size is a little too small to make any big pronouncements — that there are many different ways that people sit with their laptop, both by men and women, and that the differences between gender are pronounced enough to be worthy of note.

Another tentative conclusion one might draw from the data is that women tend to spend less time in certain positions than men. Sitting crosslegged on the floor with your back to the wall, for example, was extremely popular for both genders (maybe they don’t have desks at Qom), but females spent much less time in that position: less than an hour. The same was true for sitting with a pillow behind your back and laptop resting on slightly bent knees. This was frequently adopted by women, but only for less than an hour a day. It’s a stretch to assert this from the Qom study, but it does seem plausible that many women prefer to use their devices in different poses, and shift those positions, and locations, more frequently.

But here’s the worrying part. The final, tentative, conclusion that might be drawn from the study is this: The two out of three postures which the paper deemed least suitable, health-wise, were much more likely to be adopted by females. Women, it seems, are using their laptops in poses that are likely to result in musculoskeletal disorders.

And we don’t need to rely on the Iranian study for that. According to Szu-Ping Lee, Associate Professor of the Department of Physical Therapy at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who with colleagues published a paper on gender and posture when it comes to tablet use in 2018, “in general, women are more likely to develop neck pain” from tablet use. She pointed me to a study in Sweden published in 2012 which concluded that short-duration bothersome neck pain, or BNP, was much more prevalent among women than men across all age-groups, and slightly more prevalent for long-term BNP. The paper concluded, clearly enough: “Women are more likely than men to have and to develop BNP, and less likely to recover from such pain.” (See the chart below.)

Now that study was done in the mid- to late 2000s (i.e. before tablets), and doesn’t mention the source of such pain. Why are women more likely to experience neck problems? This is explored by Szu-Ping’s paper, which says that when it comes to tablet usage “gender differences in anthropometry and biomechanics may explain the disparity in neck and shoulder musculoskeletal symptoms.” (Anthropometry is the study of measurements and proportions of the human body; biomechanics is the study of how our body parts — muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments — work together to produce movement.) Szu-Ping and her colleagues write that in the workplace, “women assume neck flexion more often”. Their source for that is a 2010 study of Swedes which found that there was a clear link between women under “iso-strain” — high strain and low work-related social support — and neck and shoulder symptoms. Meanwhile “no associations were found between iso-strain model and symptoms among males.” In other words, men and women under similar work and social strain had quite different experiences when it came to muscle problems. If you’re a woman, “working with neck and/or body bent forward, arms above shoulders, and precision work tasks were predictors of musculoskeletal symptoms.”

Now that study wasn’t focused on computers and other devices. But another one did, examining computer mouse tasks and reported that “female computer operators who are shorter and narrow-shouldered exhibited more extreme postures.” Another study found that when typing, women have “significantly higher normalized keyboard forces than men and they tend to have higher muscle activities, and less neutral shoulder postures.” If you’re shorter things are even worse for typing and posture. And the study looks at tablets as well, and says things don’t get better: it found that more than 40% of subjects used one more for more than three hours a day and concluded: “The female gender’s generally lower muscle strength and smaller body size may predispose them to neck and shoulder symptoms during such use.” Szu-Ping’s study concluded that being a woman was an important risk when using a tablet: “Female gender, existing neck and shoulder symptoms, and sitting without back support during tablet use were shown as the most important risk factors.”

This is pretty damning stuff. It seems clear that our devices are not well designed for the female body, and they are causing all sorts of physical ailments that may well not be properly understood outside the realm of a few academic studies. I’m frankly gobsmacked that not more is made of this. As Szu-Ping and co point out in their paper students are especially badly hit by this. Students were much more likely to experience neck and shoulder symptoms (73.4%) using a tablet than university faculty and staff (52–64.9%). Unsurprising, given that “students in the U.S. typically do not have a permanent workstation and are constantly moving between classes. It may be more common for the students to use their tablet computers in compromised postures such as placing them in the lap while sitting without back support.”

In short, we’re busy handing out these devices to workers and students and thinking that ‘work from anywhere’ is a great idea, without regard to the consequences.

But how does this fit with the idea that women and men might use these devices differently, in terms of posture, location and lengths of time? Szu-Ping found this an interesting question, but pointed out that this might be a chicken and egg situation: “Is it that women ‘need’ to move about more to get comfortable due to their relatively weaker muscles and other anatomical disadvantages, or is it that they tend to use more compromised postures which lead to their neck pain?” she wrote in an email. “The answer to your question is currently unknown.”

That’s probably as far as we can take it, though I’m sure I’ll get some thoughts from readers about their own experiences, and whether more varied work postures are really a gender thing or not, and if so whether it’s down to discomfort or not. I spoke to one manager of a co-working space who said that females do tend to move around the various desks, bean bags and nooks in the office during the day, which he had put down to the vagaries of the air-conditioning.

Whatever the truth is, it’s clear that women are getting a raw deal when it comes to the way we design our workstations, our workspaces and our devices. I can only imagine that this is being further aggravated by COVID, where millions are being forced to work from a bed, a chair, a kitchen table or the floor. But perhaps the reality is different: that those of us frustrated by limited ergonomic options at work are building workplaces that suit us better at home, and won’t consider going back. I would like to think that, but I’m not holding my breath.

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