In October in our Chicago skeptic bookclub we read the book The Madam Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. My personal favorite chapter was on Lillian Gilbreth who, after the death of her husband, began applying efficiency techniques and motion studies used in factories and offices to kitchens and homes, much of which is the basis for modern kitchen design today. So, I was particularly interested when I came across this article by Rachel Z. Arndt at Quartz about the sexism of kitchen design, though after carefully considering her assertions I’m not sure I completely agree.
Ardnt starts out by explaining that the height of kitchen countertops and sinks is perfect for a woman that is 5-foot 6-inches tall, much taller than the average women’s height of 5-foot 3-inches. As a 5-foot woman myself, I can attest that most things in the kitchen seem far too high to be used comfortably. I wish kitchens were designed a bit closer to the average woman’s body.
However, she then goes on to say the following:
These new kitchens may have looked different, but they posed the same dilemma: They were either a way to make unavoidable work less onerous, furnished with objects that supposedly fit women specifically, or a way to make sure the kitchen was fit for only women, specifically. Was the new kitchen a realistic response to the existing societal structures that held women in kitchens? Or did it end up reinforcing sexism by pronouncing the kitchen a space made specifically to fit women’s bodies?
This is a little bit confusing since Arndt was just writing about how kitchens are not designed at the right height for women, but now is worried that kitchens may be so designed to fit women specifically that it keeps women trapped in the kitchen. This is the part where I feel I have to part ways with Arndt.
Almost everything is made for men’s bodies. Until only a couple years ago, safety testing for cars was done only with crash test dummies that were designed to mimic male bodies, leading to higher fatalities and serious injuries for women who are in car crashes. That is right. If you are a woman in a car, you are more likely to die in a crash because cars were designed to protect men. Offices and other public spaces have temperatures meant to be most comfortable for men, leaving women shivering. Drug dosage is typically calibrated on men, so women may not be taking the correct dosages of drugs, which could cause side effects or even accidental overdosing. Even cell phones seem to be made to be too big to fit many women’s smaller hands. Men’s bodies are considered the default body, probably because most of the people doing the designing are men, and us women live in a world where we make-do with things not designed to fit our bodies.
So yah, it is a little bit disappointing that kitchens are just about the only thing designed with women’s bodies in mind. On the other hand, at least it’s something. When almost everything is designed for men, it’s nice to have one thing that is standardized to women, even if it’s the kitchen, a space with a long history of trapping women inside sexist roles.
If anything, it is that long history of women being trapped in kitchens that makes efficient kitchen design something that freed women from the kitchen rather than holding them there. As I mentioned earlier, Lillian Gilbreth designed much of what we think of as the modern kitchen. She was a working woman that owned a business efficiency consulting business with her husband. Her and her husband would go into factories and other work spaces and using motion testing and knowledge of human psychology, they would re-design the workplace to be a more pleasant place and redesign physical jobs to be easier on the worker so that they could get more done with less physical and mental strain. When Lillian’s husband died, many of her clients no longer wanted to hire her, despite the fact that she was every bit as qualified as her husband had been. They just didn’t trust a woman to understand workplace efficiency and all along had assumed that her husband was the brains behind their family operation. Instead, she turned to redesigning kitchens and homes, applying the same efficiency skills to women at home rather than men in the workplace. It’s no wonder that a woman who raised twelve children while working a demanding career would think a lot about how to make housework more efficient. Many of her inventions, such as the foot-pedal trash can, are staples of most homes today.
By designing kitchens specifically for women, Lillian Gilbreth’s designs were meant to free women from housework. Every second saved by an ingenious invention was an extra second that a woman didn’t have to do more housework. Lillian’s vision was to make housework so much quicker and easier that women were able to finish their housework and cooking and do other things they wished to do. In other words, far from trapping women, Lillian’s inventions freed women from their homes. Using her designs, women could finish their housework and have more time to socialize or work on hobbies or even get a job. After all, the less housework that needs to be done, the less women will be the ones stuck doing it.
In general, I don’t think that making a space gendered is necessarily sexist. In fact, usually we only consider something gendered if it is made for women. Think of children’s toys for example. Pink and purple and sparkles and dolls are girl toys but red and blue and trucks and action figures are neutral toys. Skirts and frills are for girls but t-shirts and pants are neutral. In other words, when we try to make things non-gendered or gender-neutral, we tend to pronounce the “male” things as being neutral and remove the female-centric items. As much as I want to move towards a world that is less sexist, I don’t want it to move to being even more male than it already is. My worry is that if we de-gender kitchens, we’ll actually just be making kitchens designed for men and even more difficult for women to use.
In Arndt’s piece, she suggests that instead of standardization we should move to customization. Although I think this is lovely in theory, I don’t see it as particularly practical. For those of us that rent rather than buy, we may change homes and therefore kitchens often. It doesn’t make sense to design a kitchen to fit my body exactly if I’m planning to move at some point in the near future. Perhaps there is a future where kitchens are designed to be movable and easily customizable, but this seems expensive and likely something that only the most monetarily privileged of us will ever see.
Instead, I suggest we design kitchens for accessibility. After all, a short person or a child can’t reach a high cupboard but a tall person can reach a low one. A width wide enough for a wheelchair is also wide enough for a skinny person. Kitchens and homes designed for accessibility would ensure that everyone is able to do all the things they need to do in their own homes.
You should all go read Rachel Z. Arndt’s piece of kitchen design now if you haven’t already. Although I personally disagreed with some of her conclusions, it’s a compelling article that brings up a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of how spaces are designed and gendered. If you’re interested in learning more about Lillian Gilbreth, might I suggest the Lillian Gilbreth chapter in the book The Madam Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins or perhaps you might want to watch the movie Cheaper By The Dozen which was based on her life and I hear is good though I haven’t seen it myself. If you live in Chicago, you can find out about future skeptic bookclub events by joining our Facebook or Meetup.
Portrait of Lillian Gilbreth courtesy of the Smithsonian.