Kitchen Design Doesn’t Trap Women In Sexist Stereotypes; It Frees Them

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.

Lillian Gilbreth
Lillian Gilbreth

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.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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  1. The problem is that, historically, increasing efficiency *doesn’t* create leisure time; it just creates a longer to-do list. For example, once washing machines eliminated the drudgery of cleaning clothes by hand, women’s time was “freed up” to do more dusting, or help the kids with their homework, or prepare more sophisticated meals, or manage the household budget, etc.

    I would expect that the problem with gendering a space that is a sort-of hub for housework is that it reinforces the idea that housework is women’s work, which is just another way of saying that women’s work should be *unpaid* work.

  2. > 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.

    This is only sort-of true. As you alluded to with the designer kitchen problem, anything that pushes costs up pushes people out. Given the choice between not being able to afford a home that’s accessible, or being able to afford one that’s kinda-ok, I think most people are going to choose home. It’s just another in the long list of compromises people make when choosing where to live.

    As a clumsy oaf over 180cm, I quite regularly find features that are designed to maim or cripple the over-tall, like shelves at forehead height or low pantries and deep cupboards that I can only access by sitting on the floor. The extreme was a house where everyone who lived there was under 1.5m, and they had a forest of hanging plants at my head height. No problem for them. In a way the worst is the apparently most trivial – cupboards over benches that extend low enough that I can only see what I’m doing if I use the outer 10cm of the bench. Lots of stuff ends up on the floor if I do that. Food, knives, chopping boards, pots full of hot soup, you name it.

    Also, it’s much easier to use a footstool than to dig a trench in the floor so that I can reach the bench without destroying my back. Stooping is fine for a couple of seconds, but if washing a sink full of dishes means going straight to bed afterwards and lying there going “ow ow owwwww” for the night I’m not going to be washing a lot of dishes.

    1. “The extreme was a house where everyone who lived there was under 1.5m, and they had a forest of hanging plants at my head height.”

      I had a similar problem with my friends ceiling fans.

      1. Ow! Ceiling fans would suck. I struggled just with plants that had spiky bits poking out around eye level.

    2. Also, it’s much easier to use a footstool than to dig a trench in the floor so that I can reach the bench without destroying my back.

      sure, if you’re
      a) assume that everybody is able bodied and can therefore use one
      b) simply ignore the shitload of household accidents short people have when they have to use footstools.

      1. Since I didn’t do either of those things and they’re not a rebuttal to what I said I’m not sure why you posted it as a reply.

        The existence of problems for people who are not like you doesn’t negate your problems, it just means there are more problems. Also, solving your problems should ideally take account of the needs of others. And obviously, vice versa for my problems.

        This is actually a real thing I’m dealing with right now. We’re about to build a new kitchen and I’m ~180cm tall while my partner is about 150cm. It’s not easy to come up with a design that works for both of us and doesn’t just duplicate everything (two pairs of sinks would make it much easier, except we’d need a bigger house to hold the bigger kitchen and a lot more money for everything). So we have be discussing the trench vs platform solutions, sinks that go up and down (flexible plumbing is an expensive nightmare) among other ideas. I would *love* to hear the simple obvious solution that we’ve completely missed.

        1. Have you thought about a build in step that could be pulled out of the base of the cabinets (or build under the cabinets like the storage units you can buy for under washing machines)? A moderately skilled carpenter should be able to manage that for a not vary large sum.

          1. I am a moderately skilled carpenter, so a lot of what we’re doing is based on my skill level :)

            My “platform” solution so far is a section about 2m long and 800 wide that lifts ~120mm out of the floor. Because I can get laser cut steel relatively easily I’ll get a bunch of leg/pivot sections cut from stainless steel and the platform will pivot up then lock. One end that’s covered/exposed by the pivoting will have a section that just lifts out and goes in the hole at the other end.

            The platform can be made larger in area than a step without having to break it into pieces. Experience shows that convenience is important, so the “lift the little end piece, pull the platform up, it locks automatically, drop the end piece in the other end” process will hopefully be easy enough that she’ll do that rather than just stretching.

            It needs to be strong enough for two or three people to stand on it, but 99% of the time it’ll just mean my partner can walk around using the bench without too much risk of walking off the edge of it. I’m prototyping it right now because my partner is a bit skeptical, but she’s also aware that I almost exclusively use my “high bench” in our current kitchen. Since I do well over half the cooking there needs to be something that works for both of us – me cooking on a bench 700×1100 doesn’t really count. It would also be nice to have an extractor hood over that cooking area, but they’re expensive so again, having two is not an option.

            The prototype I’m using is just a bit of 20mm thick plywood on the 2″ side of 4×2 timber, but it does seem to help. I put it down after I cook dinner and pick it up before. Partner likes it because the current benches are what she’s used to but also slightly higher than she’d like. I have a version of the lift mechanism made of scrap steel, but it’s not clean, cleanable, or rust-resistant so it’s staying in the workshop.

        2. The existence of problems for people who are not like you doesn’t negate your problems, it just means there are more problems.

          You claimed that my problems are more easily solved than yours, that I should just risk breaking my bones (because accidents DO happen) because that’s “easier”. How does that not negate my problems and diminish them.
          Yes, it’s not easy to always find a perfect solution, but if your solution for small people is “just use a footstool”, you’re not even looking for a solution.

          BTW, why do tall people think that getting stuff from the cupboards under the sink is not something that bothers/annoys/challenges short people? I’m 1,63m, not 50cm high.

          1. No, I claimed that both problems exist, and both cause injuries.

            I’m still waiting for you to explain how the specific thing that annoyed you so much is wrong. Please, show me how lowering a section of kitchen floor is easier than raising it.

            To me, and admittedly I’m only an engineer who builds bicycles and furniture in my spare time, and is planning to build a kitchen, so my grasp of basic construction is obviously limited (I’m not being sarcastic, BTW, I know I’m not an expert and I don’t have much experience). So I’m hoping that you are actually an expert and can tell me how this stuff works, and you’ll be able to link to standards, designs and studies showing both what is important, and how people smarter and more experienced than I am have solved those problems.

            But right now it looks as though you just want to yell at someone and I’ve come to your attention.

      1. Doesn’t that make it a bit easier? You can just design all the adult-oriented stuff for tall people, and have some mixed-use areas that work for shorter people. I have friends like your family, and it’s odd in a nice way to, say, wash dishes and not only is the sink at a nice height, the detergent is conveniently placed on top of the cupboard instead of at floor level under the sink :)

    3. One possible solution might be to do some tasks seated, given that most of the variation in our height is in the length of our legs.

      I recall my grandma seated at her big spruce kitchen table for hours, happily chopping up beans and stuffing the Christmas turkey.

      If some benches were designed with an overhang, you could use an adjustable gaslift stool in a modern kitchen. This appears to me to be a relatively safe, practical and economical solution.

  3. “I suggest we design kitchens for accessibility.”

    I second that. But if I lived with someone “only” 5 ft tall (I’m 6 ft 4), I don’t really know how that could be arranged. And I love to cook, by the way. Some sort of split-height counter top perhaps?

    1. In Oz a lot of kitchens have relatively low benches, especially in older houses. Our solution was to buy a stainless steel table/freestanding bench that has screw adjustable feet so it can go up and down about 150mm. It’s at its maximum height now, so I can use it as “my” kitchen benchtop. I often have a pot or bowl full of hot dishwashing water on that when I’m cooking rather than a sink full, partly because we only have one sink but also because the sink/bench area is too low for my comfort.

      My great-grandfather used to have a “chopping board” that was a huge 2″ thick slab of hardwood hollowed out underneath to make it lighter, and that covered a fairly large area of the bench he used for cooking. But their house was old (his grandparents built it) and the kitchen was small, so much of their food prep was done in the dining room and that board spent most of its time on blocks on the dining room table so people could chop standing up.

      But I’ve never seen a “mechanic’s pit” in a kitchen, a board that you can lift up to reveal a trench so tall people can work comfortably.

  4. The hypothesis that better kitchen designs trap women in the kitchen would only make sense if you could reasonably assume that women would be freed of kitchen work if the design were bad and making it extra hard.
    AFAIKT no woman on the poor side of Paris Hilton has ever gotten out of what is deemed to be her daily chores by declaring it to be a damn drudgery with inadequate workspace.

  5. Two of Gilbreth’s children wrote a pair of books about her, ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ which told her story up to the death of her husband, and ‘Belles on Their Toes,’ about her life and career afterwards. Both are pretty good reads.

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