Divided Desks: The Inequity of Gendered Design

Creating more ethical educational and work environments.

Nina Bellisio 
Associate Professor 
St. Thomas Aquinas College

Academic hoods are sexist. I’m reminded of this at every Commencement when my male colleagues easily slip the looped string over a button to prevent it from pulling back and choking them while the rest of us search for a pin or something to compensate for the fact that we’re not wearing button-down shirts. This inconvenience would not prevent someone from pursuing a career in academia, but it is a small reminder that historically women were not supposed to rise to those ranks.

Reflecting the impact of the #metoo movement, the idea that design can have a gender bias has gained traction. The objects we encounter and the spaces we inhabit can have an impact on our behavior, subtly and unconsciously, giving men an unethically privileged position.

An awareness of the conscious and unconscious biases perpetrated by the designed environment is the first step in creating more ethical educational and work environments. An increase in both the number of female designers and feminist-based design initiatives will also work to create more equity and equality within these environments. In this paper I would like to share my research in this area and begin a dialogue with other designers and academics about how the physical spaces we occupy can be used to reduce gender divisions and preferences.

Using Icons to Encourage Visual Literacy on Campus

The role of design in instructional materials to engage a broad spectrum of student abilities.

Lance Hidy 
Accessible Media Specialist 
Northern Essex Community College

The academic administrators at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, are considering adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a new methodology for improving student success and retention.

Having had disappointing results from other applied strategies, they are taking a fresh look at the role of design—especially for making instructional materials more accessible and engaging for a broad spectrum of student abilities. One important facet of UDL that the college is currently investigating is expanding the use of image content in text documents

To illustrate this idea, the Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs asked me to develop a system of icons to represent every degree and certificate offered by the college, along with icons for the six academic divisions, and the nine athletic programs—87 in all. Many of the faculty who were invited to participate in the process of icon development for their disciplines said that it was an eye-opening experience, being the first time they had engaged in a visual thinking exercise.

As the collection of icons was finalized and distributed, employees were invited to use them to promote their disciplines. Additionally, a colorful poster of all 87 icons is circulating on campus and off, providing not only a useful recruiting tool, but also a new way for employees and students to understand what the college is

It is too early to assess how persuasive this icon project will be in shifting the college culture toward UDL and improved visual literacy. But it is providing a popular, concrete example of UDL that is already being used by everyone, and is being cited as campus committees begin debating the role of UDL in the next strategic plan.

Video Games Help to Prepare Girls For a Competitive Future In Stem

An analysis of how video games help to build visual-spatial skills and the positive influence early childhood gaming can have on girls.

Leigh Hughes
Adjunct Instructor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Play is beneficial for children—it allows for freedom to explore and problem solve while freely using their imagination in a safe environment. It is imperative to allow girls this freedom to explore digital games and all of their possibilities. Video games help to build visual-spatial capabilities, which is the ability to mentally construct and organize 3-dimensional objects in an imaginary space, a skill that promotes advanced mathematical and engineering skills.

In order for women to compete in male dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries, females must have more opportunities in early childhood to develop their visual-spatial skills. To do this, girls should play more video games, suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers. Research shows, most girls play with toys that emphasize relationships or creativity. In contrast, boys typically play with computers, video games or build, which develop problem-solving and spatial skills. There is considerable evidence that these gender differences are generated from nurture, not nature.

By designing video games that engage young, female interests while incorporating essential, 3D building tools, and by offering girls more opportunities to practice their visual-spatial skills through this media may begin to help close the STEM gender gap and encourage females to pursue engineering and computer science. Women’s representation in STEM occupations remains low in engineering and computer occupations. Video games can begin to slow this decline by providing girls with the confidence they need to succeed in the classroom.

In conclusion, early exposure to video games could have significant impact on whether women choose to pursue engineering or computer science. Girls need to be engaged at their level, be provided more opportunities to construct without restriction or bias and should be encouraged to play video games as a means of developing crucial competitive skills.