Gender Neutrality and Design

Gender, and the way we express it, is one of the biggest topics in today’s world. No longer are people identifying only as male and female. More and more are identifying as agender, non-binary, and transgender. The lines between male and female are blurring, with a much larger gray space between them growing. The way we as humans identify ourselves is becoming extremely unique and has long outgrown the binary. In her essay, His & Hers? Designing for a Post-Gender Society, Suzanne Tick notes that “Identity is no longer clearly defined as female or male, but by increasingly visible manifestations of sexuality or lack thereof.” She also observes that “Masculine and feminine definitions are being switched and obscured. But this is an essentially human phenomenon.” (Tick).

The impact of this change in how society views itself needs to be addressed in every field. Doctors’ offices are changing paperwork to have a ‘sex’ and a ‘gender’ identification on record. Educational curriculums are changing to include more accurate sex education. So how does this impact us as designers of the modern world? The lines are being blurred between the traditional classifications of masculine and feminine. Fashion design and Beauty are the fastest industries to embrace and reflect these changes. Traditionally a female dominated industry, the makeup community has recently seen an influx of boys in beauty. In 2016, James Charles became the first male Covergirl model to appeal to this new clientele. With the rise in popularity of YouTubers like James Charles and Jeffree Star, it is becoming commonplace for anyone interested to wear makeup, not just cis-women. In the fashion world, gender neutrality clothing lines are becoming more common.

Most recently, Celine Dion announced a gender-neutral clothing line for kids as a partnership with Nununu, a brand known for providing genderless clothing options. Their website avoids mention of gender, with apparel categories simply labeled as ‘baby’, ‘children’, ‘teens’, and ‘adults’. This progressive approach to clothing is sending a message to our children, that they can identify anyway they want to from a very early age. This blurring of gender lines is a step in the right direction in allowing everyone to express themselves in anyway they want. As far as the field of interior design goes, we have a long way to go. Today’s design trends, especially in the business field, are still rooted in Modernism, a movement created from a male perspective. Historically, gender roles put males in offices of power and females in secretarial roles.

Office buildings were typically designed around these roles, with masculine inner offices and more feminine reception spaces. These traditional roles are changing in major ways. Today, almost a quarter of positions of power are held by women. Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of United Therapeutics, happens to be a transgender woman. She defied all traditional gender roles to become the highest paid female executive in the United States. In her book, The Apartheid of Sex, she argues that “There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities.” (Rothblatt, 13). This statement is very reflective of todays people, as each person is realizes they are free to define their own sexual identity in anyway they choose. The most pressing issue in designing for gender beyond the binary is bathrooms.

As more and more people identify as gender-neutral and transgender, we need to find ways to ensure their comfort and safety without violating anyone else’s. People can dress and physically present themselves anyway they wish, but how do we determine which bathroom they should use? The best solution to this is to have three bathrooms: male, female, and unisex. This allows everyone to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in, without making anyone feel uncomfortable. Major companies like Google have already begun implementing three bathrooms to ensure everyone is comfortable, saying that their employees should not have to “choose a gender while in the workplace.” (Tick). This is a very progressive idea, and for a company as large as Google to have a stance on the bathroom debate is a step towards universal acceptance of the idea. Arguably the biggest bathroom debate occurs in schools, at almost every level.

Elementary, middle, and high schools all have the traditional male/female bathroom set up, with slim to none offering a gender-neutral option. This causes many students to feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in school and often makes gender nonconforming students the target of bullying. Many schools have harsh policies requiring students to use the bathroom of the gender assigned to them at birth, regardless of the way they choose to express themselves now. This creates an uncomfortable situation for almost everyone involved and will only lead to more bullying or worse.

On college campuses, dorms often have community bathrooms that are male/female, causing even more issues when showering and personal hygiene are considered. Similar issues are faced in nearly every public establishment. Individuals who do not fit the binary are forced to choose which bathroom to use. No matter which they eventually pick, they are likely to be targets of hate speech and general discomfort among others, leaving them with no good option. Something as basic as using the bathroom should not be a highly stressful experience for anyone.

An article published on the American Society for Interior Designers (ASID) website calls for design to be “gender-conscious rather than gender-friendly.” (American) Research shows that gender stereotypes reflected in the physical environment affect an individual’s level of comfort, which directly correlates to their ability to be productive and focused. They suggest that instead of designing completely gender-neutral spaces, we create spaces that improve the comfort level of all employees, regardless of their gender identity. In a business setting, open space design encourages collaboration between all employees and eliminates an emphasis on the hierarchical organization of employees.

This space layout aims to help employers and employees see past old stereotypes of men being the ones with the brains and ideas and encourage the hiring and advancement of females. Applicants should be hired based on credentials and experience, not based on gender or visual perception. When everyone is treated equally and feels comfortable in the workplace, great progress can be made. As designers, we should be creating spaces that everyone feels comfortable in, regardless of their gender, sex, race, or sexuality. The focus should not be on these traits, but rather on using a space for its intended purpose. Employees should be able to work efficiently without worrying about how their identity will help or hinder their chances of employment or comfort. Students should be able to study and learn without worrying about which bathroom they will use during lunch. As designers, it is our responsibility to design a better tomorrow, one in which everyone feels comfortable and accepted.

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