Taste Bias

Dan Eden posted an interesting little piece about sexism in web design & development. In it, he argues the following:

It seems to me that some of the most pro­lific females in our industry have got­ten their status largely down to their gender. This sounds incred­ibly rude, but many of the female design­ers and developers who have attained industry fame actu­ally pro­duce rel­at­ively low qual­ity work.

An easy response to Dan’s article is to simply point him to this six-year old BBC report that shows how the gendered nature of our work appeals predictably to each gender, or in other words, men like other men’s work while women prefer other women’s work.

Dan’s desire that we should all judge and measure people based on the quality of their work and not exhibit gender-favoritism of any kind is perfectly appropriate. That is how we should judge people’s work. However, as I was reading his piece a more interesting thought struck me. What struck me is the pattern that I see quite often: the most privileged groups often fail to take the perspectives of the less-privileged into consideration.

In the case of Dan, it seems his qualitative judgment is based entirely on his personal view. In other words, what might be seen as relatively low quality work by one gender could actually be considered quite high quality work by the other gender.

The topic of favoritism towards women has been hotly debated in the past, but one thing not as frequently debated is “taste bias”; the implicit bias we might express when we repeatedly define our own gender’s work as “best” or “greatest” simply because it appeals to ourselves the most. This practice merely perpetuates the problem that we like what we like and look no further, never really stopping to consider that others might like something different and that objective quality is not necessarily defined by either side’s perspective.

Thanks to our highly gendered societal constructs, many women grow up being forced to learn far more about male perspectives than men learn about female perspectives (some pop culture examples: overwhelmingly male protagonists, poorly written female characters). Since design revolves, in many ways, around empathy—our ability to understand the perspectives of others—it should come as no surprise that we are seeing more and more women taking prominent roles or awards in design. Women, biologically, are in no way better designers than men. However, our society generally drives women to have a better understanding of men than vice-versa, which can lead to them being better designers.

As we grow as designers, we also become more adept and understanding towards other people, and our work will reflect this. The reverse, however, is also true: the more understanding we become of other people and their differing perspectives, the better and higher quality our work will be.

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