Women have always been pivotal to design history–but here’s how they’re continually erased

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Mar 17, 2021
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Inside Design will commemorate the year’s cultural moments and holidays through the theme of ‘Looking Back for a More Inclusive Future.’ Each month, we will explore the intersection of design and history through commissioned illustrations and articles. In celebration of Women’s History Month, editor Liz Steelman discusses how women are erased from design history. Bee Johnson (IG: @beejohnsonillo) provides an illustrated variation on the same theme.

Henry Dreyfuss. Bob Taylor. Don Norman. Steve Jobs. All notable trailblazers in the history of user experience design. Also, notably, all men. But let’s be honest, this lack of representation isn’t surprising given tech’s revered origin story. You know, the one about white male college dropouts tinkering away in their Silicon Valley garages. Tech and all its related disciplines supposedly followed a certain progression: Men create, and then later on, women and people of color come to refine. The fact that only 25% of tech industry workers are women, according to 2015 data (the most recent) from the National Center for Women & Information Technology supports this idea—though that number grows every year. While the tech industry may be broken, it’s not anything that could have been prevented and everyone is actively working on fixing it, too.

I have always taken this well-meaning, no-fault retelling of tech’s history for granted. I suspect many reading this have, too. But then I read Clare L. Evan’s book “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet.” Each chapter profiles a woman who contributed significant advances to the computing world, but has largely remained a footnote in history.

For example, one chapter details Dame Wendy Hall and Cathy Marshall and their fascinating work on hypertext and Microcosm: a collaborative, centralized, and carefully-designed way to display and connect information. We are familiar with the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee’s free and stripped-down version so ubiquitous we confuse it with the Internet itself. Microcosm handled linking in a fundamentally different way than the Web. It didn’t rely on hyperlinks, which break all the time, but instead on a metadata-like system that preserved information about a linkage in a meaningful and scalable way. Ten years after the birth of the Web, Berners-Lee began working on an extension that he called the “semantic web”, which essentially mimicked the idea Hall (and other computer scientists working on hypertext systems, many of which were women) had worked out from the very beginning.

As you read the book, stories like this one become eerily familiar. The book’s central theme repeats: Tech’s “progressive” narrative is distorted. Not only have women always been a part of the Internet, but history stays male-centric for a reason: women are trapped in a wicked cycle that causes their legacy to disappear.

One of my favorite chapters was Brenda Laurel’s design-centric story. Laurel studied theater as a PhD student at Ohio State in the mid-70s. In her free time, she designed fairytale games for CyberVision, an early personal computer. Laurel went onto work at Atari, Activision, and Apple, finally landing at Interval Research, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s think tank, where her work centered around researching and developing new technologies. After running user tests for early virtual reality experiments, she noticed that women and men had different reactions: whereas men felt disembodied, women felt transported. Intrigued, she started exploring how girls and boys reacted to computer games and realized the entire video game market was designed for boys. Noticing an untapped market, Interval launched “Purple Moon,” a video game company that didn’t just put a dress on the main characters and add pink to the color scheme, but created games built with the user experience of girlhood in mind. With its flagship Rockett computer game series and a popular social-networking website, the series cultivated a serious fandom and got girls to use the computer for more than just homework.

However, that measure of success was not good enough. Upon release, reviewers criticized it for being dull. Certain feminists chided it for giving into a narrow, essentialist view of girlhood. Purple Moon never got to iterate, grow, and transform into something bigger than the original game suite because only a few years after its release, Purple Moon declared bankruptcy. Mattel bought them and their competitors, The Learning Company and Pleasant Company, then shut down the games group at all three.

“There was a fundamental disagreement over how the company should be valued,” Laurel was quoted saying.

As I read the chapter, memories of the Purple Moon games flooded back to me. I remembered getting them from the library just as frequently as they were available and feeling remarkably connected to Rockett’s quotidian adventures. I realized that despite playing with computers for hours on end as a child, this experience wasn’t valued—interpersonally or socially. Computer experiences or games were never presented as something I could help build and create. They were just something frivolous to consume, even though they transported me to another world—something that tremendously helped me develop my ability to empathize. Just a few years later, however, once my brother started playing games like Minecraft, my family was rushed to sign him up for coding summer camps.

I can only suspect that many stories like Laurel’s litter design history, not to mention the many undocumented stories of less-privileged and non-white women. I’m thinking of the nearly three million women pushed from the workforce this year due to not being valued in our Covid economy. I’m also thinking about the women whose work has been silenced or cut off after signing non-disclosure agreements, quitting, or settling out of court after sexual harassment or abuse suits. I’m thinking of the women we don’t listen to because of unconscious bias. What other innovations do we not even know we’re missing?

What would history look like if women were allowed to learn, grow, be heard, and create a history that values them? I’m thinking it’d look something like Whitney Wolfe Herd’s journey. After starting as Tinder’s co-founder, Herd went through an egregious sexual harassment and discrimination suit, settled, then started a dating app designed with women’s experience in mind. Just last month, Bumble scored its IPO and Herd became America’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

Women have always been a part of design history, but we’ve been pushed out largely because our experience and ability as women has been undervalued. While Herd is still an exception to the rule, I’m also hoping we can use her story as an example of a new progress narrative: One that celebrates women’s historic innovations and closes the loopholes that keep them out of history in the first place.

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