The default male

The world is centered around the cis man in more ways than we know

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A silhouette of a cis man looking out over a lake.
The world is built for men and it’s resulting in some serious consequences for everyone else. PHOTO: Lukas Rychvalsky / Pexels

By: Yasmin Vejs Simsek, Staff Writer

The “default male” is a term that describes males as the norm in our society and in data collection. This results in research being done only on cis male bodies with effects on other bodies not even being considered. You might have heard about the standard office temperature being set for a male metabolic resting rate and therefore being five degrees too cold for cis women. And this, quite frankly, is the least of it.

Caroline Criado Perez has written an incredible, informative book called Invisible Women that explores the gender gap — how society systemically ignores over half of its population, makes us invisible and ultimately how we live in a cis man’s world. It’s also important to note most of the data is focused on cis men and cis women, and while I recognize that we need more research on cis women, the need is even greater for inclusion of non-binary and trans folks.

I recently had a discussion with a cis man. Let’s call him Bo. He argued that cis, white, straight men have it harder in today’s society, due to quotas and the push for representation. One of my many arguments against this bizarre statement was the “default male.” His response — with a victorious look on his face — was that the “default male” also discriminated against cis men, by making kitchen counter tops a more appropriate height for women than cis men so his back hurt when he was in the kitchen. Confused by the fact that this person unknowingly had started arguing my cause by emphasizing the idea that women belong in the kitchen, I said, “Well that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?”

Yes, kitchens have been standardized to fit women bodies — but a supposedly standardized woman body at 5’7”. The average Canadian woman is 5’4”. So even though the sexist intention was there to create a better workspace for the person who is expected to spend most of their time working in the kitchen, it well and truly failed.

I also gave Bo the example of how cis women are more likely to die in car crashes than cis men. Even though cis men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, women are 47% more likely to be harmed in one and a whopping 17% more likely to die in one. When testing out cars with dummies, the US has, since 2003, been considerate enough to also use female testing dummies — in the passenger seat only. The obvious problem with this is it doesn’t reveal the impact of a car crash on women if they are in the driver seat, where there is both a wheel to protect from forward momentum and more control of the situation. Also, female testing dummies are not a replicate of cis women’s bodies, simply a smaller version of the cis male dummy. To top it all off, seatbelts are not effective on pregnant people and no one has bothered coming up with a solution. 

The car is not the only place women are more likely to die than men. The same goes for heart attacks. Research on heart attacks has always been done on cis men even though some of the symptoms can differ from cis men and women. In fact, only one in eight women feel the infamous chest pain associated with heart attacks, but they can feel pain in many other places instead, such as their jaw and back. This results in women receiving worse care, getting poorer aftercare and, in the UK, being 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed. 

The “default male” doesn’t just impact health care but also everyday inconveniences, down to cis women having a harder time reaching every corner of their smartphone. That’s right, smartphones are also designed for the cis male, generally larger hand, so that is why our faithful devices keeps getting bigger. And don’t even get me started on how voice control is 70% more likely to recognize a male voice.

The world is inherently male-focused and a lot of us are working to change our own internalized perspective. I spoke to a man in Nepal in 2016 who posed the question: “Who won the last soccer World Cup?” I cockily answered Germany, and he just shook his head and said, “No, that was in 2014, but the US women’s team won the World Cup in 2015.” I’ve been taught to think that the world is by default male.

There is a war on trans folks, non-binary people, and women. But the gender gap resulting in the default male is probably not some supervillain masterplan to bring down all women. It’s likely that whoever is in charge has simply not thought that it was necessary to include women — if the thought even went that far. Ultimately, it’s the result of a society that has suffered under the patriarchy for way too long. The simple solution is to collect both sex and gender-separated data. To ensure that medicine works the same way on everyone, that cars are safe for everyone, that symptoms are being distinguished between sexes and genders and yes, Bo, also that kitchen counters are a suitable height for cis men.