Making Waves Overcoming Gender Bias in AV Design

Overcoming Gender Bias in AV Design

Rebecca Sullins - Making Waves from Commercial Integrator Magazine - Making Waves Nov/Dec 2023

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

People ask me all the time why I volunteer so much. I sit on every committee, panel, and council that I can get my hands on. I never say no to a discussion or podcast invitation. I volunteer to write test questions and certification standards for the industry. I teach classes, lead tours, mentor whenever I can. Hell, I’m even the president of my kids’ school PTO. “No” may be a complete sentence, but I’ve yet to figure out how to use it as one.

However, the answer is simple: I want to change the world.

Every day, we get up, we use the bathroom, brush our teeth, make breakfast on a stove or at a sink, watch the news, get in a car and buckle our seatbelts, open the front door to our office, sit at a conference table with an AV system, listen to music, and go to bed. And we do all of these things that were designed almost entirely for and by men.

These design flaws can vary from the mildly annoying to the downright unsafe. Have you ever wondered why almost all public spaces (and especially office spaces) have their AC set at a level that makes me want a Snuggie? Because that standard was based on a study of the average metabolic rate of a man who weighs about 175 lbs. And it was set in the 1960’s. Sure, I cuss a little under my breath every time I forget to pack a sweater in July… in the South. But that doesn’t come close to things like medical studies almost entirely being performed on men, or the fact that even things like seatbelts were built for men, and thus women are 47% more likely to be killed in an automobile accident than men.

This bias in studies and standardization creeps into our world in everything we do in AV, whether we’re aware of this bias or not. I was recently given the opportunity to teach a class on how to design audio systems for high intelligibility. This is my bread and butter. I went to college for audio design for theatre. I can tell you the optimal frequency range for vocals and instruments, I can recite the dB scales for optimal listening from the start, and I often regale partygoers with the science behind psychoacoustic phenomena. I’m a real hoot. But in the course of researching for this class, I started to go farther down the rabbit hole. And what I found was disconcerting. Almost every rule that we follow when it comes to audio systems is in place based on science that ONLY takes into account studies with a distinctly male bias.

This revelation really started making me look at everything that I interact with. We design AV systems with displays at a certain height, with tunings done to specific frequencies, with touch panels that were designed for people that are on average 4” taller than us, and we do it all on computers that were designed for larger hands than ours. I was once designing an Executive Board Room for a large corporate headquarters with its sister in Japan. The displays were quite large, putting the bottom of them at about 36” off the floor. I immediately changed the initial sketches to put the cameras above the displays, and submitted all documentation this way. I was shocked when I came in to commission and the cameras had been moved to beneath the displays, but the displays had not been moved up. I asked the concerned parties why this change had been made, and was informed that in Japanese culture, it’s considered improper to look down on someone’s head, so putting the cameras so high was rude. That’s an important lesson I am happy to know. But I immediately looked around at the 9 men in the room and asked pointedly what would happen when a woman, possibly wearing a skirt, sat down at this table. I was answered with crickets. No one had even considered this. The room eventually got completely redesigned, but the lesson remained. Men are the standard. They are the status quo. And we often don’t even realize it.

And unfortunately, if women want this world to fit us, it’s on us to do it. No one is going to do it for us.

So the next time you sit down at a conference table and have to adjust your chair, remember that that table and chair is based in Le Corbusier’s Modular scale, who used a 6’ tall Caucasian man for all design.

It’s no longer enough for us to ask for a seat at the table, it’s time to burn the table down and think about why we built it that way in the first place.

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