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24 ways to impress your friends

Is Your Website Accidentally Sexist?

Women make up 51% of the world’s population. More importantly, women make 85% of all purchasing decisions about consumer goods, 75% of the decisions about buying new homes, and 81% of decisions about groceries. The chances are, you want your website to be as attractive to women as it is to men. But we are all steeped in a male-dominated culture that subtly influences the design and content decisions we make, and some of those decisions can result in a website that isn’t as welcoming to women as it could be.

Typography tells a story

Studies show that we make consistent judgements about whether a typeface is masculine or feminine: Masculine typography has a square or geometric form with hard corners and edges, and is emphatically either blunt or spiky. Serif fonts are also considered masculine, as is bold type and capitals. Feminine typography favours slim lines, curling or flowing shapes with a lot of ornamentation and embellishment, and slanted letters. Sans-serif, cursive and script fonts are seen as feminine, as are lower case letters.

The effect can be so subtle that even choosing between bold and regular styles within a single font family can be enough to indicate masculinity or femininity. If you want to appeal to both men and women, search for fonts that are gender neutral, or at least not too masculine. When you’re choosing groups of fonts that need to work harmoniously together, consider which fonts you are prioritising in your design. Is the biggest word on the page in a masculine or feminine font? What about the smallest words? Is there an imbalance between the prominence of masculine and feminine fonts, and what does this imply?

Typography is a language in and of itself, so be careful what you say with it.

Colour me unsurprised

Colour also has an obvious gender bias. We associate pinks and purples, especially in combination, with girls and women, and a soft pink has become especially strongly related to breast cancer awareness campaigns. On the other hand, pale blue is strongly associated with boys and men, despite the fact that pastels are usually thought of as more feminine.

These associations are getting stronger and stronger as more and more marketers use them to define products as “for girls” and “for boys”, setting expectations from an incredibly young age — children as young as four understand gender stereotypes. It should be obvious that using these highly gender-associated colours sends an incredibly strong message to your visitors about who you think your target audience is. If you want to appeal to both men and women, then avoid pinks and pale blues.

But men and women also have different colour preferences. Men tend to prefer intense primary colours and deeper colours (shades), and tolerate greys better, whilst women prefer pastels (tints). When choosing colours, consider not just the hue itself, but also tint, tone and shade.

Slightly counterintuitively, everyone likes blue, but no one seems to particularly like brown or orange.

A picture is worth a thousand words, or none

Stock photos are the quickest and easiest way to add a little humanity to your website, directly illustrating the kind of people you believe are in your audience. But the wrong photo can put a woman off before she’s even read your text.

A website about a retirement home will, for example, obviously include photos of older people, and a baby clothes retailer will obviously show photos of babies. But, in the latter case, should they also show only photographs of mothers with their children, or should they include fathers too? It’s true that women take on the majority of childcare responsibilities, but that’s a cultural holdover from a previous era, rather than some rule of law. We are seeing increasing number of stay at home dads as well as single dads, so showing only photographs of women both enforces the stereotype that only women can care, as well as marginalising male carers.

Equally, featuring prominent photographs of women on sites about male-dominated topics such as science, technology or engineering help women feel welcomed and appreciated in those fields. Photos really do speak volumes, so make sure that you also represent other marginalised groups, especially ethnic groups. If people do not see themselves represented on your site, they are not going to engage with it as much as they might.

Another form of picture that we often ignore is the icon. When you do use icons, make sure that they are gender neutral. For example, avoid using a icon of a man to denote engineers, or of a woman to denote nurses. Avoid overly masculine or feminine metaphors, such as a hammer to denote DIY or a flower to denote gardens. Not only are these gendered, they’re also trite and unappealing, so come up with more exciting and novel metaphors.

Use gender-neutral language

Last, but not least, be very careful in your use of gender in language.

Pronouns are an obvious pitfall. A lot of web content is written in the second person, using the cleary gender neutral ‘you’, but if you have to write in the third person, which uses ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’, and ‘they’, then be very careful which pronouns you use. The singular ‘they’ is becoming more widely acceptable, and is a useful gender-neutral option. If you must use generic ‘he’ and ‘she’, (as opposed to talking about a specific person), then vary the order that they come in, so don’t always put the male pronoun first.

When you are talking about people, make sure that you use the same level of formality for both men and women. The tendency is to refer to men by their surname and women by their first name so, for example, when people are talking about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, they often talk about “Ada and Babbage”, rather than “Lovelace and Babbage” or “Ada and Charles”. As a rule, it’s best to use people’s surnames in formal and semi-formal writing, and their first names only in very informal writing.

It’s also very important to make sure that you respect people’s honorifics, especially academic titles such as Dr or Professor, and that you use titles consistently. Studies show that women and people of colour are the most likely to have their honorifics dropped, which is not only disrespectful, it gives readers the idea that women and people of colour are less qualified than white men. If you mention job titles, avoid old-fashioned gendered titles such as ‘chairman’, and instead look for a neutral version, like ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’. Where neutral terms have strong gender associations, such as nurse or engineer, take special care that the surrounding text, especially pronouns, is diverse and/or neutral. Do not assume engineers are male and nurses female.

More subtle intimations of gender can be found in the descriptors people use. Military metaphors and phrases, out-sized claims, competitive words, and superlatives are masculine, such as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘best’, ‘genius’, ‘world-beating’, or ‘killer’. Excessive unnecessary factual detail is also very masculine.

Women tend to relate to more cooperative, non-competitive, future-focused, and warmer language, paired with more general information. Women’s language includes word like ’global’, ‘responsive’, ‘support’, ‘include’, ‘engage’ and ‘imagine’. Focus more on the kind of relationship you can build with your customers, how you can help make their lives easier, and less on your company or product’s status.

Smash the patriarchy, one assumption at a time

We’re all brought up in a cultural stew that prioritises men’s needs, feelings and assumptions over women’s. This is the patriarchy, and it’s been around for thousands of years. But given women’s purchasing power, adhering to the patriarchy’s norms is unlikely to be good for your business. If you want to tap into the female market, pay attention to the details of your design and content, and make sure that you’re not inadvertently putting women off. A gender neutral website that designs away gender stereotypes will attract both men and women, expanding your market and helping your business flourish.

About the author

Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, a global celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. She is currently organising an online careers fair for women in STEM in the UK/EU on 1 February.

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