To the other side we go

Creating more gender-equitable workspaces, but are we asking for enough?

“Yes absolutely, sexual abuse perpetrators must experience consequence,” he responded as we talked about the #metoo movement. He then began to tell me a story about a woman at his office who had recently reported a male colleague for sexual harassment. “But I’ve also heard that he’s being wrongly accused. She has something against him, and is using the zeitgeist to her advantage. That is unfair, isn’t it?,” he asked me.

I began to imagine who this woman might be. My reflex imagination created an aggressive, cut-throat ambitious image, the kind of woman who selfishly does what she needs to get ahead. The kind of personality that is often used to portray a female leader in the news and media we consume. As if her personality has only this one dimension to it.

I began to imagine who this man might be — a nice, helpless, hard-working man stuck in the complexity of the #metoo movement — a man struggling to understand how years of accepted male behavior was now suddenly being reprimanded. A man wondering why women had swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, from silence to stories.

In the midst of my empathy for the man, and my one-dimensional image of the woman, I forgot about male privilege. The privilege of higher pay and opportunities this man might have enjoyed for years, without even having the awareness that he indeed is privileged. And in my rabbit hole of thoughts I didn’t realize how deeply problematic my own conditioning is, towards my own gender: I had automatically assumed the worst in this woman.

Unfair then? I went back to the original question. To even question the unfairness for the innocent man felt wrong. Was I advocating for wrongful accusation of men? No, not at all, but I thought of the woman again. Who was she? Maybe she was a single mother, trying to feed her family. Maybe she had been passed up for promotion because she was seen as a mother first and therefore was assumed unreliable at work. Maybe she had come back from maternity leave and had to accept a pay-cut. None of these justify wrongful accusation of the man, but why don’t I question the fairness for the situations she might be in? 

For the women who have to accept a world in which decisions about abortion and maternity leave are made by men? For the women who lose their jobs, accept pay-cuts, and work twice as hard after returning from maternity leave? For the women who experience gender pay gap and years of unpaid domestic labor? For the women who are confident, have a brilliant track record, are beyond qualified — and yet, are not in leadership positions they clearly belong in and deserve because of their gender? For the women who either have to choose between a career and a baby or have to be under immense pressure to “do/have it all?”

Unfair, then? I went back to the question again. But I wondered if this is even the right question. I imagined the women swinging across the spectrum on the #metoo movement, from silence to stories. A pendulum swings into the other direction before resuming equilibrium. So maybe the question I really want to ask is this: If we are really striving for “equality”, are we willing to ask for more than what we have been asking for? Are we willing to sacrifice male privilege to get there? Are we willing to ask for more women in executive leadership at the top rather than equal? Are we willing to ask that females be paid more than men? Are we willing to ask for required paternity leave to level the playing field just a little bit? 

Are we willing to ask for equity rather than equality, a few years of female privilege, so that pendulum can swing back into equilibrium, even if for a little while? Are we?

Pendulum.jpg

I cringed as I wrote down these questions. The patriarchy inside of me yelled uneasily. The imposter syndrome demanded that I shut up. My reflex imagination of the aggressive woman and the helpless, innocent man worked hard to keep my problematic conditioning safe. The privilege inside of me asked to stop the demands and be grateful for having the right to vote, for having the opportunity to be educated, for having the skills to own and fill a bank account, for having access to reproductive rights — for not having to fight those fights, but still reap the benefits.

And I am grateful. I’m grateful for all the women who fought and initiated the swing on the spectrum. But, we need to ask for more, push back to really swing high to the other side, allow for a new kind of extreme to exist — so that when we have had the fortune of experiencing the state of equilibrium, even for a fleeting moment, we know what it takes to come back to it.

The Dangers of Designing for Convenience over Resilience

He rode carefully down the snow-slush streets of Manhattan, the steaming tupperware of Thai curry hanging off his handlebars in a plastic bag. He was almost there, but he’d seen a fellow bike-delivery-guy fall just a few blocks up. After this he’d ride home some hundred or so blocks, but at least there would be no potential of spilled curry. I had just opened my fridge to grab some water when he buzzed up. My fridge spelled abundance for me: vegetables waiting to be cooked, leftovers waiting to be reheated. Instead, I walked to the door and exchanged a couple dollars and words for the food, disappearing back into my cozy apartment.

The blue bike that gives

A few months ago, I visited a human-centered-design and innovation studio on the forty-somethingth floor in Manhattan for a tour of their space. They began by telling us stories about the humans they design for — “New Yorkers like to have their grocery inside their apartment before they’ve realized they’re out of kale,” they proudly said, showing off how well they understood these humans they were designing for.

The tour continued and then I saw the bike. Painted bright blue, it was mounted to the wall on the other side of the studio, ever ready to deliver kale, Thai curry and convenience to the doorsteps of our abundant fridges. None of the humans that the studio was designing for, ever got on a bike to deliver steaming Thai curry to a cozy apartment. They were the fridge-abundance-experiencing Thai curry takers and the definition of design and innovation for whom was as simple as: over-convenience. And, in the process of over-conveniencing the Thai curry takers, the bike-riding-human experienced under-convenience.

I tried to remember what my Thai-curry delivery man had looked like, I realized that I couldn’t recall if I had even looked. I just knew that the blue bike could bring me food even if I didn’t necessarily need it.

Taking it for granted

A few months later, I visited friends in Geneva. They had recently moved from London and were adjusting to life in a city that was slightly slower, where cafes closed early, and food delivery cost more than the food itself. That evening, we spotted a man wearing a big cubed backpack — the kind that food delivery humans carry around. My friends’ eyes lit up. “Uber Eats?,” one of them said, excitedly.

I had been visiting from Brooklyn. My lived experience was so deeply embedded in the over-convenience of Seamless, Amazon Now, and free food delivery from my neighborhood restaurants, that I couldn’t even register their excitement. What had I been judging the innovation studio for? I loved the blue bike. The blue bike made sure I never had to go hungry inside my cozy apartment, fridge full of food, during a snowstorm.

Designing for Resilience

Today’s human centered design process leans too strongly towards removing all kinds of discomfort for the user it is trying to serve. This is why, somewhere along this post I defined design & innovation as over-convenience. I wonder if that is, indeed, the right way to design. Must design welcome user discomfort to build resilience in the user? Must design consider discomfort as a driver for positive behavior?

I was living in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy and experienced the 4 day blackout. I had heard that grocery stores and gas stations had experienced long lines of people on-edge, in preparation for the storm. An over-abundant city was preparing for an imminent shortage of stuff. As I took baths with my pots and pans in my pitch dark bathroom, with water boiled on my gas [phew] stove, I thought back to my childhood in India, where I would spend days on end without electricity, even though back then I was still a “Thai curry taker”. We were not used to over-abundance and this is what made us more prepared and more resilient. We had buckets for baths, we always had candles and torch lights, but more than anything else we had resilience. The cars in my pitch black hometown had learned how to drive on roads without the safety net of traffic and street lights; but I watched the taxis in Manhattan struggle during the blacked-out evenings.

One of the first teachings of high school Economics class is that our resources are limited, so how is it that we have been able to design for over-abundance and over-convenience? It is because we trade the under-convenience of the Thai curry server for the over-convenience of the Thai curry taker?

The bike is everywhere. It is the workers of the Amazon warehouses. It is marginalized and colonized communities. It is Latin American, African and Asian countries, also known as developing countries [but maybe we want to re-think that diction too]. It is our environment, nature and planet. It serves and we take.


Along with thinking of the positive consequences from the click of a button, we must also be cognizant of the resilience building opportunities the button suffocates. And not even for all the “right” reasons of being more inclusive and sharing our privilege with the food delivery guys. I say this because we have been consuming convenience for so long — so long, that the likelihood of the Amazon warehouse worker, the developing countries and our planet erupting into wars, riots and hurricanes, is growing.

For our own selfish reasons, we must design building blocks of resilience into our products and services in the form of user discomforts and consequence. Not only will it increase our resilience, it might begin to make the serving and taking a two-way street, so that the blue bike isn’t always the first one to go hungry and cold, even though it has steaming tupperwares of Thai curry hanging off the handlebars.