Archive for March, 2008

The difference

March 2, 2008

True, it is not REALLY a problem. Or not a big one, in any case. But it is hard not to find it somewhat inconsistent, when a major (read: MAJOR) outdoors and sporting goods retailer has “women’s clothing” and “men’s clothing” as equal but separate items on the navigation bar, but then under “camping & hiking”/sleeping bags/ lists: down, synthetic, women’s down, women’s synthetic …

Again, it’s not a huge issue. But think about how odd it would be to list: clothing: pants, women’s pants; shoes, women’s shoes. We naturally accept that men’s clothing and shoes will be different from women’s clothing and shoes, and that neither has any priority over the other. They are different, but equal. But this is clearly not the assumption that informs the category distinctions for sleeping bags. We don’t find: Men’s sleeping bags, women’s sleeping bags.

This is especially annoying since the differences between sleeping bags for men and sleeping bags for women are not that different from the differences between men and women that justify the distinction between men’s and women’s clothing: body shape, metabolism rate, height… They are differences that nobody would (or should, at any rate) deny. Men are, on average, taller than women, their metabolisms are faster etc. This is especially true for outdoor clothing and gear, since typical social clothing norms aren’t in play: both men and women tend to hike in pants/shorts and boots, not high heels and skirts.

It is of course not really surprising or hard to explain why the category distinctions are what they are. The distinction between men’s clothing and women’s clothing is socially well entrenched, not something introduced recently on the basis of biological discoveries. The differences in metabolism rate on the other hand, have only recently begun to inform the design of sleeping bags (although even sleeping bag designers must have known about the differences in body shape). More importantly, you might think, it is only recently that women have become interested in sleeping bags. But that applies only to some sporting goods.

Even so, it seems that the honest thing to do would be this: if, through costumer surveys, studies or other research you come to the conclusion that the differences between men and women are such as to make it advisable to have separate products for each gender, then you should consequently assume that so far you’ve designed not sleeping bags, but men’s sleeping bags (for example), while now you are designing men’s sleeping bags and women’s sleeping bags. Don’t suggest, through labeling, that so far you’ve been designing sleeping bags, while now you are also designing women’s sleeping bags. The latter suggests that women’s needs are special, non-mainstream needs. But calling women’s needs special is effectively to define men’s needs as normal. And since we are talking about roughly 50% of the population in each case, this assignment is just arbitrary.