Single Mum By Default
I’m not a designer but I love design. Designers have come up with enlightening concepts and actionable insights to improve life. One useful design concept is that of defaults, “the values or settings that come out of the box.” They’re powerful because they make decisions for you. Another one is personas, the fictional characters you create so as to represent the types of users who might use your product.
Unfortunately too many of the products, services and infrastructures we use were designed only with male users in mind. By default a “generic” human subject will still overwhelmingly be represented as male (like the traffic light characters representing pedestrians). Yes, generic equals male even though women are 50% of the world’s population (and even 51% of EU population).
That’s the subject of the must-read book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. Her fantastic newsletter reminds me every week that male-by-default is still all too common. They still often test molecules and medical treatments on male subjects only! She argues that gender-blindness produces a “one-size-fits-men” approach, particularly common in medicine and tech.
The point I’d like to make in this newsletter is that the default persona we should have in mind when designing public services, public transportation, tax systems and HR policies is the single mum. Single mums have a hard life. If you design something that works for them, then there’s a high chance that it’ll work for everybody else too.
As far as work life is concerned, the single-mum-by-default approach really could be the best. I’ll focus on the point of view of an employer.👇💡
There are plenty of single mums but the world’s not designed for them
I could write 100,000 signs on the subject. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I recommend you watch the great series Maid on Netflix, which is the story of a young woman, Alex, who leaves an abusive boyfriend and moves into a shelter with her 2-year-old daughter. The challenges she faces before she can begin a job as a maid are baffling. They illustrate to what extent single mums are made to feel abnormal.
Obviously the situation of US single mothers is way worse than that of most Europeans, but all single mothers face a hostile world even. The fact that there are more and more of them doesn’t seem to change anything. For that reason, they’re one of the poorest populations. Many of them are vulnerable to homelessness. In the US, almost half of all single mothers live below the poverty line!
If you live by yourself — or as a single parent or caregiver — you don’t have to imagine. This is your life. All the expenses of existing in society, on one set of shoulders. For the more than 40 million people who live in this kind of single-income household, it’s also become increasingly untenable. When we talk about all the ways it’s become harder and harder for people to find solid financial footing in the middle class, we have to talk about how our society is still set up in a way that makes it much easier for single people to fall through the cracks.
In this article she explains how our tax system and social security were designed for households with a primary breadwinner and their stay-at-home spouse. These institutions have not kept pace with societal changes. As a result single parents are significantly more exposed to poverty and homelessness.
The architects of the program were aware that it would only work if you also created a means for women who never worked for pay (housewives), those whose paid work was ineligible for Social Security (domestic workers), and those whose work was intermittent and always paid less than men’s to have access to their husband’s benefits, either as partners in retirement or in case of death or disability. They needed a system that acknowledged the patriarchal formation both of the home and of paid work. So they offered women who reached Social Security age a choice: You can claim your own benefits, which are probably paltry or nonexistent; you can claim a “half” benefit as a spouse; or, if your husband dies, you can claim full “survivor’s” benefits.
A case for single mum by default for better public infrastructures
Social protection institutions should evolve by taking single mums into account. Another obvious example is public infrastructures. Road networks and public transportation systems, for example, were clearly designed at a time when the nuclear family (working dad, stay-at-home mum and kids) was seen as the norm.
The roads and public transportation networks built in the 1950s favoured male workers commuting to and from the factory or the office. The needs of working mothers (single or not) was not incorporated into the design of infrastructures. Roads were created primarily to empower workers to go to a place of work, not to support parents with different needs (dropping a child off with a nanny in a nearby town, for example). For more on the subject, I recommend reading this piece titled “What it means to design a space for care”.
As fas as public transportation systems are concerned, it’s clear that most of them were designed for workers rather than carers. Networks are influenced by the needs of large organisations. In some cities (like Paris), it’s extremely difficult to use public transportation systems with a pushchair. People with toddlers aren’t welcome!
👉 That was the subject of a newsletter I published a couple of months ago: Why the future of work needs bike lanes. Laetitia@Work #41
The danger is not considering care work and the trips required to perform it—or care trips—in the transportation planning landscape, is that the needs of a significant portion of the population are left unmet. Care trips are often undercounted or uncounted because they don’t fall into easily measured, quantifiable definitions. When you think of the average journey to drop kids off at school or daycare, stop at the grocery store, or visit the doctor’s office, they are generally less than a kilometer in distance and seldom take longer than 15 minutes. Most travel surveys fail to take these measurements into account due to their brevity, ultimately ignoring entire swaths of mobility patterns. At the same time, care trips are usually arranged in a polygonal spatial pattern—indirect and with multiple stops—covering smaller geographical areas that are closer to home and made on foot or public transport (Chris and Melissa Bruntlett).
👉 And this one too: We need (feminist) cities. Laetitia@Work #25
When it comes to public transportation systems, the point that single mum by default would be great for everybody is easy to make: if you can use the metro with a pushchair, then it means you can probably use it with a wheelchair or a rollator, there’s more space for overweight people, etc. If single mums are included, then a lot more people in different situations will be included too.
Imagine all your employees are single mums
Last but not least, it would make sense for companies to design their HR policies, benefits, work spaces, culture and organisations with single mums in mind. It would be a great way to make work better and fairer for everyone! The presenteeism and toxic management that make life hard for single mothers are usually what makes life hard for everybody. If you’re serious about making your company more diverse and inclusive, then single mums are the best category to have in mind when you want to design anything.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of single mums across the world have had to abandon paid work due to a lack of childcare options. Others were forced into part-time positions. Many of those who could telework but had young children at home ended up burnt out. It became clear that the world of work continues to be moulded for the nuclear family with a primary breadwinner and somebody who takes it upon herself to do most of the unpaid domestic and parental work.
In the current period, it is increasingly difficult to recruit candidates if you offer them the same old deal. The companies that don’t innovate in their organisation of work, benefits and flexibility will see their pool of future candidates shrink further and further. Now’s a perfect time to use the principles of good design to radically transform the candidate and employee experience.
Design specialists say that a good principle is to develop a product or experience based on the needs of the most demanding target group. “All Products Should Be Designed For Disabled (...) you can’t go wrong with this approach,” explains a UX designer:
One of the worst aspects of many websites, mobile apps or any other online services is that they are designed to work only under perfect conditions. Apps are typically developed by young people with perfect eyesight seated in front of, usually MacBook with a retina screen that shows in a perfection resolution and brightness. They have a high-speed internet connection and often a focused environment when they do design or test things. It’s a different matter when you are trying to use an app while stuck on a crowded train with a weak signal.
If you apply this principle to the world of work, it means you should imagine and organise work for the category of workers who are most challenged and constantly under pressure. Single mums aren't necessarily “disabled” but they face the most difficult challenges in a world of work that wasn’t designed for them.
What would it mean in concrete terms? Let me give you some examples:
a workload that’s manageable for somebody with a family life (if it’s 80 hours a week, no single mum can do it) ;
childcare options and benefits to level the playing field for all parents ;
“core collaborative hours” (synchronous work) reduced to a minimum like Zillow ;
inclusive meetings — either Zoom for everyone or office for everyone because “hybrid” is often a disaster ;
equal pay with benefits (because a single mum can only count on herself)...
It may mean different things for different companies and sectors. But try this little design game: imagine designing work as if everybody was a single mum!
💪 I’ve had 2 new articles (newsletters) published on Vives Media, a newsletter about women over 45 that focuses on money and work (in 🇫🇷): Retraite des femmes : l’urgence d’en parler plus & Le Père Noël est une femme 🤶 Subscribe here so as not to miss the next issue! 🎁
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: (in 🇬🇧) Remote working: four cutting-edge ideas straight from Portugal, Sexism at work: why those who deny there’s a problem are a danger, Sorry, but you're already living in the "Squid Game", (in 🇫🇷) Pénurie de talents : et si vous recrutiez des « vieilles » ?, Pourquoi les startups lèvent-elles tant d'argent en ce moment ? To see all my articles, check my Welcome to the Jungle profile.
📺 As I find the subject of design so fascinating, I agreed to participate in a webinar on how workspace design can be used to improve inclusion: Comment designer des espaces au service de tous ? 🇫🇷 with Génie des Lieux. Join us on December 16 at 9:30 CET!
🚗 The Look of Cars Is Driving Me Out of My Mind, Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times, December 2021: “Compared to how crazy the stuff is that’s happening in the tech world of cars, it’s bizarre how much they all look the same (…) The sameness may be a product of a trend that has roiled the industry since the 1990s: the steady sales growth in S.U.V.s and crossovers, the smaller cousins of S.U.V.s that are built more like cars than trucks, and the decline of passenger vehicles, including sedans, hatchbacks and wagons.”
🔐 The Park Bench Is an Endangered Species, Jonathan Lee, The New York Times, October 2021: “A good park bench leaves me in a state perched somewhere between nostalgia and eager anticipation. Where once I was excited by the profanities engraved on wood, I now find, as a 40-year-old, that I’m more appreciative of each bench’s quiet stoicism, the way they’re willing to wait out their turn in every weather, remaining available to all-comers. Like a good book or piece of music, a park bench allows for a sense of solitude and community at the same time, a simultaneity that’s crucial to life in a great city.”
👩⚕️ What It Means to Design a Space for ‘Care’, Alexandra Lande, Bloomberg CityLab, November 2021: “A municipal Department of Care could make sure the trash was picked up and the tree pits were weeded. A Department of Care could pay teens to tend to public spaces and teach them stewardship skills. A Department of Care could check on seniors in a heat wave and basement apartment dwellers in a flood. A Department of Care would start by asking, as urban designer Justin Garrett Moore suggests: What do you need? What do you hope will change? How can we best accomplish this?”
I wish you all a merry Christmas 🎄 And let’s not forget the many single mums out there!