How the Magic Leap Lawsuit Illuminates Tech’s Gendered Design Bias
It’s not pretty.
A sexual discrimination lawsuit filed in Florida by a former Magic Leap employee against the company on Tuesday alleges that the secretive augmented reality outfit is rife with the systemic repression of women and frat house behaviour.
The sausage-making party of a lawsuit also shows how, in this day and age, the devices all around us are still largely designed by men, for men.
Before we talk about Magic Leap, though, let's look at a few examples. Artificial hearts are designed for men and are thus often too big for women. One company that makes top-of-the-line prosthetics only made a hand that comfortably fits women after selling a larger model. Anecdotal evidence suggests oversized phones are designed for men's hands and not women's.
So, how does this relate to Magic Leap? According to the lawsuit, filed by former marketing executive Tannen Campbell, Campbell was hired in part to help the company market its product to women. So far, the lawsuit alleges, the best idea the company had was to make a pink version of their product. Nice.
Read More: Technology Isn't Designed to Fit Women
According to the lawsuit, however, women at Magic Leap had some very practical design ideas to convince women to get on board.
"Women recommended changes to the design, such as not having the headset connect in the back of the head because such a connection is difficult for people with ponytails or long hair," the lawsuit alleges. "The women also recommended using a less stiff, lighter cable to connect the device to the belt pack, because the existing one got caught in hair and jewelry. They also recommended a new way to attach the 'belt pack,' since women often do not wear belts."
That all sounds pretty reasonable if you want women to use your product. So, what came of these suggestions?
"A chaotic discussion with people talking over each other followed," the lawsuit alleges. "The group made no decisions and none of the proposed changes were made to the design."
The context for this event—that is, a company culture that allegedly devalued women—is hugely important. I've often wondered myself: how is it that the most popular consumer devices in the world, like phones, aren't designed with the needs of half of the global population in mind? Well, if the allegations in the Magic Leap lawsuit are true, we may have an answer.
It's not some abstract confluence of statistical accidents that leads to a device being made for dudes. It's allowing employees to make remarks like, "Yeah, and look, it's Bring Your Wife to Work Day," when staring at a photo of two doctors, one male and one female. It's having a department in-joke about staying away from the "Three O's: Orientals,Old People and Ovaries." Both of these instances are alleged to have occurred at Magic Leap in Campbell's lawsuit.
I guess we'll see if Magic Leap sticks with that "pink headsets for girls" plan.
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Update: This article was updated after initial publication to clarify the nature of the lawsuit.