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August 11, 2005

gender bias in web site design

This morning my husband pointed me to a news story on CNN, entitled "Study: Web site's appearance matters." At first I thought it was going to be rehash of the design trumps content research I'd written about a couple of years ago. But it was more than that.

The British researchers described in the CNN story had looked at design characteristics that made web sites overall more appealing to men vs women:

Women seemed to like pages with more color in the background and typeface. Women also favored informal rather than posed pictures.

Men responded better to dark colors and straight, horizontal lines across a page. They also were more pleased by a three-dimensional look and

That's interesting information, and useful for designers. But what followed was particularly striking to me:

With those standards in mind, the researchers checked out the Web sites for 32 British universities and determined that 94 percent had a "masculine orientation." Two percent showed a female-favored arrangement.

Fascinating. Not surprising, but fascinating. I'll be forwarding this story on to administrators at my university, in hopes that they'll keep it in mind as they attempt to improve their recruiting of women.

Posted by Liz Lawley at 01:06 PM | Permalink


I was thinking the same thing as I read your last line, then I realized that it was you (Liz) who posted this, so I won't have to tell any profs afterall :).

I just read about this on Molly Holzschlag's blog, which you might have also read:

I find this really interesting, and I'm going to mention it in my blog.

Posted by: Elsie at Aug 12, 2005 12:33:06 AM

What the article (& perhaps the original study) doesn't say is whether university sites were worse than the rest of the web. I'd guess that a majority of pages could be counted as having "dark colors and straight, horizontal lines across a page".

If this is a real problem, it's unlikely to be with the universities themselves. It's with web design in general, and with institutional/official/formal pages in particular. If you're a designer trying to make a page look formal, your lazy quick-fix is going to be along the lines of: less color, dark colors, straight lines, less informal pictures - exactly the features that appeal to men.

So if you try to make things more formal, you end up making them more male. And that problem isn't confined to the online world.

Posted by: Dan at Aug 12, 2005 7:26:05 AM

Thanks! This is the first thing I've seen in a while that gives me some concrete things to do.

I'm working on a site update, to coincide with some changes in our print materials. This made me notice that our new look is decidedly more masculine than our old look, and I know that the main designer was trying for something more "serious" looking. :) I like the new look, but it made me go back to my design-in-progress to make sure it's balanced.

Plus I've always wanted to try a rounded corner with a drop shadow.

Posted by: Elaine at Aug 12, 2005 12:29:40 PM

Hey! great minds think alike! Liz
here are my thoughts on the same story.

And thanks for donating to the cancer fund for Mr. Badger.

Posted by: Academic Coach at Aug 20, 2005 7:57:57 AM

It also makes me wonder if men and women felt they had to say they "like" websites that they felt were gendered the way they are. Can men say they like websites with soft and pink designs?

As someone else mentioned, it goes back to the idea that the default or neutral website would look "masculine" by this definition. That being said, I don't know that I would advocate a movement for more flowery fonts in web design. I like things simple. Thanks for an interesting piece of news!

Posted by: Knoblauch at Aug 26, 2005 10:15:44 AM

I was thinking that from a design perspective this is good study but Knoblauch brings up an excellent thought - that men or women may have felt like they had to stick to what is expected of their gender.

Posted by: meg at Sep 29, 2005 11:29:09 PM

That's an interesting observation. I'm going to link this on What She Said! and pose the question of how things like this affect women in terms of feeling valued. Does knowing that most colleges have a "male" design for their websites add to a feeling of "otherness." Do we feel that we are in a society that's not set up for our convenience? Enjoyment? Utility?

Posted by: Morgaine Swann at Oct 9, 2005 8:18:30 AM

I have struggled to revive my flagging design skills but am constantly dissatisfied and always feel that my efforts are 'not as good' as the majority of 'professional' sites out there.

I started out with High School major in art and was going to go to Art College but got railroaded into Advertising then fell into coding by accident. I've been a professional software developer for about 15 years now and spent at least the first 5 of those years with the feeling that I 'was not as good' as the boy coders. (managed to get over that thankfully)

I used to think my design skills were ok (in fact I was always chosen to do the screen layouts and splash screens) but with the rise and rise of the Internet I became less sure of myself to the point where I deliberately shirk the 'layout and graphics' elements of projects. I wonder if the male takeover of webdesign (if indeed that is the case) had something to do with that? I kept feeling that my ideas were too soft and flimsy, not slick enough, not hard enough... but I don't actually like most of the glossy, slick, hard, professional sites around. I thought I was 'missing the point' somehow.

I doubt that I will ever be a 'great' webdesigner - my main love is coding and databases, but that doesn't sell my services and the (smaller) clients want an all-in-one deal so I have to work on my design skills. At least I have perhaps one reason why my design is different - maybe its more feminine? Guess i'll just have to learn to fake it. ;)

Posted by: zenlan at Oct 11, 2005 9:18:08 AM


Sorry to chime in late, I saw this on 'What She said."

I read this summer that over 2/3 of Web designers are men, so that is probably what accounts for the male-oriented design. Hard to say. It may also be that the people who select the design are mostly men, too.

And I wish I could find the link at the moment, to point you at the article. It was probably at Sitepoint, but I can't be certain. In the article, it was also noted that most sites that were designed for a female audience were actually designed by men, too. Darn. I'm going to go find that article now, since it's bugging me that I don't have all the details on the top of my head.



Posted by: Bitch|Lab at Dec 3, 2005 7:13:48 PM

There are women oriented fields where this design is strongly recommended. Of course shopping is one of it. And university sites do not have to appeal for women or men in particular because at the university there is no difference between men and women all are equal before science. This is spicificity of seriouse sites.

Posted by: Anita, web developer at Dec 13, 2005 4:32:57 PM