Contextualities and nuances – gendered participation in Co-Design?

In 2019, Kenyan women on Twitter, used the hashtag (HT) #MyAlwaysExperience to document their terrible experience using Always sanitary pads. Subsequently, we saw the HT evolve into a trending topic, with women outside Kenya in other African countries chime in confirming their similar disappointing experiences with the product. P&G, maker of the product, refuted claims of selling a substandard product in Kenya, thereby instigating an investigation by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). Kenyan women on Twitter, taken aback by this statement from P&G called upon women purchasing Always sanitary pads in other countries to share pictures for comparison, which revealed that indeed a lower quality of product was being sold in Kenya as compared to that being sold in global north countries. 

This scenario is a perfect case study to understand and critique the design process and its intricacies, where we see crucial elements of identity politics, culture, gender dynamics and intersectionality impacting the product design process. It has been fascinating combing through literature on co-creation, co-design, participatory design, concepts that continue to be developed upon today since the 1970s. The literature on Gender-Just digital services (co) design revealed multiple dominant themes, but one key overarching element prevailed throughout. Although co-design and the different variations of Participatory Design (PD) are meant to include people who are often excluded in the design process, very little information exists about how women have been actively involved. To ensure that the co-design process is successful it must be intentional and this means a vast amount of resources must be invested in the process so as to meet the needs of users in their contextual complexities and multi-layered identities.


Intersectionality in design presents an opportunity to focus on the complexity of experience as it’s impacted by multiple identity characteristics (such as gender, race, class, age and ability) and the impact these identities have on context and design, thus promoting equity within design. Using the Always sanitary pads example, intersectionality in the design process would result in a product of consistent quality that can comfortably be used across geographical markets without fundamental differences in the user experience.

Participation, Culture Codes and Context

Generally from the digital development perspective and context, participation refers to the process by which disadvantaged people have the opportunity to influence decisions that affect them and is directly attributable to project success. There are key questions to ask where participation is being considered: 1) What is the political and cultural context? 2) Who wants to introduce participation and why? 3) Who is participation sought from? Do they want to, and can they, participate? As participatory techniques continue to be adopted in different forms, the complex hidden workings of power relations are  revealed and need to be broken down.

While PD has been evolving over the years, there exists different understandings of ‘participation’ by societies that is determined by local value systems. Friction can be encountered between designers and users due to differing socio-cultural value systems. As Winschiers et al. 2010 point out “local participatory performance is guided by implicit and explicit rules that aren’t always obvious to community outsiders.”  It is for this reason that PD needs to be dynamic and contextual in order to account for these diversities existing not only amongst individuals but also in reference to cultures, thus there is no single technique of conducting PD.  

Invisibility of Women?

Research conducted in rural areas shows that women tend to be reserved, which is also translated as ‘respectable gender behavior’ especially in many African communities. So the question that is raised is: Out of the one or two women who speak up, how representative is their voice? Furthermore, how can one measure participation of women in spaces where power imbalance is rife, which subsequently results in their exclusion from participation? It is evident that without taking a closer look at cultural codes and structures, there is a potential risk of compromising and under-representing women’s agency and their capability to negotiate their participation in digital services projects.

Looking at the question of ‘who participates, and how?’ It has been observed that women work on co-design projects thus ‘participating’ but their roles, regardless of how important, are invisible. This is due to the fact that these tasks fall into the category of ‘domestic chores’, which are largely unrecognized and unappreciated in a patriarchal world. Additionally, we see that women’s contribution is activity-specific and their lack of involvement in decision making thus being strongly associated with gendered performance and not contribution to the economy and or digital design.

The literature review also sought to explore the instances where design is by women and not simply for women. We found that globally, the design space is overwhelmingly male, for reasons such as lack of female designer role models – a symptom of a male dominated design space, unfavourable working conditions for women and unconscious bias against women in technology. When analysing PD techniques, we see women being included in the process, but their participation is exclusionary due to the nature of tasks they perform. In this case we are hesitant to outrightly say that women are entirely excluded from the process, because this would in effect be ignoring and belittling the contributions they continue to make in the design processes, however small that contribution might be.

Regardless of these angles, PD and participatory research methodologies in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) need to do more to cater for women and their intersectionalities, as it does outside the continent. In SSAn design processes, women are presented as binaries, and gender analysis is constructed as ‘men versus women’. Beyond our borders, we see the implementation of intersectional HCI, where users are effectively assessed based on various identity markers: sexuality (beyond binaries), gender, geography, age, economic and social status. 

We observed that cultural and social norms are seen to affect the ways in which women can participate in the design process. Factors that designers and researchers, who exist as ‘outsiders’ to the communities they research, can only identify and not permanently shift for the purposes of service design and eventual project success.

This in itself, presents a unique opportunity to shift what gender-inclusive design processes look like and explore more intentionality in improving the quality of women’s participation in design processes. The notion of the inclusion of women qualitatively in design processes being viewed as a ‘luxury’, must be challenged at all levels. It is not a luxury, it is a requirement…


Literature Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.