“Leopard” of Crates and Ribbons posted a fantastic breakdown of this issue today:
Everything, from toilet signs to cartoon characters, has the male gender as neutral and unmarked, while the female gender is marked out with ribbons, skirts, or sexy poses. See a puppy running around the neighbourhood, and people would most likely refer to it as a ‘he’. Random stick figure? Also a ‘he’. This is the reality that all of us have grown up with, and not only is it frustrating, it also has some nasty consequences for women.
Leopard goes on to explore several expressions of this phenomenon, ranging from the merely annoying to the downright life-threatening:
Let’s take the heart attack as an example. Now almost everyone can tell you the symptoms of a heart attack. A squeezing, painful feeling in the chest is the surest sign, accompanied by pain in the left arm. Right? Well, as it turns out, that pain in the chest is a classic male heart attack sign, and female heart attacks often have very different symptoms, more comparable to indigestion than chest pain.
Women are not a variation on men; they aren’t “men with uteruses” or “men with smaller muscles” or “men with more feelings”. They’re one half of a species.