At the end of April, researchers published a study into one of the great mysteries of our time: Why do people hold phones while walking?
A few weeks later, I was on my way somewhere, holding my phone, when I saw this news burbling up from the media cauldrons. The answer seemed so obvious I didn't even bother to read the article. Of course I hold my phone while walking, I thought, because I generally don't have pockets large enough to hold it. If my phone sinks to the bottom of my bag, it's lost to the wilderness that is my bag bottom, and I don't want to stop or pull out the contents of my bag to find it. I want it right there. In my hand. Ready to check texts or make calls or look at GPS or the time or take a picture or whatever else I want to do. That's why I'm walking with it.
After getting especially worked up about this study and what I perceived as its infinite denseness with friends who shared my reaction, I finally read the piece, "Researchers wonder what it means when you keep your phone out without using it," as published in the MIT Technology Review. The article did not soothe me, for reasons both petty and significant. First of all, the researchers, Laura Schaposnik and James Unwin at the University of Illinois at Chicago, dubbed this a "previously unobserved phenomenon," i.e., "holding a phone for long periods of time without actually using it," i.e., "phone walking." Is this really new and unobserved? But fine, that's a quibble. The problems are bigger. "Curiously, men and women engage in it to significantly different degrees," the article explains.
MY, MY. I WONDER WHY.
Some info about the study: The researchers, who just watched people walk around Paris (an excellent gig, to be sure), found that "of the 3,038 adults they observed, 674 were phone walkers — a surprisingly large 22 percent of the total." That might sound like a relatively trivial number, "[b]ut there were significant differences between the sexes," explain the researchers. "In total, around 20 percent of men were phone walkers, compared with 33 percent of women."
The researchers came up with a bunch of relatively unconvincing, fairly sexist reasons for this phenomenon: Women are more likely to have a "kind of dependency" on their phones. Their boyfriends "expect a reply [to their texts] within five minutes." "Holding a phone makes it less likely to be stolen from a bag or pocket." And perhaps worst of all: "Could it be that phone walking is becoming a kind of social plumage that indicates romantic status? Perhaps carrying a phone is equivalent, in some sense, to wearing a wedding ring." WHAAAAAT?
The end of the article notes that "[i]t might also be useful to ask phone walkers whether they are indeed in a relationship or not," which, yes, that seems wise, as does asking them why they're holding their phones in the first place, but I'm no scientist.
What I am is on Twitter, so I posted what I was most immediately annoyed about there: "Researchers miss the point that WOMEN'S CLOTHING OFTEN DOESN'T HAVE POCKETS AND IT'S HARD TO FIND A PHONE IN A BAG." It hit a nerve. People responded with various legit reasons why they carry their phones while walking, as well as reminding researchers that research should be qualitative as well as quantitative (you know, ask WHY!). One person pointed out that the researchers equate large pockets and bags — the people observed had one or the other, explain the researchers, so they must have been holding their phones by choice, not necessity (but of course, a pocket and a bag are not the same thing, and bags have their own issues, as discussed). Another person wrote, "there were other problems with this study, including that a participant's sex was identified 'based on the assumption that subjects would conform to standard cultural norms.'"
But what I heard more than anything else, the most resonating thing that came through from that tweet and the study it was based on, was a near-universal cry for pockets. Better pockets. In women's clothing. Seriously, why don't we have pockets? Just give us some damn pockets! Good pockets. Big pockets. Man-sized pockets. As my friend Lindsay Robertson tweeted, "If women's clothing had pockets to the extent that men's does, they would find the opposite. This is infuriating."
I reached out to Julie Sygiel, an entrepreneur and strategy consultant whose Twitter bio explains, "I'm on a quest to deepen women's pockets." To do that, she's started The Pockets Project, which "aims to bring attention to pocket inequality and design a line of dresses with deep pockets [8.5 inches deep at least, she clarifies on her site] that can hold everything from our most prized possessions to our lip gloss." She had her own beefs with the study, especially with its theory that couples hold their phones less when they're together because they no longer have to demonstrate their "social plumage." "I don't see anywhere where they talk about how one reason phone carrying decreases when you're walking with someone else is that it's rude to be on your phone then," she said. "It has nothing to do with a romantic relationship, it's about human beings respecting each other and valuing their time."
But it's not really about the study — a study is only a glimpse at a small segment of the population, and it can only start a conversation, which this one did — it's about everything else. "It's about everything that women need to carry around on a daily basis," Sygiel explains. "If we're at work and we want to run down and grab a bagel, we have to take our entire bag or we're juggling our phone, our wallet, our key, our ID badge. There's a plethora of stuff we have to lug around. It's an extra burden."
Our phones have become a metaphor for the weight we carry as women in this society, a society in which we're saddled with a range of expectations (for example, motherhood) and yet not given the proper facilities, or support, in which to carry them out (for example, proper affordable health care). Isn't it about time we were given some bigger pockets? Sygiel recounts a moment in which her new iPhone fell out of her side pocket and she didn't even notice until a stranger handed it to her. She suddenly started hearing women complaining about this everywhere. Yet men were not. Why? Pockets. "I just assumed someone would do something about it," she says. "But I don't feel like they're taking women seriously as a market." So she decided to do it herself. She plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the fall; right now, you can take a survey on her site to convey your dress dreams.
As the idea for the business was just getting started, Sygiel went to Zara with a ruler and surreptitiously measured the depths of pockets of 10 pieces in the men's and women's sections to prove her point. "That's a tiny sample," she says, "but what I was blown away by was that the largest women's pockets were still smaller than the smallest pockets in the men's garments." In fact, the men's pockets averaged out to be about 3 inches deeper than the women's.
"Historically," she tells me, "men were given numerous pockets to confuse pickpocketers. It really decreases the chance they're going to choose the right one, and historically, it's the men who carry the money. Women were not supposed to be carrying the cash. I can see how that informed fashion choices."
It's not always easy to fit a pocket in a dress, depending on the style, she notes, which means the outrage of "why don't companies put pockets in every single garment?" can be a little misplaced. (Tell that to the outraged women who've lost their iPhones!) But, she adds, "where the outrage is valid is that there are so many women's dresses and jackets that could easily support pockets and they don't have them, and that's where I think companies are missing the point. It's about valuing women, valuing our time and our comfort and our place in the world."
We have a lot of work to do in that regard, but we could start with pockets.
Editor's note: One of the quotes in this article was slightly mischaracterized. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.