Book Review: Invisible Women

71UxQteF5pL‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, as Henry Higgins asks in My Fair Lady. Women’s ‘difference’ is a problem, though, and as this eye-opening book points out, one that we can’t carry on ignoring. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (who campaigned for women on banknotes and the statue of Millicent Fawcett) is genuinely shocking: as a woman, and a feminist, I hadn’t expected to be so stunned by how much women are excluded from the data that defines our lives. The premise of the book is that there is a huge gender gap in the data which rules our lives, and which affects everything from houses to work to health. It’s a pleasingly well-referenced book, with many pages of footnotes for those who want to explore the issues further, and which demonstrates the solid research behind the issues raised.

We live, Criado Perez contends, in a world designed by, and consequently for, men. The introduction outlines what this means: that the default human is, in fact, male (and white, and usually privileged). When people – from academics to politicians to people in the pub – talk about ‘humans’, or ‘universal’ concepts, etc, what is almost always meant is ‘men’ and ‘male’ concepts. ‘Gender neutral’ all too often means ‘male’ (as in public lavatories labelled ‘gender neutral’ and ‘gender neutral with urinals’. The queue for the ladies was even longer that night). The book is premised on the unarguable facts that we – by which I mean everyone, in all societies across the world (and the data here is drawn from a very wide range of regions indeed) – are living in an unequal society: one where women do more of the unpaid work of child-rearing, taking care of the elderly, looking after the home, and providing food. Women’s lives, particularly those of low-income or ethnic minority women, are often driven by these unpaid and usually unrecognised roles. The absence of these women from big data means that their lives are made harder, because they are invisible.

The book is divided into sections: Daily Life, The Workplace, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life and When it Goes Wrong. I marked so many areas I wanted to discuss in this review that I realise it’s not possible to do it justice, so here are a few examples: I was REALLY SHOCKED to find that homeless shelters can receive free contraception but not women’s sanitary products. I’m disgusted to find that female Viagra was mostly tested on men. I’m genuinely surprised to find that houses built hurriedly in the wake of disasters often don’t include kitchens. And these are some of the smaller issues. Women are often excluded from medical trials, for example, because they are anomalies (only 50% of the population, give or take): with their fluctuating hormones and bodies which are different to men’s right down to a cellular level, it seems that it’s just been too difficult to include them, even when women’s lives are at stake. Because women don’t always work 9-5, full-time, instead having caring duties and household work and errands, town planning and transport do not support women’s needs. (And such problems are even worse in developing countries). And this is, of course, because women are poorly represented in the organisations, governments, councils and committees which make these decisions. (Incidentally I was interested to see how often Hillary Clinton’s name came up as someone who has been campaigning for women’s inclusion in research and data – as well as a woman repeatedly vilified for being ‘ambitious’ in wanting ‘a man’s job’).  But the organisations which research and make these decisions need to support women to take part in decision making (after all, what woman would approve designs for emergency accommodation without a kitchen?) Yet women in public life are endlessly criticised, presumably often by men who feel their privilege is threatened (the comments below the video above are prime examples of this).

The real reason we exclude women is because we see the rights of 50% of the population as a minority interest. (p. 290)

If you think that the world is getting more equal, and that we need feminism less, this is the book to read. It points out that little account is taken of women’s lives and experience, and that data is almost always gathered from men (and where it isn’t, that data is usually not sex-disaggregated, meaning that the different needs of men and women are not part of the data set) and that there are three areas of women’s experience in their environment which we need to consider:

  • Invisibility, where women’s work such as caring and housework is undervalued (for example, not being counted as contributing to GDP despite have an acknowledged economic value)
  • Visibility, in all the wrong ways, causing men to view women in a certain way which can lead to violence or sexual assault
  • The ways in which female bodies are biologically different to men’s, which is not incorporated into design or healthcare.

Women cannot, and should not, be ‘more like a man’. But there are both social and biological differences which should not mean that a woman is more likely to suffer violence, live in poverty, die young or experience ill-health, and be criticised for attempts to redress this by speaking up. Those who troll Criado Perez for doing the last of these sadly demonstrate their own ignorance and unpleasantness.

 

2 comments

  1. Unfortunately this book is rather shallow and depends highly upon anecdote and selection bias (omission) of relevant data. One anecdote used in the book, for example, revolves around snow ploughing and how municipal governments plan snow ploughing by prioritizing the main roadways of a city before clearing side roads, walkways and other paths. It’s presumed a more gender-neutral ploughing policy would clear these side roads walkways used by women before clearing the main roads used by men who are commuting.

    This policy was implemented in Stockholm and caused a disaster and citywide shut down in 2016, as well as cost overruns and many injuries and other emergencies as essential city services were unable to reach people in need.

    The entire book tends to depend on this tactic of cherry picking data without providing a greater context for why certain decisions are made, which damages the thesis to the point it cannot be trusted. For example, the point about why certain drugs are not tested on pregnant women — The pool of pregnant women is inherently smaller, and drug manufacturers don’t want to risk testing drugs on pregnant women that might cause harm to the mother or child. This isn’t an oversight or bias, but Caroline Perez is more interested in a polemic than in presenting the complete picture.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I’ve heard about the problems in Stockholm with the ‘gender-equal’ snow clearing, though it’s worth noting the city has continued with its policy and other places have adopted it; 2016 saw unusually and unexpectedly heavy snowfall so it’s likely similar problems would have occurred no matter what policy approach was implemented.
    I disagree that the book is shallow, though: no doubt that (as you do in your comment!) Criado Perez chooses the most suitable issues for discussion, but the extensive endnotes and bibliography indicate how one might verify her data and read further contextual information. The issues she raises stand out as very clear examples of gender discrimination, even if discrimination is not intended.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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