Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men


Read 14/12/2019-04/01/2020

Rating 4 stars

I found Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women a difficult read. It’s essential in its content and the topics Perez shines a light on, but I found its wide ranging subject and the approach Perez takes in evidencing and unpicking the topics she focuses on resulted in a somewhat dense, exhausting book. It relentlessly raises lots of issues across 300+ pages but leaves any possible solutions to the final dozen. It felt at times like one woman railing against injustice rather than a practical call to arms across society.

The book begins with a simple statement.

Most of recorded human history is one big data gap. Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, the chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological. Instead, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the lives of the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence.

Perez shows that it’s not just the lack of data specifically sought from women that is the problem. It’s the repeated failure to disaggregate data on the basis of sex in order to understand the impacts of decisions on women. Men are the norm, even when women have been consulted.

Even though Perez works hard not to say it outright, it’s hard not to boil down the take home message from this book to ‘Men are arrogant and stupid’. Perez’s research, though, produces page after page of head shaking arrogance and idiocy. It’s depressing reading and the relentless build up of statistics that tell the same story across the wide range of subjects eventually felt mundane.

Whether it’s the clean stoves intended to reduce the toxic health issues caused by traditional three stone stoves used in lots of countries around the world, designed without any consultation with the intended female users and therefore not taken up, or the fact that most safety levels in the workplace are benchmarked against the average male body, male dominated societies regularly demonstrate a failure to recognise that women’s bodies are different and the female workplace crosses both the home and places of paid employment.

Cost is typically the reason given for not adapting standards to accommodate the different needs of women. These upfront, one off costs frequently fail to take into account the resultant ongoing costs of treating the female body for the illnesses and injuries directly caused by the one (male) size fits all philosophy of patriarchal societies. You can’t even throw ‘But women want to be treated as equals’ in the face of this, because equality does not mean treating women as though they are men. Equality means treating every person as equal and meeting their needs equitably. And that includes not assuming that all men are exactly the same, too.

Physiology is a big part of the issue. An example Perez gives is women in the military carrying packs designed for the male body. Male physical strength is greater in the upper body than female physical strength. Proportionately, female physical strength is greater in the legs. Of course male bodies can carry heavy packs with their greater upper body strength.

Another example is smartphone design. Women typically have smaller hands than men. Phones that are small enough for women to use comfortably often have less processing power and aren’t updated as regularly, making them an interior product out of the box. I recently, reluctantly, upgraded from my hand-comfy Moto G (3rd gen) to the Moto G7 because the Moto G was so unsupported as to be unusable. I’ve discovered that, although the phone fits in my hand, it’s too unwieldy for me to calibrate its positioning software, making maps just that little bit inaccurate. It’s also harder to type on the ever so slightly wider keyboard, giving me RSI, and single-handed use is impossible because my thumb doesn’t stretch far enough and the balance of the phone in my hand is off. I have an 8-inch hand span. God only knows how women with smaller hands than me manage.

Female skin is different to male skin, too, meaning that toxicity levels in workplace exposure to chemicals need to be lower for women, as female skin absorbs chemicals more quickly and at higher concentrations. And then there’s the way some chemicals mimic female hormones, increasing the impact of exposure. Added to this is the fact that women who work with chemicals in their paid work are also exposed to more chemicals in the home as part of their unpaid work.

Which leads to the point that the male experience of the home is one dominated by leisure. Women who are employed in paid work have less leisure time in the home, because when they get home from their paid job, in most cases that’s when their unpaid work starts. Homes are planned around male patterns of work and non-work, built in zones away from the workplace, because men typically don’t need to think about the impact of fitting in caring responsibilities around their paid work. It was interesting to read about the different approaches to tackling this imbalance taken in Austria and Sweden, even more so when compared with the relocation of families from the favelas in Brazil to new housing that is typically a two hour journey from women’s paid work and from the community that helped out with caring responsibilities.

All through the book I had questions. Is the state of affairs for women as simple as men having had it their own way for so long that making changes that mean the other half of the population has a better quality of life is too hard for them to contemplate? Or is it that they equate women being treated equally as an existential threat? Or do men genuinely not see women as people with the same rights as them? It’s probably a combination of these things, alongside men not being brought up to consider women, when considering men is at the heart of the way women are raised. Some of the cause is undoubtedly down to women, because the battle to be seen and treated as equal is tiring and often it’s easier just to shrug and get on with it. I know couples where, because the man works full time and the woman works part time, the man sees his leisure time as precious, failing to see that the child and parental care undertaken by the woman is also work and a large part of the reason the woman doesn’t work full time. I know couples where both work full time and the woman still undertakes the majority of the unpaid work in the home, because who wants friction at the end of the working day? I’ve also had my own experience of working full time and taking on parental care and know the impact that had on me mentally and physically. At one point while I was wrestling with the inadequacies of the care system in the UK, I seriously considered quitting work to look after my mum who had dementia. A male friend at the time (I no longer count him as such) expressed admiration that I should consider something so noble as giving up work for my mother’s benefit. Had he truly been a friend and ally, he would have raged against the fact that women are expected to do what I was considering. In the end, I didn’t quit work. The pay off would have been the loss of my sanity, I’m sure. Because, as it is for men, paid work is an important part of women’s lives.

Until the reliance on women to reduce their paid working hours in order to carry out unpaid caring work changes, until men feel free to do the same and not be somehow emasculated, until across society we truly see ourselves as equal in taking on responsibility for both earning money and carrying out unpaid work, the things that Perez discusses in this book aren’t going to change.

What I haven’t personally experienced is the impact that government cuts to public spending have on women who don’t enter into paid employment because their unpaid caring responsibilities are too great. Perez positions this impact as being a result of the failure of governments to include a measure of the economic contribution unpaid domestic work makes to GDP. GDP is “a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition. And a lot of uncertainty” according to Professor Diane Coyle, former UK Treasury economist, economics editor at The Independent newspaper, economics professor at the University of Manchester and now Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. There’s no reason that GDP couldn’t include a measure of unpaid work in the home, but a decision was taken in the late 1950s that collecting the necessary data was too big a task. Including unpaid work in the UK’s GDP figure in 2016 would have increased it by around £1 trillion. Not including unpaid work in GDP treats it as “a costless resource to exploit”, in the words of feminist economist Professor Sue Himmelweit, with the result that the burden of public spending cuts falls mainly on women who pick up the work that the public sector stops funding. This section of the book made me the most angry. Even more than the section about women’s bodies being invisible when it comes to the development of drugs and other treatments, and when it comes to male doctors trying to diagnose the cause of symptoms they’ve never experienced or been taught about.

Outside of the world of paid work, where the gender data gap has one set of impacts that apply across all women, I should note that in considering the gender data gap in the area of unpaid work Perez has a heteronormative focus in her case studies. To give her her due, she acknowledges it. It would be interesting, though, to know more about how the gender data gap impacts on same sex couples. How do the people in male and female same sex relationships negotiate the factors that lead to women in most heterosexual relationships taking on the unpaid work?

But that’s a different book.

Perez saves the worst ’til last, with a focus on violence against the female body. As well as rape of women by soldiers as an act of war in military conflicts, she demonstrates how domestic violence also spikes during and after military conflict. Beyond that, women’s healthcare needs also suffer during and after military conflict, particularly in the area of childbirth.

The fact that women are rarely involved in the conversation about reconstruction after a conflict is also covered by Perez. Men like to rebuild flashy commercial buildings that make statements about the country to the outside world. They don’t think about the wider needs of the immediate community. In some countries, where the domestic realm is firmly the domain of women, this has led to new housing being built that lacks kitchens and provision for livestock. In other countries, commercial buildings have taken precedence over provision for pre-school care and healthcare. If you don’t have the weight of society bearing down on you to make you responsible for these things, it seems that you don’t have to think practically about how they’re provided.

As I said at the start, it’s hard not to boil down the take home message from this book to ‘Men are arrogant and stupid’. Why do the ones in power continually ignore half the population? It really is outrageous.

I know that many women will read this book and feel angry and frustrated by its contents. My hope is that some of those women will be women with access to decision making in government, in research institutions, in service delivery, who will use it as a tool to push back against male bias. I also hope, but don’t really expect, that men, too, will read this book, not take it as a criticism to get defensive about but use it as a mirror to see the things about them individually and collectively that they can change. Finally, I hope we all stop conforming to made up ‘gender norms’ that imprison us in false behaviours. The thing that sets us apart from each other is biological sex. Gender is a construct that pigeonholes us and permits toxicity.

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