Book Review Number 42

 Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – Caroline Criado Perez

This book should be required reading for every male before he can get a drivers license or register to vote.

The author is a British writer, broadcaster, and feminist activist. In this volume she documents gender inequality and its root causes worldwide. She makes the case that a massive data gap exists between the assumed “default human” (an average male) on which the whole world has been built since the beginning of human history and the reality that the “atypical” (or female) half of the population’s uniqueness is generally ignored. That gap leads to dangerous patterns in women’s lives, including compromised safety in cars, medications, public spaces, as well as increased political and domestic abuse. She uses strong correlation statistics to prove her point.

Ms. Criado Perez’s book is broken into 6 parts:  1) Daily Life; 2) The Workplace; 3) Design; 4) Going to the Doctor; 5) Public Life; 6) When it Goes Wrong. In each section she touches on ways that modern life negatively impacts the health, happiness, fulfillment, and safety of women. She unearths a dangerous pattern in data collection, analysis, and sex dis-aggregation (or lack thereof) and its consequences on women’s lives.

She identifies how product designers use a “one-size-fits-all” approach for everything from cars to cell phones to musical instruments to voice recognition software. Everything is designed to fit men. And consciously or not cities and other political jurisdictions prioritize public transportation, roads, and other public spaces and facilities primarily to meet the needs of men. In so doing they neglect to consider women’s needs, safety, unique responsibilities, and travel patterns.

Similarly in medical research, women have been mostly excluded from studies and textbooks, leaving them chronically misunderstood, mistreated, and misdiagnosed. For instance women are frequently just assumed to react to medications the same way men do, though there is clear evidence that often is not the case. In fact women are frequently excluded from medical studies because they don’t react the same as men. That difference will somehow corrupt the results! Women are also frequently misdiagnosed in heart attacks and other life threatening conditions because their symptoms are not what are seen in men and as such are not “normal” or necessarily even studied in medical school.

When it comes to working life, the author discusses in detail a number of issues and realities that stack the work environment against women. Among other challenges, she explores the concepts of encumbered versus unencumbered labor and its impact on women’s wellbeing; she covers discrimination against women in pension systems as well as child care responsibilities. She makes the point that all industrialized countries except the US guarantee paid maternity leave; the US is one of only 5 countries in the world with no guaranteed paid maternity leave. Besides the US the other 4 countries are Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

She also effectively demonstrates the myth of meritocracy in the job market. Reviewing employment opportunities as diverse as music, tech, and academia, she shows that women are at a distinct disadvantage simply because they are women. This section is rich with other solid examples of male bias against women in the workplace from things as simple as office temperature settings to as serious as sexual harassment and abuse.

In a section called Design, Ms. Criado Perez discusses the issue of design of buildings, work environments, machinery, tools, and even musical instruments. She points out that virtually all such facilities and systems are made for the “default human” which to repeat is an average sized male. Cars are made for default humans; most other products are also designed around that default human, even including crash dummies used in testing vehicle safety. And when protective equipment is made specifically for females, the product is usually simply a smaller size of the male version without taking into account that women’s bodies have a fundamentally different shape.

The author also has a lot to say about how the political system excludes, minimizes, or demeans women even if/when they are elected to public office. The “good old boy” network works tirelessly to ignore or work around women politicians and community leaders to undermine or minimize their issues and effectiveness. If they press their ideas they are considered too ambitious and power hungry. Strong willed men are praised for being assertive; strong willed women are bitches. And of course when there is a public catastrophe like a flood or hurricane, recovery planning and prioritization decisions are usually done by men without input or consultation from women, or consideration of female victims’ needs.

I have always felt that we get better governance when women are in positions of power. Similarly, probably because my kids are mostly girls, I thought I was fully tuned in to gender discrimination. But this book was an eye opener for me. The author has done an outstanding job of laying out gender discrimination reality in areas I had never even considered. I know she has her own bias on the subject but she has earned the right; she documents the truth of her point beyond any doubt. If I were the Secretary of Education I would order that this book be the basis of a semester-long course on gender inequality required to graduate from high school and well as college.

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