Wednesday 15 February 2023

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

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Criado Perez’s now infamous book on the gender data gap gives us a far-reaching examination of the ways in which women have been excluded from data which would allow changes to make tangible improvements to their lives. In the preface she explains the idea of the default male, that when people say human, they really mean man. Visualising the default human as a white man has very real impacts on those who don’t meet this ‘norm’ (a bizarre mindset when half the population do not fit into this standard on gender lines alone). Tests are so often only carried out on men, meaning that women are seen as outliers, that their bodies are niche or unusual, rather than considering that using men as the basis for design might result in products that are unsuitable for women. She writes about the ways in which we are taught gender expectations and the impact this has on girls’ beliefs in their own possibilities. A solution to this, of course, is to get more women represented in different professions and positions of power, normalising their presence, and bringing in these different perspectives which can lead to less bias.

The book is split into six sections, covering all aspects of life - daily life, the workplace, design, going to the doctor, public life, and when it goes wrong. These cover a broad scope, including scenarios such as snow clearance, female safety in public places, toilets, medicine, and gender bias being built into algorithms that could decide whether or not you are considered for a job. As a woman it can feel disheartening to learn quite how far-reaching inequalities stretch, but perhaps none more so than the fact that health outcomes are so often worse for women because the men in their lives are so indoctrinated with the thought that the role of carer is not for them that they don’t look after those recuperating. These ingrained gender roles are at the core of a lot of the topics discussed in the book. It’s why childcare provision has the biggest impact on women, why the way child benefits are paid can impact how they’re spent, and how transport infrastructure is often not designed for women, who are more likely to be making lots of shorter journeys in the carrying out of caring responsibilities.

The other main issue that comes up time and again is the lack of sex-disaggregated data in research, so even when women are included in studies there’s no way of knowing how their results differ from those of male participants. Most alarmingly, this can mean that drugs are not being developed that would be beneficial to women just because they weren’t effective for men.

Criado Perez uses examples of research and case studies from around the world, and acknowledges that there are other factors that impact inequality. Overall, the picture is of a world that does not value the contributions of women, and doesn’t do the work needed to find out how policy decisions and product designs impact the lives of 50% of the population. Each chapter ends with a call to action, something which is clearly much needed.

I had put off reading this book because it seemed like a topic that would be enraging, and although of course it is not a neutral read and it did variously make me sad, despairing, or angry, it was also just a solid read. She backs up her claims with carefully carried out research, and the extensive end notes point you to the many studies she refers to. There are a lot of facts and figures but she constructs a narrative around them which is interesting to read. At times it can feel slightly repetitive, but that is a problem with the world’s attitude to women, not the book highlighting it. A slow read, but an important one.

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