Book review: Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez
I use gender data gap as an overarching term because sex is not the reason women are excluded from data. Gender is. […] The problem is the social meaning that we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.
Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women is a reading experience that you go into knowing it’ll address major problems that you think you might be at least marginally aware of, only to feel like a stinging slap in the face as you realize you had no idea how extensive these problems actually are. It’s a wake-up call as much as it is a call to action.
That call is an incredibly simple one, considering the complexity of many of the problems addressed here: include women’s opinions, experiences, ideas, usage, sizes, measurements, wants and needs in data collection and analysis. That’s it. Do that and watch things begin to improve.
Of course it’s more complex in numerous ways and Criado Perez is going to explain it all to you a lot better than I can, as this is beautifully organized, written, and well analyzed. The central tenet is that men are viewed as the default and the standard in every way, from the safety standards in automobile design to the size of smartphone that comfortably fits a hand, and deeper into fields of public policy, medicine and healthcare, technology, education, urban development — any conceivable sector you can think of.
I had an unsettled feeling reading this now especially, because we haven’t even begun to feel the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic but of course we already know how disproportionately it’s affected women, who still bear the brunt of the responsibility for childcare, homeschooling, household management and the like. Not even touching on what it means for women’s jobs, medical care, ease of and access to transportation, and so on. This data almost makes you a conspiracy theorist (in the best of ways, I promise) because you start to see these patterns of exclusion and understand the connections to other areas of life absolutely everywhere.
Criado Perez hints at how bad it gets when our fragile systems are knocked askew:
When things go wrong — war, natural disaster, pandemic — all the usual data gaps we have seen everywhere from urban planning to medical care are magnified and multiplied. […] there’s something about the context of disaster, of chaos, of social breakdown, that makes old prejudices seem more justified. And we’re always ready with an excuse.
From examples like female-led tech startups pitching to VC investors who dub critically necessary pelvic-floor devices “pornographic” to shocking statistics like that “every day 830 women around the world die due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth,” this is full of disheartening, upsetting facts and shocks. We should already be well acquainted with many of the pain points — women’s treatment or casual disregard from doctors as well as medicine’s lack of data and research with women’s bodies is a major one — but Criado Perez has a skilled way of hammering home exactly why the gender data gap is so dangerous everywhere, and — if it matters — not just for women. The trickle-down, trickle-sideways, trickle-fucking-everywhere effect of women’s needs and differences being omitted in virtually every sector — even products specifically and only designed for women’s use — ends up hurting absolutely everyone. And if hurting the wallet is the only way to get some people to care, she shows how it’s doing that too.
Perhaps the most alarming thing is how commonplace it all is. And how far it goes — women’s voices might be heard and taken into consideration, if those voices were even in the room. Or the building. One absence leads to another until the vacuum is of a magnitude that’s difficult to comprehend.
This seepage of the gender data gap into every facet of life is the biggest takeaway, and one that we only ignore at our own peril and a deterioration of conditions for men, women, and non-binary folks alike. The ripple effects Criado Perez identifies are ocean-big, and it’s chilling to think of how many we’re missing because, as she emphasizes again and again, the data just doesn’t exist. It’s neither sought nor examined, but the impact of its absence is immense.
One major issue that came up repeatedly was the effect of the gender data gap in work and how it’s hurting women, badly, from every direction you look at it. Women are more likely to bear the burden of additional unpaid work, whether that’s transportation, cleaning, cooking, or caring for others. It’s still work, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. Perez identifies 48 hours of work per week as the upper limit before detrimental health effects are felt, a statistic that’s been alarming me ever since (undoubtedly further adding to my stress).
On the plus side, there are positives, or at least places were the gender data gap has been identified, acknowledged, and targeted as an area of improvement and people who are trying to remedy it. I was thrilled to see my former home of Vienna, Austria picked out again and again as an example of assessing women’s data, in particular for urban planning. City planners have even created housing developments specifically geared to women’s needs — including single mothers — with apartment kitchens featuring sight lines throughout the unit, on-site grocery stores, pharmacies, and doctors’ offices, and parking only accessible via the apartment building. Not to mention Vienna’s push for increased and wider pedestrian crossings (for accommodating strollers and kids) and elevators in subway stations.
Criado Perez even points out Vienna’s own version of Leslie Knope, who identified why girls were less likely to frequent the city’s well-equipped parks (seriously, if I’d had parks and playgrounds like Vienna’s growing up… I can’t even imagine.). She increased the entrances, which boys tended to crowd around, and laid out the sporting and recreational areas differently. It changed everything for the girls.
It’s the absence of things like these — simple adjustments or designs, or ones that once implemented, create value that pays back their cost in spades — that makes life more difficult, dangerous, deadly, unhealthy, exhausting, and expensive for women in ways that men can’t or don’t comprehend. That’s the biggest message here: women are half the world, and it’s a world that more often than not pretends we don’t exist. Including women’s data changes everything.
Invisible Women; Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Caroline Criado Perez
published March 7, 2019