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Book Review: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez

One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even; men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all. Because when we say human, on the whole, we mean man. (From Invisible Women)

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez book cover

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019), by Caroline Criado Perez (award-winning writer and feminist campaigner) makes the case that women are systematically excluded from consideration in all aspects of life, including personally, at home, in the workplace, and in public life; to the detriment of women, but also to society. This is in large part due to our failure to collect gender-specific data as well as ‘sex-disaggregated data’ when conducting the studies and analyses that impact public policy, medical research, politics, and business.

Criado Perez lays out her argument clearly and articulately, supported by many examples. She starts with the assumption of the default male, by which she means the general acceptance that the term “human” implies “male.” This assumption dates back to our understanding of prehistoric times. Criado Perez observes that the general assumption is that men created cave paintings, even though recent evidence suggests that the majority of paintings were actually made by women.

In a more modern example, Criado Perez highlights the example of gendered languages, like Spanish, where all nouns are either male or female. In this case, a group of 100 female professors is the feminine ‘las profesoras,’ but the inclusion of a single male in the group changes this to the masculine “los profesores.”

Criado Perez presents a litany of examples of the assumption of a “generic masculine,” where the subject is considered male by default. These include emojis, scientists, stuffed animals, television characters, film roles, statues, and video game characters. The male experience is perceived as universal, while the female experience is niche, even though women make up half the global population.

Criado Perez introduces each chapter with a counter-intuitive example that grabs the reader’s attention and strengthens her case. In “Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist?” she talks about how the officials in Karlskoga, Sweden, learned a lesson about the importance of considering women when planning. In this case, a routine gendered policy review led to an unexpected outcome.

The original snow-clearing plan started with major traffic arteries and ended with pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths. Upon closer examination, planners realized that their current approach was insufficient for women. Women were more likely to walk or take public transport and their trips were often longer and followed a pattern called trip-chaining, where they made multiple stops for dropping and picking up children, caring for the elderly, and grocery shopping.

It turns out that many of the injuries during snow events were caused by pedestrians who were slipping and falling, and the majority of these pedestrians were women … traveling on pedestrian walkways and using public transportation.

To their credit, the officials considered the impact of snow-clearing on women and modified their plans to plow pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, and public transit facilities first. This had the effect of reducing their health costs. What!!

The revised priorities resulted in significantly fewer snow event-related injuries. A five-year study in Skǻne County, Sweden, determined that the estimated cost of pedestrian falls was roughly £3.2 million. In the end, the reduced health costs and improved productivity were a welcome side effect, implemented at no additional cost, with minor inconvenience to the motorists, and overall net cost savings when snow-clearing and medical costs were considered. This is but one of many similar examples where the consideration of women benefits all.

Criado Perez follows each story with related examples that are both anecdotal and data-driven. Three themes crop up repeatedly when it comes to the failure to consider women: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women.

In “Yentl Syndrome,” Criado Perez shows the failure to consider gender in medical research has consistently put women at a disadvantage when it comes to health outcomes. Women are often excluded from medical trials or when included, the results of the trials may not be disaggregated by gender. Even the presentation of specific medical issues differs by sex.

For example, because women do not often show the typical male signs of a heart attack with chest and left-arm pain, 50% of the time their symptoms are more likely to be misdiagnosed, resulting in lack of adequate treatment and increased risk of death. A 2005 study in the United States revealed that only 1 in 5 physicians across multiple specialties was aware that more women than men die from heart attacks and most of these physicians did not consider themselves effective in treating cardiovascular disease for both sexes.

Women’s unpaid (and unrecognized) care burden also adversely affects women. In “A Costless Resource to Exploit,” Criado Perez observes “The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all.” Whether they work outside the home or not, women are most often responsible for domestic chores, child-rearing, and taking care of the elderly … all unpaid activities that require significant effort, yet are not reflected in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is despite the fact that the United Nations estimated the total value of unpaid childcare services alone in the United States to be worth 3.2 trillion dollars in 2012, a significant contribution to overlook. When countries “economize,” the work does not go away, it is simply added to the unpaid burden of women.

“Gender Neutral with Urinals,” starts with a detailed explanation about the commonly understood issue of long lines for women at toilets and the less common understanding of why allocating equal space to men and women does not solve the problem.

When it comes to male violence against women, something as simple as going to the bathroom can be an issue, particularly in countries that lack equal access to facilities. Criado Perez cites the UN research that shows that “one in three women lack safe access to toilets” and Water Aid estimates that “girls and women collectively spend 97 billion hours a year finding a safe place to relieve themselves.” A study in India “found that Indian women who use fields to relieve themselves are twice as likely to face non-partner sexual violence as women with a household toilet.” Criado Perez excels at finding unanticipated connections, like the availability of facilities and violence against women.

Invisible Women is a call to action. Criado Perez makes the case that data bias is a significant contributor to society’s neglect of women’s issues. Whether you are a researcher, policymaker, or politician, you need to explicitly consider women in your work. Women have different bodies, roles, and responsibilities, as well as an underestimated contribution to the functioning of society.

Neglecting women is not just a gender issue, but a human rights issue that has implications for women’s health, the economy, politics, business, and society. Our limited gender-specific data is dwarfed by the amount that is needed. In our data-driven world, we can no longer fail to consider women.


Caroline Criado Perez on Invisible Women on YouTube (contains adult material).

Invisible Women podcast by 99% Invisible.

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