Invisible women in a man’s world

Review of Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez

I came to this book feeling that I understood the nature of being a woman living in a man’s world. Any woman who has travelled on the London tube, as I have, will have stories of flashers and gropers. I was once asked at an interview by a fellow applicant if I was the token woman, and when I worked in the Civil Service, I found out that one of my boss’s selection criteria for female staff was a generous bosom.

I thought that, as a woman and mother, I understood the nature of the advantages that men continue to have in our society today. I was wrong. Criado Perez’s arguments and examples are original and shocking and opened my eyes to the way the world is designed for the ease of men, but not of women.

However, it’s not about a patriarchal society deliberately creating a world where women are disadvantaged: it’s about a patriarchal society in which women are simply invisible, their different needs go unnoticed, and they pay a tremendous price.

Every chapter contained a revelation and a moment of recognition for me. Criado Perez looks at the way women have been ignored in public policy and asks so many pertinent questions.

Why is transport designed for commuters but not for women’s needs for local connectivity when they are the main users? Why are public toilets being closed when women need them for their children, the elderly they care for and for themselves when they are menstruating.

Design: why do we have to put up with awkward driving positions and seatbelts which don’t fit, and then produce higher rates of death for women in car accidents? Why are phones designed to be too big for women’s hands? 

Medicine is a particularly important issue dealt with in the book. Why do I take the same dosage of medicine as my husband when he is 50% larger than me?

Well, as Criado Perez argues, it is because research is always done on males – even the lab animals are male. Why? Because male is seen as the norm and because the female body has too many variables it is seen as somehow aberrant.

Even on the rare occasions when research is carried out on both men and women, usually with women woefully under-represented, the data is not disaggregated on a gender basis so no lessons can be learned. This lack of research is costing women’s lives.

Women are currently dying from heart attacks because only 1 in 8 will present with crushing chest pain – the ‘Hollywood heart attack’. They are more likely to have stomach pain or pain in the shoulder and because of this their symptoms can be dismissed in A&E because they are seen as atypical – for men.

Criado Perez uses a wealth of data to support her argument with clear and useful footnotes. This book is important to read on a personal level because it allows women to reconsider their treatment and see that things could be different. It is also important to help women to act politically, to demand change.

Nicola Sturgeon describes the book as “Revelatory” and states that, “It should be required reading for policy and decision makers everywhere.”

This is not a book which is attacking a male conspiracy to control women’s lives, it’s about revealing the casual assumption that what is good for men is good for women. Perez effectively argues that women are not smaller versions of men – we are different, and those differences need to be made explicit through the collection and analysis of data. 

According to the International Peace Institute of New York, there is compelling evidence that where women are excluded from power, those societies are less likely to be peaceful.

As Perez says, “Closing the gender data gap really is better for everyone.”