Invisible Women

Beth King reviews Caroline Criado Perez's book, Invisible Women, exposing the data bias in world designed for men.

Caroline Criado Perez begins her guide through the female-sized holes in everyday data with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.” This is the concept termed by Criado Perez as “the default male” and she claims it is the reason for half of humanity being left out of the equation, through history and today.

It’s the reason the bones of a Viking skeleton, clearly identified as female, were vehemently mislabeled male for over 100 years because they were found buried with a full set of weapons in a warrior’s tomb. It’s the reason that protective clothing, military equipment, cars, medicine, phones, bathrooms, and even pianos are designed to work most effectively for the biologically male body. Of course, some of these matter more than others: even though men are more likely to be involved in car accidents, when a woman is in an accident, she is 17% more likely to die; whilst female pianists with smaller hands simply find it more difficult to play music written by men with bigger hands. Criado Perez does not accuse the culprits of sexism, instead she blames the societal mind-set of the “male default” and the lack of sex-disaggregated data that is available to show the changes that need to be made. This is the first take-away of Invisible Women: if you’re collecting data, separate it by sex.

Criado Perez breaks her argument into three main themes: the lack of consideration for the biologically female body (in terms of design); male sexual violence against women; and the unpaid care work (as of 2015, 75% of global care work is done by women). Within these three broad topics, she tracks the varying degrees of injustices affecting aspects of all women’s lives, and how they can be improved with evidence-based solutions. The book explores and exposes the ways in which the biologically female body is routinely ignored on the grounds that it is too complicated or unreliable: it is not the default. The majority of the data is overwhelming and it feels unbelievable that appropriate changes have not been made and the attitude of My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins (“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”) persists.

However, the book’s medical section has its problems. Although topics like heart disease and drug testing are approached by with care, after a brief acknowledgement of the complexity she moves onto condemning researchers for seeming to ignore the obvious and known differences in male and female bodies. Similarly, the issue of trans rights is slightly skirted around. In the introduction, Criado Perez makes the distinction between sex and gender clear: sex is biological, gender is social, “one is man-made, but both are real”, but then does not mention this distinction again in the book. This has understandably prompted criticism. It is disappointing to not see a more complex level of discussion of trans rights in the book, in my view this failure does not invalidate her argument over the problems of the societal male-default. While there is a need for further intersectionality, the emphasis of the book is on women (who, obviously, make up half the population) being treated as an atypical minority. So, even an attack from this marginally limited angle on the faults of the current patriarchal system can only be some degree of progress, and the further consciousness and research that the book demands on gender issues will, if undertaken, lead to wider benefits for all.

Many of the problems Criado Perez describes have been around for generations but due to a lack of data and feminist investigation, it is only now becoming clear that they are partly due to endemic sexism in data: for example the gendered impacts of tax systems. However, even more terrifyingly, she preempts new problems likely to increase, such as the tech algorithm that hires more men and so will “blindly perpetuate old injustices”. We only know that this is a problem because of one company which released its data: these hidden biases will become increasingly difficult to spot as the algorithms which create them are put into wider use without scrutiny.

While the book is packed with supporting data and statistics (leading to 100 pages of beautiful endnotes!), it is by no means a dull read. Criado Perez’s dry, sarcastic sense of humour seeps through: one of my favourite moments (especially as a Classicist) is in the chapter on the “Yentl Syndrome”, in which she writes that “Instead of believing women when they say they’re in pain, we tend to label them as mad. And who can blame us? Bitches be crazy, as Plato famously said.” Invisible Women exposes, with overwhelming evidence, the countless effects of the gender data gap on women, covering everything from the shocking, life-threatening impacts to the small, every-day inconveniences. I cannot recommend it enough.