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Book review

  • September 2019
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
Invisible Women Book cover

Invisible Women

Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Caroline Criado Perez

Published by Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9781784742928

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

Last year I bought a pair of jeans which, I discovered, were part of the women’s collection. No big deal, they fit perfectly and the design is fabulous. The only problem is that the pockets are very small. In fact, I can’t keep my phone in them. Do you remember that first revolutionary advertisement for the iPod, “1000 songs in your pocket”? Obviously that advertisement wasn’t thought for women.

Reading the book "Invisible Women", I discovered that the pocket size issue is one of the hundreds of examples given by Caroline Criado Perez of how our world is “designed for men”. (By the way, not being able to keep your phone in your pocket doesn’t only mean lacking access to 1000 songs. It also means missing out on all the health apps that are designed to track your steps and movement assuming you carry your phone in your (male) pocket. And it also means not having your phone by you when you need to make an emergency call).

This book is a real page turner which shows how everywhere you look - from the design of public spaces to employment policies, from clinical trials to social norms - women are simply not taken into account in a world that is designed for men.

The book starts with a simple consideration: in languages that differentiate gender (like French, German, Spanish, Italian), the masculine is always the norm. Where gender is unknown or there’s a mixed group, the masculine prevails. This example sums it up: “a group of one hundred female teachers in Spanish would be referred to as ‘las profesoras’ – but as soon as you add a single male teacher, the group suddenly becomes ‘los profesores’. Such is the power of the default male.” (p. 7) Language is the first example of the overwhelming bias towards policies, systems and designs built by default for men (and most often, of course, by men). Many other telling examples in the book leave you thinking “how is that possible?”

Another example: bathrooms in public buildings have been traditionally designed assigning the same space between men and women toilets. But everyone (well, probably not) knows that you can put many more urinals than stalls in the same space. And most men probably don’t know that women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet - this accounts for the needs of pregnancy and periods, the fact that women make up the majority of elderly and disabled visiting public spaces, that they are more likely to be accompanied by children etc. The result is the common sight at the theatre of women standing in line to use the toilet, while men enjoy drinks at the bar. But it can get worse: the Barbican Centre in London recently decided to make all the bathrooms gender neutral, changing the signs for men and women toilets to “gender neutral bathrooms with urinals” and “gender neutral bathrooms with cubicles”. The obvious happened: men kept using the former (which the vast majority of women stayed away from), and now also had access to the latter. Rather than making the toilets gender neutral, they increased the provision for men and reduced it for women.

Employment policies are notoriously discriminating against women, and several accounts are well documented in the book. I highly recommend to reflect on your own workplace policies after reading the book, to make sure there’s no bias that favours men against women. A telling example from the corporate world shows how policies are often crafted without thinking about women: if a company holds a dinner event in town, booking a hotel nearby to spend the night and not worrying about drinking and driving home is a reimbursable cost, but hiring childcare – which in many societies is still overwhelmingly dependent on women - to have someone looking after the children at home isn’t.

The medical and academic fields are two painful examples of how hard the bias can hit. The lack of proper clinical trials designed to cater for the differences between male and female body is literally killing women, and slowing down the development of new drugs.

The book is not only an eye opener on how biased our society is. It is also a wonderful example of how to make data (and lots of it!) easily readable and understandable. Almost every page of the book includes some figures, percentages or other numbers; and yet, it never feels overwhelming or dry. Instead, this is a brilliant example of data-driven communication. On all accounts, read it!

Keywords

  • good read
  • gender
  • society
  • data bias