From government policy to algorithms to medical research focus — where are the women? A review of Caroline Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women’

By Felicity Neale

Thursday October 31, 2019

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The citizen-female experience has never been especially solicited during data-gathering, or later disaggregated from the data pool — because it has never even been suspected as differing from the male experience. That’s hardly fit ideology for the 21st century, argues activist and journalist Caroline Criado Perez in her new book, ‘Invisible Women’.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men is essentially a royal commission in book form. Criado Perez moves deftly through sections called Daily Life, the Work Place, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life, and When it Goes Wrong. The structure rather reminded me of Kenneth Hayne moving through the Australian states examining different sections of financial services in his royal commission. Criado Perez’s writing is fast-paced, packed with fully notated statistical data and accompanying scenarios, one story after another from different countries and economies in a cornucopia of fact and insight. If you are a public servant interested in pursuing a social policy, you could find the chapter on your topic, go to the footnotes for it at the back of the book, and use all of the sources listed there to kick off your data gathering.

In Invisible Women, Criado Perez succinctly outlines various public officials’ follow-up analyses after their highly frustrating policy and innovation failures in the sectors, countries, seasons, and economies they were governing over. Post-mortem after post-mortem revealed the citizen-female experience had never been especially solicited during data-gathering, or later disaggregated from the data pool — because it had never even been suspected as differing from the male experience. The male-citizen experience was considered universal to all humans, and so the policies had been ‘logically’ geared to the ‘universal’.

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For example, crime research in the U.S. and Sweden shows men and women respond differently to the same environmental conditions. Women are on heightened alert to danger, social disorder, graffiti, and unkempt and abandoned buildings — which men didn’t even register. Further, women pushing prams or escorting elderly dependents down footpaths that are cracked, undulating, narrow, and have randomly placed street furniture or deep and steep stairs are significantly handicapped in their doing of the unpaid social work that society leans on them to provide. These obstacle courses seriously impact many women’s mobility and their basic right to access their city — a right men take for granted.

Invisible Women does an excellent job of spending time on the women of developing and third-world economies. In one instance, we learn that although agricultural work is cited as the primary means of income for 79% of economically active women in the least developed countries and 48% of economically active women in the world, it is the menfolk whom agricultural companies talk to when selling seeds for farming. Again and again, the men of the farms opted for high-yield crops and left things at that. But the women, whose jobs are to prepare the land, weed the crops, and cook the resulting produce, recognised the high-yield crops as being overly labour-intensive in all three regards and thus taking time away from all the other things they had to do around the farm. They let the high-yield seeds sit in their sacks and carried on with the less-labour-intensive seeds. It was a colossal waste of money on inappropriate purchases, resulting from men insisting on dealing with men and having no interest in asking the women how things should proceed.

The physiological differences between women and men is covered extensively. For example, we learn that all cars are designed to fit and protect the male body, meaning that in a crash in which all other factors are equal (height, weight, seat belt usage, crash intensity), women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, 71% more moderately injured, and 17% more likely to be killed than any man. There’s also discussion of how the agricultural plough was developed for male capability only; the difference in the way women and men fall to the ground, which has implications for snow ploughing patterns; the size of piano keyboards, mobile phones, and astronauts’ clothing; and much more. A positive development comes from the Australian Defence Force, which is being proactive in giving its female personnel uniforms that fit and protect a woman’s body (almost totally different to what’s needed in male uniforms) and adapting physical metrics to match scientific reality:

“Since the Australian Army reduced the required stride length for women from 30 inches to 28 inches, pelvic stress fractures have fallen in number. The heavy load soldiers are required to carry may be aggravating the situation, as women’s stride length decreases as loads increase, while men’s stride length doesn’t show ‘significant change’.”

That’s better than how the U.S. military is managing things:

 “The US Army buys ‘different boot styles for hot and cold weather, mountain and desert weather, and the rain’. Just not for the atypical sex.”

Criado Perez is upfront on there being little-to-no data on the experiences of women at the intersection of race and femaleness. Nor is there a discussion on religion and femaleness. Both realities would need whole books of their own, I suspect.

My one criticism of the book is that it doesn’t devote any coverage to the nascent Age of Automation and AI. This age is going to revolutionise the workplace — both the paid one and the unpaid one.

In the chapters where Criado Perez analyses the invisibility of the unpaid domestic, child rearing, and care work performed by Australia’s women (valued at $345 billion in Australia in 2011), and the structuring of paid employment around what suits unencumbered men at the expense of encumbered women, there is no accounting in Invisible Women for the pending automation of most white-collar and blue-collar jobs that will see both men and women replaced by high-tech machinery, self-driving cars that probably will end up mandatory and mean future dwellings won’t include driveways/carports/garages, exoskeletons that will be so refined the elderly will be able to slip them on like a pair of pants, and robot butlers that will bring granddad his pills and a glass of water and watch him take them. That is going to change everything about the workplace and home life.

The question then becomes: will the new set-up of society take into full and purposeful account gender data analysis — or will it do what it’s always done and build a new world for men that women have to contort themselves into and around? Will the women and girls of households end up being coerced into unpaid servitude of their male partners, minors, and dependents who are milling about the house at a loss as to what to do with their day? If policy makers don’t take this inevitability into account and work out how to mould its unfolding in a manner that embraces female needs, wants, ideas, and the full range of their potential, then it’s going to unfold the way history has always unfolded — to suit 50% of the population completely, wholly, and utterly at the expense of the other 50%. That’s a discussion not covered in Invisible Women.

Criado Perez notes that women will read material produced by male authors, but men tend not to read female authors’ works. If men are not going to read material produced by women, then we need more women in positions of policy influence and other means of power. Women will have to do it for themselves (and as usual, they’ll include the men in their impact assessments).

From a political perspective, it’s disheartening to read that “U.S. analysis has found that framing human rights issues as women’s rights issues makes male politicians less likely to support legislation, and if a rights bill is mainly sponsored by women, it ends up being watered down and states are less likely to invest resources.” That is a truly ugly reality.

With regard to public service, the book demonstrates how careless survey design that makes no room for sex-disaggregation and analysis is simply failing to recognise the multiple jobs — paid and unpaid — most women complete in a single day. Nor do most surveys recognise women’s non-CBD travel patterns across outer suburbs, or their security and safety risks and concerns in any single given day. For women, life is never a survey’s simple ‘either/or’, it’s a mosaic of caring and earning for others.

Invisible Women is not a book designed to beat up men. Criado Perez makes it clear that the policy blind spots towards the needs of women do not reflect a deliberately dismissive attitude to women’s reality — it’s an oversight of needing to prioritise collection and analysis of sex-disaggregated data pertaining to a full 50.18% of the Australian population, as heard from their own mouths or their typing fingers. It’s the subconscious full acceptance of the male representing the universe of human needs — a nonsense that has no place anywhere in the world in the 21st century.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men is unique for its relentless exposure of the world robbing Peta to pay Paul.

It’s un-put-downable stuff.

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