‘Don’t be woman-blind because perspective does matter’ seems to be the main premise of the book Invisible Women-Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Written by Caroline Criado Perez and released earlier in 2019, it shines a light on the lack of data collected about women which results in products and services that serve women’s needs poorly, if at all.
She calls this paucity of data ‘the gender data gap’ and in her six-part book examines the ways in which that data gap negatively affects the lives of women. Those parts are; daily life, the workplace, design, going to the doctor, public life and when it goes wrong (about war and natural disasters).
In each part, made up of two to four chapters, Criado Perez delves into instances where women just weren’t considered or consulted in the planning process. One of particular interest to data professionals would be the voice activation features in some modern cars. Apparently, the software in some vehicles was only trained on male voices resulting in cars that do not respond to their female owners unless they put a lot more bass into their commands.
While this is no doubt inconvenient, another automotive-related issue in which the lack of consideration of women actually puts our lives in danger. This is vehicle safety testing. “When a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man. She is also 17% more likely to die.” The author goes into the anatomical and physiological differences between male and female bodies and states that “cars have been designed using car-crash test dummies based on the ‘average’ male.”
The author has highlighted the poor design of refugee camps and emergency shelters that do not take into account the need for women to have separate sleeping arrangements or well-lit and secure access to toilets. This has led to women not eating or drinking to avoid using the bathroom, so great is their fear of attack.
Criado Perez also delves into economics and the concept of GDP which excludes of the contribution made to the strength of an economy by cooking, cleaning, childcare and eldercare and other unpaid household work. She wrote: “Excluding women does warp the figures. The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP of in high-income countries, and as much as 80% of GDP in low-income countries.”
From the tax system to medical trials to architecture and transport planning to oven design Criado Perez illustrates real-world examples of data gaps that lead to negative outcomes for women. And each chapter ends with a call to action. One is: train doctors to listen to women and not dismiss them as hysterical liars. Another is: design personal protective equipment that such as body armour that actually fits women’s bodies and accommodates for breasts, hips and shorter stature. A third is to implement an evidence-based electoral system that is designed to ensure that a diverse group of people is in the room when creating laws for all of us.
There is a nod to intersectionality as Criado Perez recognises that the term ‘women’ is not a monolithic category encompassing people who experience the world in the same way. She mentions the appalling maternal mortality rates among black women in the US and their high likelihood of having severe pregnancy complications and emergency caesarean sections compared to white women.
This was to illustrate the need for more treatments for weak contractions. Currently, there is one while there are 50 for heart failure. Perhaps it was beyond the scope of this book, but I would have liked to have seen some reference to the lack of data and therefore lack of provision of services for disabled women and those who are part of the LGBTQ community. But on the whole, this book is comprehensive, well researched and thoroughly referenced with copious endnotes.
What this book made me do was shift my perspective. Everything product, service and process we use has been designed by someone to be used in a certain way and often I’m not the person in mind during the design process. Before my first time moderating a panel, I had to have the box for my lapel microphone attached to my bra because the dress I wore had no pockets. The mic is designed for people with pockets. Pockets are features that are seen as an added extra rather than essential on women’s clothing.
“When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten. Females lives and perspectives are brought out of the shadows,” Criado Perez wrote. This book is encouraging more people to flick the switch.