Reviewed by Liz Dexter
I felt a little overwhelmed facing up to reviewing this book, as there have been many reviews published since it came out in March this year. But then, looking at those reviews, you notice something: most of them are by women. Because, inevitably it seems, this will have been ‘othered’, passed to a woman to review (I hasten to add that I freely chose to review it for my Shiny editors!), because it’s minority-interest women’s stuff, not part of the general flow of information, which is, of course, male-orientated.
The other important thing to say is that, unlike my assertion above, all of the statements made in this book are backed up with references – lots and lots of references. Because some of the claims are a little startling to say the least, and a lot of chat has been had about it, I was reassured to find that although the things Ms Criado Perez says can be shocking and seem almost unreal, she quantifies everything very carefully. She does express opinions and she brings in the odd personal note, but this could mainly be thought of as a sort of meta-analysis, studying the studies about gender data gaps in research, where there are, indeed, studies.
We all know the premise of this book by now, right? Because the world is designed for men, women end up in, variously, ill-fitting protective clothing, taking drugs that don’t work the same for them, running the risk of worse accidents because most crash-test dummies are male, and having heart attacks that no one notices because they’re not like men’s heart attacks. Oh, and there’s something about snow clearance in Scandinavia. In fact, a lot of the book is fascinatingly about urban planning and other more prosaic aspects, and all the more rich and meaningful for that. You’ll also be relieved to note that the author does offer suggestions for changes, and highlights where good work is at least being done, rather than just wailing into the abyss about the current situation.
The main premise of Criado Perez’ thesis is twofold: a) if we’re going to study things and include the entire human race, we have to accept that i) women should be studied (they aren’t, often), and ii) data should be presented segregated by gender (they aren’t, often, even if i) has applied), and b) women should be involved in the institutions, committees, etc. that make decisions on things affecting the entire human race (they aren’t, often). When she introduces this idea she does also make a stab at intersectionality, talking about race, too (and often when race is recorded, gender is not, or vice versa) although including it wholly would make this a different and even bigger book). The author also recognises class and privilege as important factors, with poorer women even more heavily affected by the issued discussed in the book. Too much of the world is run by white, older males who make the assumption that everyone experiences life as they do. The male identity has come to be seen as the universal and this “leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority” .
The book takes us through various areas of life in which data on women is not collected and the lack is not seen as relevant, covering town planning, medicine, the second shift of work within the home, disaster relief and the like. It covers worldwide issues, so, for example, we read about how relocation of people from Brazil’s favelas has left women moved way away from the public transport they use more than men, so unable to get to work, or how Swedish women turn out to have been injured more frequently when the roads rather than pavements were cleared of snow as a priority,
Alongside the risk of heart attack misdiagnosis and crash-test dummies that made the headlines when this book came out, there are more prosaic notions: did you realise that the standard office temperature is based around the metabolic resting rate of the average 40 year old 70kg man, and it’s only recently that data has been collected showing it may overestimate female metabolic rates by as much as 35%, leading to those shivering woman and shirt-sleeved men found in many offices? There’s a lot about farming and cooking in poor rural families, too, with the introduction of a new kind of stove not being taken up because women were not consulted, even though they do all the cooking, and are most affected by the pollution from traditional stoves. And tax gets a big section, with an investigation of just who has profited from and who has been devastated by the UK’s austerity measures (you can probably guess by now). Disaster relief isn’t that foregrounded in the news or discussed, but she carefully highlights how cultural issues mean that, for example, women in places where they are traditionally in the home rather than out and about won’t hear cyclone and flood warnings and will rely on a man to come and fetch them to a shelter – which is often built as a mixed-sex space that is not suitable for them.
There are positives drawn where there can be. For example, when Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, became pregnant and realised she needed to be able to park nearer her building, the data gap was closed immediately (because she was COO, recognising her privilege there) and pregnant women were given reserved parking. To go down the socioeconomic scale a little, when women were consulted on new stoves, studies in Africa have shown a greater take-up by women who are now safer as a result. The author does claim, in a rare personal paragraph discussing the barrage of abuse she has had as a woman making claims for women’s place publicly, that if you can handle the threats and backlash you should, asserting that as it’s based on fear:
This fear will not dissipate until we fill in that cultural gender data gap, and, as a consequence, men no longer grow up seeing the public sphere as their rightful domain. So, to a certain extent, it is an ordeal that our generation of women needs to go through in order that the women who come after us don’t.
I’m not sure, unfortunately, that this isn’t wishful thinking.
This is an angry book, as it should be, but the anger is contained for the most part and channelled through facts and stats. It has to be, of course, lest it be labelled as hysterical and ignored. There’s also a lot in this book about pianos, phones, voice recognition and personal protective equipment, the effects of resistance training on blood pressure and how the global economic crash has impacted women more than men, quotas in politics and more. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy, and particularly if you are unsure that the assertions discussed here (all drawn from the book) and in the book itself could possibly be based on fact and research, I heartily suggest you give it a read.
Liz Dexter is hopefully not entirely invisible, as she blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Chatto & Windus, 2019). 978-1784741723, 411 pp. HardbackBUY from Blackwell’s via affiliate link.