Analysing and discussing the gender data gaps across employment, transport, car manufacturing, homes, medicine, academic research, and more, in her book Invisible Women: Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez came to the conclusion that there are three themes that define women’s relationship with the world at large.
First, the seeming invisibility of the female body and how that invisibility can result in architectural, technological, and medical design which fails to accommodate the needs of women. This can result in prescription of medication that hasn’t been tested on female subjects or failing to account for sex-differences in illness markers, car design which fails to consider the differing positioning of male and female bodies when in the driver’s seat, or job conditions that are not hospitable or are downright unhealthy and unsafe for female bodies.
Second, the hyper-visibility of the female body, and the fact that women are more vulnerable to experiencing violence from men than men are from women.
And finally, the trend of women being more likely to undertake unpaid care work. That work needs to get done. But it is undervalued, frequently unseen, and gets in the way of women being able to participate in the paid workforce at the same rate as men (even men who have children).
Criado Perez explores the myriad structures and contexts in which women are not noticed or counted, and how they can make women sicker, more likely to die or get injured, unable to gain or maintain paid employment, more reliant on public transport, less likely or able to pursue a profession in the public eye (including politics), and waste precious time yet again in the interminable line for the bathroom.
The book flags the idea that what we know about and for women is often unquantifiable (after all, we don’t know how big the problem is if we aren’t collecting data on it). We do know that ignoring the fact that there are differences in the way that men and women work, get sick, travel, raise a family, feel differences in temperature, experience basic reproductive and biological processes, get injured, and are perceived and reacted to by society and the media, means we ignore a wealth of information that could inform and improve society as a whole for women and for men.
Decisions made from good data are more likely to be sustained. Initiatives and policies can fail when they are based on faulty or missing data, and society as a whole suffers, but women are more likely to take the brunt of this failure as women typically undertake more of the invisible work (childcare, elder care, domestic work) underpinning society.
I’ve now read this book twice. The first time I read it, I was angry. I am lucky to be a white, relatively well-off woman with a supportive social network, a job I love (as a domestic violence counsellor), and access to sufficient resources, in a developed country. I wasn’t angry for me. I was angry for all the women across the world who had and who have less than me and are exposed to unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary conditions.
At least one person in my life (who has more knowledge of data analysis and statistics than I have, and whom I know to also be concerned for women’s rights) remonstrated with me that some of Criado-Perez’s comments and conclusions were hasty and inaccurate. I don’t feel qualified to judge on that.
But the second time I read this book, I felt better able to absorb its content without being blinded by frustration and injustice. I’m still angry, but I feel better able to put my feelings into perspective. I feel more hopeful. More hard conversations about the world are happening.The media is putting out more stories about women, written by women, and for women. We are starting to crack open the door and let in some of the light.
When I finished this book — the second time — it didn’t feel like an ending to me. It felt like the beginning. The beginning of a new enlightenment or renaissance where we start to explore more women’s stories, stories of people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and stories of people of who identify as gender and sexually diverse. All stories matter.
In a culture that seeks to become more individualistic, commercialised, and privileges instant gratification, hearing diverse stories and voices is a way to rediscover empathy, connection, and our common humanity.