Review: Invisible Women
Exposing data bias in a world designed for men
Caroline Criado Perez (2019)
Invisible Women is a litany of complaint about how ignoring the needs and wants of women is ubiquitous, from basic scientific and market research to policy planning and government decisions. It’s also robustly evidenced, surprisingly readable,1 and long overdue.
The point of the book is simple to sum up: humanity is perceived as being male by default, and this means women’s needs are not looked for or seen. Whether it’s assuming that work means driving off to work in the morning, spending the day at the office, and then driving home in the evening, or assuming that female bodies behave like smaller, lighter male bodies in car crashes, the fact that half of the population has been treated as an irrelevant afterthought is fairly astounding.2
The book offers numerous examples of areas in which women’s experiences are sidelined. The measure of GDP, for example, doesn’t take housework or non-professional caring work (both predominantly done by women) into account, despite their meeting most reasonable definitions of ‘work’. This point is also made by Doughnut Economics. Women rely far more heavily than men on public transport and walking, so transport networks and snow-clearing schedules designed around car travel disproportionately disadvantage women. There’s some evidence to suggest that drugs and other medical treatments can have different effects in different hormonal environments,3 and clothing, including safety gear, is often fitted for male as opposed to female body shapes. The list goes on.
It’s an important point, made occasionally in the book (including in the preface), that the vast majority of these issues are to do with sociocultural rather than biological differences.4 Women are perceived as different, and socialised to behave differently, and it is predominantly these factors which both produce the overlooked differences and account for their being overlooked. Women are taught to be silent, and then ignored because they are.5
The examples are both highly varied and highly specific. Sometimes this has the desired effect of painting a picture of a pervasive problem which surfaces anywhere it’s sought. At other times, it feels a bit like patchwork: as if a handful of carefully selected examples have been cherrypicked to provide a misleading impression. This is likely an artefact of style rather than substance, however: one gets the impression that similar evidence would be available in comparable countries/areas/disciplines, and the lack of data on the data gap is a product of the data gap itself.
It is perhaps arguable that the focus on gender is unhelpful, and that the data gap is better conceptualised along a different axis, perhaps individual power or cultural prominence, but subtleties like that already conceed the major point that a substantial data gap exists which it is in our collective interest to address.
Invisible Women is only important to read until you’re sufficiently persuaded by the argument to consider how your work could be adjusted to address the data gap. If that’s the subtitle, then fair enough. If it’s the whole book and a black hole of under-the-line comments all over the internet… okay. But for those who make key decisions,6 especially, the point should carry that we need better data collection.
I say ‘suprisingly’ because the book is pretty much a torrent of facts loosely corralled into various arms of an argument. ↩
One of the book’s strengths is its ability to make this astounding, even though it’s widely accepted, at least in my circles, that this is the case. ↩
This is one among several areas which slower science can help to address. The slow science movement aims to provide more thorough and robust scientific knowledge produced by scientists with greater wellbeing, albeit at the cost of reducing many of the metrics by which science is measured (such as the rate at which academic papers are published). ↩
The issue of whether there are meaningful biological differences between male and female brains is a much-debated point in psychology and neuroscience. It’s also largely beside the point: even if differences can be shown to be due to biological category membership, the decisions about whether we respect and value people equally or not on the basis of those categories is up to us, collectively. ↩
It is for this reason, among others, that complaints about the book being ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’, and the like (and there have been those complaints) are deeply problematic. As both the sufragists and the sufragettes knew, being polite and amenable has a poor track record for securing the rights of the marginalised. ↩
Tracy King successfully organised a Kickstarter campaign to provide every serving MP in the House of Commons with a copy of the book. ↩