Book Review: Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men.
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Book Author Caroline Criado Perez
I was initially attracted to this book after recently experienced some sexist language which, understandably, really got my back up. The shop assistant in Waterstones also delivered a great sales pitch arguing that it was a really insightful read, and she was not wrong.
The basis of the book is about how decisions that are made in all walks of life to accommodate the average human are predominantly based on data collected about men and that a ‘Gender Data Gap’, a phrase I had not heard before, exists in relation to women. Consequently, the world, in so many ways including architecture, town planning, medicine, park planning, car design does not fit the needs of 50% of the population. For example, car seats and seat belts have been designed with a man’s body in mind and so, consequently, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% more likely to be moderately injured than a man when involved in a crash. Voice controls such as Google Assist and Siri work better for men, because they are designed based on understanding the “average voice”; yup - a man’s voice. I often wondered why Google Assist doesn’t return positive results for me – it turns out I just need to put on a deeper voice by going down a few octaves.
Another interesting section reveals how medicines are predominantly tested on male subjects because women are considered more complicated subjects to test on because we have more of those, what are they called? Oh yeah, hormones and periods which mess with lab experiments. As a result, the female species is considered to be not consistent enough for drug trials even though we will often be the end user of those medicines. This can then result in drugs not working for women in the same way they work for men particularly given men generally have bigger bodies than women.
The book, however, is not 320 pages of man-hating. It provides a well-researched insight into what happens when women are not included both in the collection and the analysis of data. Often, women are not left out deliberately, but rather ignorantly and absent mindedly. There is a great anecdote about Sheryl Sangberg who, after waddling across the Google campus car park whilst heavily pregnant in 2014, said to one of the founders, Sergey Brin, that they need to install priority parking for pregnant women at the front of the office so that they don't have to walk so far. This was of course agreed and implemented straight away. It wasn't a case of the senior male staff not wanting to do this in the first place, it was just not something that had been previously considered because being heavily pregnant and walking across a campus carpark was not something that male decision makers have ever experienced themselves. It took a senior female leader to raise this for a change to be implemented.
The book is at times rather heavy on figures, dates and percentages, so I found it took me quite a while to read as I am not used to consuming such data heavy content. Personally, I preferred the more anecdotal elements of the book such as how Sweden’s snowploughing procedures were sexist (you’ll have to read the book to find the story behind that one). There were also a few issues raised which I thought would prove problematic to anyone who wasn’t a white, rich, middle class male and not just women but, nevertheless, this book provides valuable insights.
I would recommend reading this book, particularly if you are a leader, work in recruitment or are a parent regardless of your children’s gender. Parts of this book are shocking, upsetting and angering but it is also educational and sheds light on where and how women have been forgotten, at times, with life-threatening consequences. It can help its readers be more aware, inclusive and to take action to close the gender data gap.
“One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even: men go without saying and women don’t get a said at all. Because when we say human, on the whole we mean man”