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Is being an invisible woman life threatening?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

While the pandemic rages on, Some Notes From A Broad will give you a range of posts, including the usual monthly round-up of recommendations of what to watch and read. If a subject feels suitable for the blog and the crisis at hand, I’ll consider covering it, but it can’t all be Covid-related.

There’s only so much a person can take in a day on the subject of the virus. Everyone is worried and anxious, and we’re all following the pandemic through news and social, but we also need to have a break. If you want a perspective on how you may be feeling, the Broad recommends this interview with David Kessler who says we’re feeling a kind of future grief.

We have to pace ourselves through this and to take care of our state of mind. Without wanting to appear like the blog is ignoring the state of the world, it will continue to cover books, TV and cultural things of interest as a small breather from reality.

This week is a more detailed look at the Broad’s new favourite non-fiction read at the moment. It’s probably a good thing I’m in lockdown or I’d be talking to everyone about why they need to know about this book.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez is an amazing book. I mentioned this book on the blog a few weeks back and I’m devoting an entire post to it now that I’ve read a substantial amount of it because it’s that important. 

Caroline Criado Perez is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and feminist campaigner, who won the 2013 Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award and was named OBE in 2015. This remarkable book begins with this wonderful quote from the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir that sets the scene and explains the premise of the book.

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”

The iconic feminist de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, a singular contribution to feminist scholarship. The book, which was published in 1949, is one of the most important twentieth century feminist philosophical works to critique patriarchy and the social, political and religious categories used to justify women’s inferior status.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/

This situates Invisible Women in that feminist project which has examined the way women have been defined as ‘other’ and the secondary position to the dominant male position. Think of the linguistic secondary that once accounted for woman in the single definer ‘man’ and later ‘human’. Think that it doesn’t still have currency? Why does women’s sport have the ‘W’ definer, but men’s doesn’t need the ‘M’ definer? Because the male is the default position and the female is defined in relation to, and necessarily different from, the dominant position in language, and society broadly.

This detailed book sets out to demonstrate how the singular, dominant position, which is man’s, overlooks, discounts, ignores and makes invisible that which is woman’s, from the design of toilets and public transport systems to hiring practices and the structure of work itself. And what backs up these decisions, designs, arguments, justifications, policies and processes? It’s data, but the data which hides women’s equal but different experience and assumes the man’s as the universal.

Feminist theory and Invisible Women

The Broad studied feminist theory in her communications degree at university so the basic premise of this book comes as no surprise. But what’s remarkable is that 25 years later so many of the issues still exist and indeed we now have the feminist scholarship and research to show how data bias operates. And this book shows the need to dissect the data, or sex disaggregate the data as they call it in research. Doing this reveals the bias, and the discrimination and inequality that gets built into the systems and processes as a result of not taking into account women as distinct from men.

Ever heard of the phrase ‘the personal is political’? It was the rallying cry of Second Wave feminists in the 1960s, and for good reason. It referred to the way domestic and household structures and roles explain the larger societal systems that value roles and job held by males as higher then the ones done by women. For the Broad, the awareness of sex bias was evident in the households she saw growing up. It was seeing boys who had desks built into their rooms for study, but not their sisters. It was seeing girls given multiple household jobs of ironing, cooking and cleaning and brothers with one higher value outdoor jos like lawn mowing. It was witnessing mothers making lunches for working sons, but not daughters still at school. Boys encouraged and expected to go to university, while sisters expected to get a job after school with little or no thought of higher education or training. Brothers who didn’t grow up being taught to cook, clean and not expected to take part in grocery shopping.

It might sound like it’s cause for another depressing sigh at the state of the world today. (And the Broad has often had to put down the book and think of an example presented or reflect on the experiences of her own life.) But these books are essential to the ongoing project of deconstructing, and hopefully dismantling, patriarchal systems that don’t properly take into account the lives and experiences of half the world’s population. And then endeavouring to take this knowledge and use it for designing systems and processes that understand women as different but equal to men.

The daily life examples of data bias

Here are a few examples the book presents of how data can hide bias, but when separated for the differences between men and women, reveal and reduce that bias from workplaces, public life and society. When snow clearing in Sweden changed from roads first to footpaths first, the number and cost of injuries from falls went down and, as women as more likely than men to walk, it had a directly positive impact on them.

Ever spent the entire intermission of a show in the line for the loo? Only to be told women take too long in the toilet? It’s a problem by design, not gender, because women take longer in toilets by biology, men have urinals that allow more toilet facilities in a fixed space and women are statistically more likely to have children or older people with them in bathrooms adding to time and numbers in the toilets. If this data was fed into building design, toilets for women would be given a larger footprint than male toilets to accommodate all this.

Or what about the thorny issue of meritocracy? You know, the ‘we don’t need quotas’ and ‘we hire on merit’ line. Except that studies consistently show unconscious bias is real. Here’s just one example: when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra started blind auditions the number of women musicians hired went from 0% to 10% over a decade.

Then there’s the one-size-fits-man design approach that calculated the average handspan on, you guessed it, a male hand. So pianos, smartphones, guitars and other objects are created for the male as default – meaning they are often not the right fit for women to use without straining or stretching. What about safe levels of radiation and chemicals based on the male body as default? Car parks, building and transport turn-styles designed for a narrow single figure, like a male, not a pregnant woman or woman navigating it with small children. Tech products for women that get less backing in start-up and VC funding because they’re deemed ‘niche’ which is that they’re suitable for a maximum of half of the population and investors are largely males who don’t understand or see the value of tech designed just for women.

Then there are the really life-threatening examples Criado Perez has collected in the book. Crash test dummies and seatbelts designed on the male body that don’t give women the same protections as men. The lack of sex-specific medical data to properly understand and treat conditions when they happen with women, from heart attacks to obesity. Yep, women don’t even have heart attacks the same way male bodies do. Think about it. The data bias is, at best, a troublesome inconvenience and, at worst life, threatening.

Try the podcast

Now if you don’t have time to read the book, but want a little more detail, there’s no shortage of articles on Invisible Women and Caroline Criado Perez. And here’s that conversation between exAustralian PM Julia Gillard and Criado Perez from her Podcast Of One’s Own for the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. In each episode, exPM Gilliard interviews a woman about her professional life and the lessons she has learned, the obstacles and challenges as well as the insights gained in her endeavors. And here’s an article about Criado Perez’s dog played a vital role in her campaigns for women’s recognition.

Caroline Criado Perez with Julia Gillard and puppy.

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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