29 May Book Review: Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
Dr. Hinson joins the fray of book reviews and adds to The Good Doctors gender themed repertoire. One of the biggest recently released books about gender is Caroline Criado Perez’s behemoth ‘Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.’ It took Dr. Hinson a good span of time and energy to get through this book, and figure out how she could possibly review it succinctly. Challenge accepted.
I first heard about Perez’s research through this article in The Guardian that summarized some of her key points. I remember reading through the article, enraged at her findings, and immediately buying the book. The basic premise is an explanation and exploration of the concept of ‘gender data bias’ and the ‘gender data gap.’ To summarize, Perez examines all the consequences – physical, emotional, financial, representational, health related – when we don’t account for women – their bodies, their biology, their health and safety, their needs.
It’s a very complicated and complex web of data, politics, cultures, and gender bias. The book asks the reader to accept a few basic premises – there is a difference between biological sex and gender and there is structural gender inequality. From those basic understandings, Perez systematically and surgically examines every possible scenario in which gender bias, and our lack of data about women, perpetuates these inequalities.
I could never do justice to all her hard work, and how she uses all the data (or in many cases lack thereof), to make her arguments, but I did choose a few statistics that help illustrate the breadth of the issues facing women.
- One of the biggest inequalities facing women is access to safe toilets. Perez writes, “According to the UN, one in three women lack access to safe toilets, and WaterAid reports that girls and women collectively spend 97 billion hours a year finding a safe place to relieve themselves” (pg 49).
- Another huge factor in gender inequality is unpaid work, usually childcare, care for the elderly, cooking and cleaning. Perez found that, “Globally, 75% of unpaid work is done by women, who spend between three and six hours per day on it compared to men’s average of thirty minutes to two hours” (pg 70). This unpaid work is also a huge loss to the economy with the UN estimating that “the total value of unpaid childcare series in the US as $3.2 trillion in 2012, or approximately 20% of GDP” (pg 242).
- Even though women are doing 75% of unpaid work, we don’t have the science to know the lasting effects of this work. Most studies that look at the impact of work and the equipment needed to perform that work use the biological data of the ‘Reference Man’ – a 25 to 30 year-old white man who weighs 150 lbs. Not only is this limiting our knowledge of men who don’t fit this reference, but it excludes women from a lot of data about health and safety. For instance, Perez cites researcher Karen Messing who writes that “there has still been no biomechanics research on the effects of breast size on lifting technique associated with back pain” (pgs 115-116).
- When we don’t take women into account, they can’t benefit from technological advancements. Perez found that Google’s speech recognition software was “70% more likely to accurately recognize male speech than female speech” and that women were invisible to early AI advancements Apple health – which didn’t have a period tracker – and Siri – which could help a person find the closest place to buy Viagara but did not know how to process the sentence ‘I was raped.’ (pgs 162 and 176).
- The lack of consideration and information about how women’s bodies are different has a huge impact on their health – from drug testing, to medications and treatment options, and access to healthcare resources. Perez found that “Women are 70% more likely to suffer depression than men, for instance, but animal studies on brain disorders are five times as likely to be done on male animals” (pg 205). With healthcare and drug companies focused on male problems and health issues, women suffer. Perez also found that Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) “affects 90% of women, but is chronically under-studied: one research round-up found five times as many studies on erectile dysfunction than on PMS” (pg 229).
When women make up close to 50% of the global population, statistics like these are as damning as they are worrying. You will notice that the excerpts I selected didn’t even cover violence against women, the gender pay gap, the leadership and mentorship gap, and representation of women in politics and public service. All of which are covered thoroughly in Perez’s book.
But the lingering question remains, what can we do about it? When the system is this expansive, when the inequality this great, how can we enact change? In her concluding statements, Perez distills our options – “we have to close the female representation gap. When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten” (pg 318).
Moving forward, here’s how I see it. We can begin to solve a lot of these problems, and close some of these gaps, and here’s what we have to do, we have to ask women, listen to women, believe women, and account for them. It sounds simple, but it’s not, especially when we’re facing a history of ingrained and systemic cultural bias and inequality. But we have to start somewhere because we cannot continue to have 1/2 of our global population be ‘invisible.’
In summary, this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I will be buying it as gifts for the rest of the year. Buy it, read it, and figure out how you can help.