‘Invisible Women’: a mind-blowing exposure of a male-centred world (review)

Date Posted: Monday 27th January 2020

Feminist Economics Book Club

dataFeminist Economics book clubgender data gapgender equalityPolicy

A book review of:

Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Caroline Criado-Perez, 2019.

Publisher: Chatto and Windus

by Fatma Ibrahim

No matter how well-aware you think you are about the state of gender inequality Invisible Women will still shock you and the revelations in this book will probably leave a foul after-taste in your mouth. Your perception of the world will probably not be the same ever again, and you would look at things like mobile phones, musical instruments, car seats and even medical drugs in a whole new way!

The first impression about the book is that it is brilliantly written, very informative and utterly enjoyable. In the introduction chapter ‘The Default Male’ Criado-Perez sets the scene very nicely by explaining that there exists a data gap in relation to almost every aspect of our lives; the fundamental reason for this gap is that, in a world that is ‘almost exclusively male’ men see their perspectives, views and reality as the ultimate truth, and therefore everything is designed according to the male default. Criado-Perez moves on to provide a very interesting and widely informative set of examples of gender-biased data in history, art, literature, economy and technology which all contribute to the disadvantages of women and have a significant impact on women’s daily lives. For instance, did you know that car-crash dummies are designed based on the average male’s weight and height and that seatbelts are not designed for pregnant women? The book prompts the reader to be more analytical and critical of what we consider as objective knowledge and how this knowledge affects different groups in society… Or even half of humanity!

Criado-Perez’s depth of analysis is quite impressive; in chapter one entitled ‘Can snow-clearing be sexist?’ the author adopts an enlightening approach on snow-clearing schedules, which seem a priori gender-neutral, and how they affect women’s health – analysing men’s and women’s travel habits and patterns in France, the US and the UK among others. The figures show that women are more likely to walk or use public transport than men, who are more likely to drive (for instance, two-thirds of public transport users in France are women). Men are also reported to have a ‘simple travel pattern’ as they generally commute only twice a day, while women are more likely to travel several times – what Criado-Perez refers to as ‘trip-chaining’. This is due to the additional burden of unpaid household work that falls on women, such as doing the school run, grocery shopping, or caring for an elderly family member. Criado-Perez gives the example of London where women are three times more likely to take children to school than men. Snow-clearing is predominantly planned for business areas rather than residential areas or around nurseries for example and, as a result, women are more likely to suffer falls and injuries on slippery surfaces.

The book also challenges the narrow but widely-accepted notion that gender inequality is only due to direct denial of access to opportunities for women, based on their gender. According to the author, the wider problem is one of a lack of gender-balanced data, which translates into bad design decisions and makes women’s existence in the public sphere more difficult. For example, Criado-Perez points out that according to UN statistics, one in three women around the world lacks access to safe toilets, and quotes a WaterAid report stating that women and girls around the world ‘spend 97 billion hours a year finding a safe place to relieve themselves’. Even in so-called ‘gender-neutral toilet spaces’ where space is allegedly equally divided, the number of users that can simultaneously use male toilets is significantly higher than in female toilets, due to the smaller size of urinals. This also neglects women’s natural needs which increase notably during their monthly period or during pregnancy.

Another extraordinary chapter that discusses a very important aspect of women’s lives is chapter 12, entitled ‘A costless resource to exploit’, discussing unpaid household work which is widely accepted as a woman’s job. Criado-Perez puts women’s unpaid work in relation to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and argues that the failure to calculate these services in GDP for the sake of ‘simplicity’ – as care and domestic work is arguably complicated to calculate – is ‘the greatest data gap of all’. Ignoring women’s unpaid contribution to GDP is leading to forming policies that contribute to the worsening of women’s situation. For example, according to the Women’s Budget Group calculation, the most recent tax and benefit reforms in the UK are negatively affecting women the most, and one of the most affected demographics are single mothers. One of the reasons for this is the neglect of things like investment in childcare and promotion of work flexibility for all, which leave many women and especially single mothers unable to earn a living and care for their children. This is a stark result of policies not being adequately designed to take into account unpaid care responsibilities.

Failure to measure women’s unpaid domestic work is not only affecting women but also the economy as a whole and the success of policy reforms that look to improve women’s lives. Indeed, many gender equality development projects neglect the extra informal workload endured by women, who therefore end up missing these programme workshops because they are scheduled at times when women have to take care of their children or cook dinner, for example.

This book was very easy to read, I would go on page after page smoothly, and no dictionary time had to interrupt my reading. As an academic, I believe it is vital for authors to deliver their message in the simplest, most accessible words to reach the widest audience. Knowledge should be accessible for everyone who is willing to obtain it, especially for such fundamental concepts as the ones detailed in this book, and the author brilliantly succeeds in doing so.

Criado-Perez’s book is an eye-opener: it provides a very well-documented analysis on the gender data gap and how it affects many aspects of women’s everyday lives, including transport, medical research and drug tests, even smartphone design and human rights initiatives. This in-depth analysis could be very useful for policymakers when developing future policy reforms in relation to gender equity. I have always felt that there had to be a general concept that encompasses and explains the cause of every gender-related inequality I have witnessed, but I could not pinpoint it; could it be coincidental?, I would wonder. I am now confident that the answer lies in this book: that general concept is none other than the gender data gap.

About the reviewer:
Fatma Ibrahim is a PhD candidate at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. Current research focuses on the connection between money management strategies and wellbeing in vulnerable populations, particularly refugee women.