“Most of recorded human history is one big data gap.”
By that, author Caroline Criado Perez is referring to gender data gaps in particular: to the “silences” that are everywhere in a world where the lives of men are oft seen as representing all of humanity while those of the other half of the population are still, in many ways, “an absent presence.”
Her new book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, shows how a lack of representation trickles down into decisions that affect everyday life – from the size of smartphones and piano keyboards (which are designed for the male hand), to public transit planning and chilly office temperatures.
This gender data gap “harms women,” she writes. “In urban planning, politics, the workplace. It is also about what happens to women living in a world built on male data when things go wrong. When they get sick. When they lose their home in a flood. When they have to flee that home because of war.”
The gap she describes runs through history, resulting in an absence of women as statues of historical figures, in street names or banknotes and in school textbooks. She describes a 10th century Viking warrior, unearthed with a full set of weapons, who was for decades viewed as being male even though the skeleton is clearly female.
These absences and oversights – although generally not deliberate nor malicious – persist today. In March, NASA cancelled its first-ever, all-female spacewalk, in part because the agency did not have enough spacesuits ready that fit the female astronauts. Instead of a historic moment that could have been a shining example of possibility for girls, one of the two women on the mission gave up her place to a male colleague.
The cancellation sparked a broader debate about inclusion in the workplace, and how everything from ill-fitting uniforms to heavy-to-open doors reflect planning and designs that fail to take women’s bodies into account. “I work in an ambulance, where everything from the driver’s seat to the latch on the cot is made for your average sized man,” one Canadian woman said on Twitter. “I know this intimately and felt an angry pit of experiential empathy in my stomach when I heard about this spacewalk cancellation.”
It’s an enraging and illuminating read. Some instances reflect daily irritations that women experience in their lives. But many of the book’s examples are literally of life and death. Once you learn of these examples, you can’t unsee them. More instances pop up everywhere, all the time. Unnecessarily long lineups for women’s washrooms. Poorly lit bus stops. Shelves that are too high, pockets that are too shallow.
Criado Perez is a London-based writer, broadcaster and feminist campaigner. She has a degree from the University of Oxford and studied behavioural and feminist economics at the London School of Economics. Her work is suffused with evidence – she cites hundreds of studies, with 69 pages of footnotes.
She’s part of a wave of feminist writers helping to reshape perceptions and challenge norms – among them, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, a book about the “revolutionary power” of women’s anger, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, and Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewed, a collection of essays on feminist issues that is both moving and wonderfully witty (see her commencement speech).
There’s a hopeful conclusion to Criado Perez’s book. When women are included in decision-making – from corporate boardrooms to city councils to funded research – it’s not just the women who benefit. She tells the story of Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician who had the idea of literally crocheting hyperbolic planes (a geometric term for a surface in which space curves away from itself, like a negative curve). Her creations helped illuminate how these planes look and are now standards for explaining hyperbolic space.
Here are some examples of the real-world effects of the gender data gap.
Men are more likely to be involved in car accidents. But when a woman is in a crash, she is 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured than a man (even after controlling for factors such as height and weight) – and 17 per cent more likely to die. It turns out, cars have long been tested using car-crash test dummies based on the “average” male – especially in drivers’ seats, Criado Perez writes (when female dummies are used, she adds, in many cases they’re just scaled-down versions of male dummies, despite physiological differences between male and female bodies). Female drivers have to sit further forward so their feet can reach the pedals, and in a more upright position to see over the dashboard. This puts women at greater risk of internal injuries in frontal collisions. And even though car accidents are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma, “we haven’t even yet developed a seat belt that works for pregnant women.”
Workplace health and safety
“Imagine going to a work site only to find that your hard hat is so large that it slips off your head, or that the fall arrest harness doesn’t fit your body correctly,” the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety said in a newsletter last year. “As more women are entering construction, they are discovering that the personal protective equipment available doesn’t always fit them.” From ill-fitting reinforced boots to bullet-proof vests and military gear, many tools and pieces of equipment – especially in traditionally male-dominated sectors, are designed without taking into account the differences between male and female bodies. This is leading to injuries and fatalities (Criado Perez cites the case of a female police officer who was killed after removing her badly fitted body armour) – deaths that would have been entirely preventable.
Medical research and clinical trials have often been based more on male test subjects, leading to drug development that has not always been suited to women. Research on cardiovascular disease, for example, has been mostly on men, while women are also underrepresented in HIV research, even though they comprise more than half of HIV-positive adults in developing countries, Criado Perez notes. Women are also overlooked in animal studies even in female-prevalent diseases, she adds. For example, women are 70 per cent more likely to report depression than men, but animal studies on brain disorders are five times as likely to be done on male animals. Failing to include both sexes from the very beginning of research “is not only scientifically idiotic and a waste of money, it is an ethical issue as well,” she cites McGill University professor Jeffrey Mogil as saying.
Voice-recognition technology, such as Google’s software, is more apt to recognize male speech than female speech, and auto-parts makers have admitted their voice recognition doesn’t work as well for women. That’s because the technology trains on databases that are often based on predominantly male voice recordings, she writes. Problems also spill into recruiting, where algorithms have been shown to filter out diverse candidates and limit who gets to see certain job ads. “There is every reason to suspect that this bias is being unwittingly hardwired into the very code to which we’re outsourcing our decision-making,” she writes.
Heart disease has long been seen as afflicting late middle-aged men – think of the guy clutching his chest in a Hollywood movie. In fact, since 1989, cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of death in American women and women are more likely to die after a heart attack, Criado Perez writes. Often, they present with “atypical” symptoms such as stomach pain and breathlessness – and they are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack. This problem also spills into prevention: Aspirin has commonly been prescribed to reduce the risk of a heart attack, however a 2015 study found that in fact taking a low dose of aspirin every other day “is ineffective or harmful” for most women in the prevention of heart disease.