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Pandabook Club #2: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Petra Gönczi | March 2021

Our second book in the Pandabook Club was 'Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men' by Caroline Criado Perez. This was officially the first book of the year to get under our skin and infuriate and frustrate us all, but it was absolutely worth it.

This book is both terrifying and enlightening, highlighting for us all some huge gaps in our knowledge. We all agreed that everybody should own a copy of this book, and read it as early on in their lives as possible. Educate yourselves before it’s too late and gender bias has already found a comfortable place to live inside your head.

The authors dedication of this book is “For the women who persist: keep on being bloody difficult”. We couldn't agree more. It’s a bloody world we all live in, it's bloody unfair, it’s bloody biased, and it’s bloody distorted when it comes to women’s existence.

Here are some key takeaways from the book that have stayed with us:

👩 Women account for 50% of the population, yet we see their rights as a minority interest. Simply put: we’re forgetting about women.

👩 What is male is seen as universal. What is female is seen as “atypical”.

👩 Gender affects the kind of questions we ask.

👩 The majority of people in power are men but they just don’t recognise “male bias masquerading as gender neutrality” because of what is called projection bias: when people assume that their beliefs and attitudes are “naturally” shared by others as well, convincing them that their way of thinking is ultimately the norm.

“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.” - Simone de Beauvoir

👩 The gender data gap is everywhere. In other words, a female-shaped absent presence. An example? Most of recorded human history. Women were, and continue to be, excluded from data in all territories of life, making that absence painfully present in everything we see and do. From the languages we speak to emojis and movies, or computer games and statues to news media, and even school textbooks. However, as Perez points out: the female body or sex is not the problem:

“The problem is the social meaning that we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.”

We have also collated some of the stats and stories from the book that we found the most interesting/ infuriating/unbelievable, and downright unacceptable. We hope these examples inspire you to get the book and discover these shocking truths in your own time:

🏢 (Men’s) Cities and GDP

Cities are designed and planned out, mostly, by men for men, and don’t take into account the different travel patterns that women take. This is largely connected to the fact that women live their lives divided between paid and unpaid work (e.g., taking care of children or elderly relatives, domestic labour) and in a world that ignores the latter. It turns out that cities are not designed to enable women to do their unpaid work and still get to the office on time.

💰 Unpaid work: ignorance is bliss

Unpaid domestic labour is widely accepted as being a woman's job. Perez relates unpaid work to the GDP, arguing that a failure to calculate these services in the GDP is "the greatest gap of all". Caring for children, the elderly and household chores represent a significant share of economic activity, yet it is not counted as part of the GDP. Gross Domestic Product affects everybody, but most notably, women, as they are denied economic empowerment and equal opportunity to paid work.

If unpaid work were recognised in the GDP, it could account for 50% in high-income countries, and in low-income countries for 80%. The argument is that putting a monetary value on domestic chores is too complicated, so for the sake of 'simplicity', it continues to go unrecognised. Keep it simple, why fix it if it's always been this way and it's not broken in the eyes of the male gaze? The irony of this is that if unpaid work was accounted for, everyone would benefit as the GDP would rise and thrive.

🚽 The toilet fiasco

Male and female bathrooms are designed with the same, equal amount of floorspace, fairs fair, right? Wrong. What architects and designers have failed to take into consideration is the different needs of women and men in a bathroom. On average, women take 2.3 times longer to use the toilet than a man. Women tend to take more trips to the bathroom due to pregnancy or urinary tract infections, (which happen to be 8 times more prevalent in women), significantly inhibiting their bladder capacity. A woman might be on her period and therefore need to change a tampon or sanitary pad, not to mention that women are more likely to have children with them, and therefore need more space and time in the bathroom. The author writes that the Barbican Centre in London has taken to making all their bathrooms 'gender neutral', which in theory is great progress for the LGBT population, but the reality is that by providing 'gender neutral urinals' and 'gender neutral cubicles', men can use both, whereas women can only use a cubicle, they managed to increase facilities options for men, failing to consider the impact this had on women.

In some parts of the world, women also have to face sexual harassment from men due to the lack of safe toilet provisions.

📉 Lots of fear, lack of help

There is a mismatch between women’s fear and the level of violence official statistics report is their experience, if they are reported at all. Usually, women don’t even know who to report a crime to, or they choose not to. This makes sexual crime against women in transit, for example, a highly underreported offence. And when something is underreported, it’s ignored or simply labelled non-existent.

🩸 Unpaid work is killing women

Women do more unpaid work (domestic labour) than men, which has a knock on effect on their health. For example: it takes longer for women to recover after heart surgery as they are responsible for unpaid work duties, which need to be dealt with in a household as quickly as possible. Studies show that women are more stressed than men, too. Taking into consideration the addition of official, unaccounted for, unpaid hours, they women work far more than the average 40 hours per week, regularly.

“And it is killing them.”

What’s even worse - pick your 'favourite' scenario here - in several countries, women are actually penalised for having to take time out for unpaid work, or forced into an early retirement (putting them in an unfair financial disadvantage) which is still a legal requirement in many professions.

👩‍🍼 Systems take care of mothers, just not that much

The lengths of maternity leave and relative pay are never in balance, and countries fail to hit both together at the same time. Perez references an Australian study that found that the optimal length of maternity leave would be between seven months to a year - no country in the world offers properly paid leave for that long.

⚙️ Tech doesn’t fit women

Doors are too heavy for the average woman to open with ease. Offices are, on average, five degrees too cold for the female metabolic rate, as the air conditioning was designed for the average forty-year-old, 70kg man in the 1960s. Smartphone screen sizes are designed to male measurements, and are therefore too large for women’s hands. Instead of consulting women and then designing a product, it’s easier to force a centralised (male) design on them from above. It's just easier. As a result, women are beginning to experience musculoskeletal issues due to having to accommodate the cumbersome smartphone.

🤖 Data doesn’t help women (except in the kitchen)

Artificial Intelligence, databases and algorithms don’t predict a nice future either. They are trained on our current male-biased datasets, and in the future they may be “unsure of what to do when finding a woman and a man in the kitchen” but will probably go with something along the lines of: “offers a man a beer and a woman help washing the dishes.” This is not science fiction. We repeat. This is not science fiction.

💊 Medical objections: women are too complicated

There’s also a lack of medical data about the female body, often explained by one of the following: it’s “too complex”, “too variable” and “too costly” to be tested on. Researchers also say women are harder to recruit for medical trials, but it seems the underlying issue here is that women are rarely provided an alternative to accommodate for their busy schedules (ahem, hello, unpaid work!). When women are included, however, it’s still practically worthless: they are usually tested in the early follicular phase of their menstrual cycle when their hormone levels are at their lowest. In other words, when they are at their most biologically similar to men.

🚗 Women risk their lives every time they get into a car

Women are at a greater risk of internal injuries on frontal and rear-end collisions. They are, in fact, 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car accident. However, car-crash test dummies are designed to the male anatomy, (known as 'Reference Man') and are used almost all the time. There is no legal requirement in place in the automotive industry to use anatomically different models when testing for the safety of women. The 'female' dummies (if you can call them that) are simply scaled down male dummies, and testing using a 'pregnant' model are almost non existent.

Simply put: women are in great danger every time they get into a car as it wasn’t tested or built for them, at all.

This list could go on and on but we’re sure (we hope!) that your perspective is already changing. We’d just like to finish on a note we find important above all else, the belief and mission that was confirmed in us after reading this book:

Gender affects the questions we ask. No matter which gender you identify as, try to let go of your projection bias and think for a moment in every situation, before saying a word or taking any action. Empathy is given to some, others have to work for it. Both are great, just don’t forget to move that muscle.

Next up:

Our March Pandabook: Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age by Jonah Berger