Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.
Invisible Women shows us how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. It exposes the gender data gap – a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systemic discrimination against women, and that has created a pervasive but invisible bias with a profound effect on women’s lives.
Award-winning campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez brings together for the first time an impressive range of case studies, stories and new research from across the world that illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten, and the impact this has on their health and well-being. From government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media, Invisible Women reveals the biased data that excludes women. In making the case for change, this powerful and provocative book will make you see the world anew.
“Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him…He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other”– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
Invisible Women was a spectacular book – I found it eye-opening and revolutionary. I say revolutionary because, unlike a lot of other feminist literature, this book makes use of extensive facts, figures and case studies to reveal the gender biases that are woven into the very fabric of society, and into the world’s institutions and customs.
Despite the significant advances that have been made towards gender equality, Caroline Criado Perez argues that women are still very much ‘the Other’. Perez explains that the reason behind this is the gender data gap. Throughout history, there has been the assumption that men represent humanity as a whole. Consequently, the other half of the human race has been largely excluded from data, leaving only a “female-shaped ‘absent presence'”. In most cases, these gender data gaps are not deliberate, rather they are the result of a lack of thinking. They are the outcome of a lack of female representation in decision-making and research. However, women’s lives, interests and concerns differ in many respects from men’s, and data must show this, because when women are forgotten and left out of data there are serious consequences – in some cases, fatal consequences. In fact, evidence shows that when more women are involved in the making of knowledge and data, not only are women remembered, but the whole of society benefits from the female perspective.
Invisible Women is a call to action, for men and women alike, to fill these data gaps that allow the gender bias to continue.
In her book, Perez argues that there are three themes that define a woman’s relationship with the world which need to be addressed: the female body, male violence against women and unpaid care work…
“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design – whether medical, technological or architectural – has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women…It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”
1. The Female Body
In Invisible Women, Perez displays how the presumption that what is male is universal has resulted in designs that fail to account for the female body and its variations from the male body. Those who designed this world failed to remember these differences; consequently, most offices are set at temperatures which are five degrees too cold for women because the formula used to determine this temperature is based around the metabolic resting rate of a 40 year old, 70kg man, while a woman’s metabolic rate is significantly slower.
The failure to remember the female body in design has much more serious consequences. For example, most military equipment was designed for the male body and, as a result, women in the British Army have been found to be up to seven times more likely than men to suffer from musculoskeletal injuries, and ten times more likely than men to suffer from hip and pelvic stress fractures. Furthermore, in 2018, Pilar Villacorta (the women’s secretary for the United Association of Civil Guards) reported to the Guardian that the ill-fitting police gear prevents many female officers from doing their jobs and leaves them unprotected. This can prove to be fatal; in 1997, a British female police officer was stabbed while using a hydraulic ram to enter a flat – she had removed her body armour because it was hindering her from using the ram.
Medicine has also functioned on the assumption that male bodies represents humanity as a whole. Due to this, many women are misdiagnosed or poorly treated; women are 50% more likely than men to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack because they do not always display the ‘typical’ symptoms. This misdiagnosis can prove fatal for women, who are more likely than men to die from a heart attack.
Perez’ research shows that women are dying as a result of the gender bias towards men. However, many attempt to defend this bias with the excuse that women’s bodies are too complex and too variable, thereby placing the blame on women, and their bodies. The real problem at hand is not the women, but the failure to design a world that accommodates the female body.
“Female biology is not the reason women are raped. It is not the reason women are intimidated or violated as they navigate public spaces.”
2. Male Violence Against Women
It is estimated that over a third of women worldwide have been victims of male violence. This violence then results in physical, sexual or mental harm to women, and it is a major violation of women’s human rights. Acts of violence against women only increase in times of crisis, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic, or when war breaks out; an estimated 60,000 women were raped during the Bosnian conflict and 250,000 in the Rwandan genocide. In the chapter ‘It’s Not the Disaster that Kills You‘, Perez writes that violence against women is also prevalent in refugee camps; the lack of separate bathroom and accommodation facilities leaves women more vulnerable to rape, assault and other forms of violence. Women are also victims of male violence in detention centres; in 2008, a 17 year old Somali refugee detained at a Kenyan police station was raped by two policemen. These horrific events are a cause and consequence of gender inequality and, as long as male violence against women persists, men and women are not truly equal.
Furthermore, Perez shows how it is not just vulnerable women, who are victims of male violence, but also women in power. Violence against women includes threats of assault; many women in politics receive these types of threats on a daily basis. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reports that 66% of female parliamentarians are regularly subjected to sexist remarks from male colleagues, and one in five female representatives have been victims of sexual violence. The impact of this is that women are less likely to stand for re-election and many are reluctant to stand in the first place. Therefore, while there has been an increase in female representation in many countries, this correlates with an increase in male violence against women – politics is far from being a level playing field for women.
So, whether in the public or private sphere, male violence against women is a widespread issue. Perez argues that “female biology is not the reason women are being raped…intimidated or violated”, rather it because of the social meanings that are attached to male and female bodies. It is these attitudes and beliefs that need to be challenged in order for male violence against women to be eradicated.
“There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who isn’t paid for her work.”
3. Unpaid Care Work
In Invisible Women, the chapter entitled ‘The Long Friday’ is based on the monumental event that took place in Iceland on October 24th in 1975. On this day, 90% of the women in Iceland took part in a strike – not just from paid work but also from the unpaid work: cooking; cleaning; child care. This strike forced the people of Iceland to realise the importance of unpaid care work , 75% of which is done by women, and how the functioning of society depends on this work. In Iceland, this resulted in the passage of the Gender Equality Act in 1976, and the election of the world’s first democratically elected female head of state in 1980.
Globally, women do three times the amount of unpaid care work than men do. Even as female participation in the paid labour force has increased, this has not led to a more equal distribution of unpaid care responsibilities – women simply work longer hours. However, because women are more likely than men to be caring for elderly relatives and children, their unpaid work affects their participation in the the paid workforce, and consequently women make up 75% of part-time workers. Furthermore, the hourly pay gap between men working full-time and women working-part time was 32% in 2016 – so these women are underpaid for the work that they do.
In reality, the work which women do is extremely valuable. Firstly, women’s participation in the paid labour force greatly benefits the economy; McKinsey (a global consulting firm) found that the GDP would be 25% smaller without the 38 million women that joined the US workforce between 1970 and 2009. Secondly, the unpaid care work that is mostly done by women is the backbone of the economy – McKinsey estimates that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and up to 80% in low-income countries. These mind-blowing figures show that unpaid care work is not ‘optional’, it is necessary. Despite this, governments often make cuts in public spending – such as on children’s care centres and social-care budgets – and the brunt of this mostly falls on women. The increased care responsibilities limit women’s opportunities to participate in the paid labour force, consequently damaging the economy itself. Perez calls for a “wholesale redesign” of the workplace that is led by research and data on female lives, and which recognises the value of unpaid work.
“The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. But male universality is also a cause of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to a positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority. With a niche identity and a subjective point of view. In such a framing, women are set up to be forgettable. Ignorable. Dispensable – from culture, from history, from data. And so, women become INVISIBLE.”
In an exceptionally innovative way, Caroline Criado Perez reveals the gender data gaps that permeate society and power the belief that what is male is universal. Although many claim that women are already equal to men because ‘women are everywhere now’, the bias towards men persists in more hidden ways, and in the way world is designed. However, Perez also intended Invisible Women to provide hope for the future, for the time when the gender data gap will be closed and when women will ‘come out of the shadows’. So, having read this book I want to encourage all of you, regardless of gender, to read it too, because it is an issue that concerns everyone – not just women. As Hillary Clinton said at the 1995 UN Conference in Beijing: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”