I’ve been informed and alarmed in equal measure in the past couple of weeks, listening to the audio version of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez.
In this book, which took three years to research and write, Criado-Perez exposes the huge gender data gap and its potentially lethal impact on women going about their daily lives, in a world designed by, and for men.
She has collated an extraordinary amount of data and case studies and uses these to explain that by failing to collect data on women, their needs have been completely overlooked because designers and scientists view the world from a male perspective.
This translates into products, medicines, health and safety and even cities which have been designed for men, with the consequences ranging from mild daily discomfort to actually putting women’s lives at risk.
For instance, It wasn’t until 2011 that car manufacturers began using smaller crash-test dummies to replicate a woman’s body shape. But they still haven’t perfected a crash-test dummy which accurately represents a female body.
According to Astrid Linder, research director of traffic safety at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, female crash-test dummies were suggested in the 1980s, but "manufacturers lobbied to not have to include them because of the cost." Wow.
The 2011 crash-test dummies demonstrated that for smaller women the risk of serious injury or death remains disproportionately higher. At a mere 5ft 1in, I find most car seats too low, too deep and seatbelts uncomfortable. Headrests – even at their lowest position - also sit too high to provide adequate protection for my neck. I’ve found a solution in my own car with the use of a padded seat insert and seatbelt protectors. If I am travelling in a family member or friend’s car, they are used to me turning up with a cushion and spare seatbelt protector.
However, much more shocking was the revelation that doctors were failing to recognise female heart attack symptoms. Criado-Perez highlights that most public information campaigns are about typical male heart attack symptoms, so women find it difficult to recognise their own symptoms. This sounds bad enough, but the fact that doctors weren’t realising this either, is astonishing.
And there's more!
Feeling sick after taking your prescribed medication? Drug testing is carried out on “Reference Man” – usually a white man in his 30s, around 70 kg (11st 2lbs) and he has been used for decades in all sorts of research on drug dosage.
Have you ever thought about the information on over-the-counter medication – which advises doses for a child or an adult? The adult is a man – yes Reference Man again. Research has shown that women have more adverse reactions to drugs than men, and in some cases the worst adverse reactions are that drugs just don't work.
Mobile phones are designed for the average male hand – which explains why women find it difficult to use their phone one-handed.
Feeling cold in your office? Air-conditioning is geared to the male body size and fat-to-muscle ratio, so it’s no surprise that women tend to feel the cold more than men.
Criado-Perez delves deeply into the global injustice of the lack of recognition for women’s unpaid work and caring responsibilities. She probes the misconception that caring for dependents is an individual woman’s choice within her immediate family and instead highlights that this “choice” is forced on women because of lack of investment in the caring industry.
She argues that serious investment in this area would make sound economic sense. In addition, good, consistent child-care would enable an increase in female paid employment, in turn leading to an increase in GDP, and a resultant increase in tax revenues.
There is a great deal of online coverage of Criado-Perez and her book, and discussion about her role as a feminist activist. Whilst she has garnered a lot of support, inevitably she has attracted criticism, not least for the Western bias of some of the problems she highlights, and for the book’s tone and hyperbolic title.
But I consider her points about seatbelt safety, drug dosages and female heart attacks to more than compensate for a few niggles about some of her more trivial findings (e.g. the lack of female emojis).
So, how does Criado-Perez see this gender data gap and its resultant issues being bridged? She says the solution is simple; all we have to do is start collecting sex-disaggregated data. It is also critical that women play prominent roles in society, because the evidence shows that women don’t forget women.
“If you want to be a woman in power, then empower other women”
Take care. Lead well.