Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Caroline Criado Perez

Vintage Books (2019)

Book Review

Although women make up over 50% of the global population, under patriarchy there’s a perverse tendency for political and social institutions to regard “male” as the default sex and “female” as an aberration. The result, according to author Caroline Criado Perez, is major suffering for women in three main primary areas 1) society’s failure to accommodate major ways women’s bodies are different from men’s, 2) society’s failure to acknowledge the vast amount of unpaid work women perform, and 3) society’s failure to address the ubiquitous threat of male violence against women.

The most serious threat to women’s lives occurs in the medical and military/security area, owing to the failure of doctors and military planners to appreciate distinct features of women’s anatomy and physiology. Perez cites research revealing that doctors (of both sexes) continually misdiagnosis life threatening illness in women as “hysterical” or “in their head.” They still fail to recognize that many common illnesses (for example heart attacks*) present differently in women.

Women’s health (and lives) are also seriously jeopardized by military and police regulations that fail to account for women’s physical differences. Among the most striking examples are the frequent pelvic fractures female recruits suffer. According to Perez, this stems from requirements they match the stride length set by men and carry rucksacks (designed for men), with ill-fitting straps that lack padded hip belts. Their masks and boots (women’s feet are narrower and have higher arches than men’s) don’t fit, either. Nor do their rubber gloves, which frequently get caught in machinery.

There is also a deplorable lack of funding for start-ups and research related to women-specific medical conditions.**

The issue of women’s invisible unpaid labor has (mainly child care and elder care) been a bugbear of the feminist movement for nearly 40 years. However I was previously unaware that the world’s elite economic institutions (eg World Bank, IMF) made the deliberate decision to exclude unpaid work from GDP.

They claimed it was “too difficult to measure.” However Perez asserts unpaid labor is very easy to measure with “time-use” surveys. Thanks to the growing popularity of major all-volunteer projects like Wikipedia and Open Source software, economists are finally acknowledging the importance of unpaid work, as well as employing “time-use” surveys to measure it.

The result, according to Perez, was the discovery that significant GDP growth starting in the late 70s largely resulted from more women getting paid for previously unpaid work (eg child and elder care). Likewise, the decline in GDP growth stemming from post-2008 global austerity cuts reflected women’s women’s withdrawal from the labor market to perform child and elder care. They had no choice when most industrialized countries drastically downsized publicly funded care programs.

In discussing her third major area of concern (the ubiquitous threat of male violence), Perez addresses many of the same issues as Leslie Kern highlights in Feminist City, mainly related to fear and risk of violence women experience when they use public transport or enter certain city spaces on their own.

*With heart attacks, women are more likely to present with stomach pain and nausea (in contrast to the chest pain in men). Additionally, women’s ECGs tend to be inconclusive and their angiograms tend to be negative because their heart attacks are less likely to be caused by occlusion (closed-off coronary arteries). Because doctors are slow to diagnose heart attacks in women, they make up only 25% of patients receiving life-saving percutaneous coronary interventions (eg stents).

**Perez gives the example of a female inventor who couldn’t get startup funding (despite studies showing women-run startups generate twice the revenue of male startups) for a better fitting, quieter, more efficient breast pump and female researchers who couldn’t get funding to research the most effective treatment available for menstrual cramps (Viagra!), pelvic floor training (37% of women have pelvic floor dysfunction after childbirth), or sodium bicarbonate infusion for weak birth contractions (number one cause of maternal death in childbirth).