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).

 

Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour

by Maria Mies

Zed Books (2014 edition)

Book Review

In this 1986 classic, Mies challenges Marx’s description of the unpaid labor of women (childrearing, care of the sick and elderly, housekeeping and subsistence agriculture, handicrafts and firewood and water collecting in the Third World) as part of their “natural” function. In doing so, she provides the first comprehensive economic analysis of patriarchy.

While Marx and Engels readily acknowledge that capitalism oppresses women, they overlook the fact it also exploits them via the massive amount of free labor it makes them provide. According to Mies, it’s only this unpaid labor, which Mies refers to as super-exploitation, that makes wage labor exploitation possible.

Super-exploitation of Women and Colonies Finances Capitalist Expansion and War

She compares the super-exploitation of women under patriarchy to the super-exploitation that occurs under colonization. Both are intimately associated with violence, and both increase during the periods of rapid capital accumulation, which are necessary to finance capitalist expansion and war.

Violence and the Sexual Division of Labor

Based on modern anthropological research, Miles also offers a much clearer explanation of how the sexual division of labor arose, as well as its intimate link with violence. Citing numerous studies, she shows how women’s childrearing role made them them responsible for most food production in primitive societies (80% in hunter gatherer societies). Women also developed the first tools – namely baskets and pots for storing grain.

Popular culture places much more emphasis on the tools invented by men – weapons – and their use in hunting. Current anthropological evidence suggests they played a much bigger role in raiding other tribes to kidnap and enslave women (over time men were also enslaved), both for procreation and their food producing capacity.

Witchcraft Trials, Colonization, Mass Enslavement and the Rise of Capitalism

With the rise of capitalism, violence against both women and colonies (to compel their free labor) significantly increased. The pervasive witchcraft trials (and land confiscations) that began in the late 15th century, accompanied by the violent enslavement of New World colonies and Africans, would create the massive capitalist accumulation required for full scale industrial development.

Why Violence Against Women is Increasing

Mies also provides an eloquent analysis – linked to the intensification of capital accumulation – for the global increase in violence against women and Third World colonies over the last four decades. The onset of global recession in the 1970s forced capitalists to shift their labor intensive work to the Third World, where harsh US- and European-backed puppets use violence to suppress wages..

In the First World, simultaneous cuts in public services, have significantly increased demands on women for free labor (especially in the area of childcare and care of the sick and elderly). The simultaneous increase in violence against women (and the psychic trauma it induces) make it all the more difficult for women to organize and resist this super-exploitation.

 

The Refusal of Global Economists to Recognize Women’s Unpaid Labor

marilyn waring_working_class_hero

Whose Counting?

Directed by Terre Nash (1995)

Film Review

 

Whose Counting is a 1995 Canadian documentary about the early life of New Zealand feminist Marilyn Waring. With her 1988 book If Women Counted, Waring was the first to challenge whether GDP (gross domestic product) is an effective way to measure the performance of a national economy.

New Zealand’s Antinuclear Ban

The film begins with Waring’s election to the New Zealand parliament in 1977. The youngest member of Parliament (at 23), she was elected to a safe National (conservative) seat in rural Waikato. After serving three 3-year terms, she brought the government down by “crossing the floor” (ie signaling her intention to vote with the Labour opposition on the anti-nuclear issue).

Then prime minister Robert Muldoon called a snap election. He was voted out of office, with 72% of New Zealanders supporting Labour’s platform of permanently outlawing nuclear weapons and nuclear power in New Zealand.

Because the US government refuses to disclose whether their ships are nuclear powered or carry nuclear weapons, as of 1984 all US naval vessels are banned from New Zealand sovereign waters.

Negating Half the Planet

During her term in Parliament, Waring served on the Public Expenditure Committee and was troubled by was she learned was the UN System of National Accounts. As a condition of belonging to the UN, IMF and World Bank, all countries must use this system, developed by economists Maynard Keynes and Nicholas Stern after World War II.

Because this accounting system only attributes value to cash generating activities, it negates the productive activity of over half the planet – and of the planet itself.*

The film has a really humorous scene in rural Africa where women grow and cook all the food, collect all the firewood and water, and do all the housework and child and elder care – while the men lie around all day “supervising” them.

However it stresses that women also work far harder than men in the developed world. Two-thirds of all primary health care is delivered by women in the home. Yet because they receive no cash payments, all this work is virtually invisible.

Counting Environmental Damage as Growth

Waring is also extremely critical of a global accounting system that counts the immense environmental damage caused by the Exxon Valdez spill as positive GDP Growth. Given that the five permanent UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia and China) are also the world’s biggest arms exporters, she finds it no surprise that the carnage of war counts as GDP growth.


*Waring was also an early promoter of the concept of “ecosystem services,” essential services provided by nature in purifying water and air, sequestering carbon, stabilizing climate, providing for food crop pollination, etc.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reasons. However it can be viewed free at https://www.nfb.ca/film/whos_counting

 

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

BBC (1986)

Film Review

A dramatization of Fay Weldon’s 1983 classic, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is a satire about the sexist and exploitive nature of romantic love.

The heroine is a very ugly woman named Ruth who ingeniously manipulates her husband’s innate sexism to wreak vengeance on him and his beautiful rich mistress Mary Fisher.

Both the book and the dramatization focus on society’s use of romantic love to glamorize the vast amount of unpaid labor women perform for men and society in general.

As Weldon puts it (in the words of a Catholic priest Fisher “seduces”), “love robs women of their identity and creative selves.”

The video below comprises all four episodes in the 1986 series.