A few weeks ago, the Guardian ran an edited excerpt from this book, and I read it with fury rising in my heart as all these things I had known, but never really thought about, rose to the surface. In every area of life, what is universal for men is taken to be universal for humanity as a whole. And it’s not. From the height of grab bars in trains to the proportions of car driver seats, encompassing drug testing, phone sizes, and urban planning, women are overlooked as anomalous or out of the norm. Despite being 50% of the population. The article made me really mad but also made me really interested, so I ordered the book online, and settled down to wait for the release date. It took me until last weekend for me to have enough time to actually sit down and consume Criado Perez’s work, but once I did… ooh, the fires of fury in my heart were stoked.
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.
First things first: the designer of this book was clearly on a roll. The font is clear and delightful. The italics, in particular, are so beautiful I had to take a picture of them and send it to my friend so he could appreciate them too. The cover design is subtle and fantastic. When you take the dustjacket off, the overlaid blue male figures disappear, leaving the invisible women behind, which ties in wonderfully with the book’s overarching message. The texture of the dustjacket and hardcover is delightful, with a velvety-smooth overlay that is really pleasing to the touch.
The book is heavily referenced throughout with endnotes. These are collected directly after the acknowledgements, a full 69 pages of references. The impact of this collected body of commentary serves to underline the density of information and dedication of the research which went into this book. While I’m not a fan of endnotes, personally, the stylistic choice to collect them all together gives undeniable weight to the book, and makes it difficult to dismiss its conclusions.
But that’s enough about the physical construction of this book (for which Chatto and Windus deserves great praise). What about the content itself?
Well, I read this book with a combination of mounting horror, frustration, and rage. Criado Perez takes the reader by the hand and gently leads them along a journey of discrimination against women which is endemic in all areas of life. Split into six thematic sections (Daily Life, The Workplace, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life, and When it Goes Wrong), this book catalogues a pantheon of circumstances where what is female is considered as abnormal, as less than standard, as Other. Collected together, the ignorance of design to the differing needs of 50% of the population is both fascinating and incredibly infuriating.
Criado Perez doesn’t use this book as a stick with which to beat the patriarchy, however. Rather, she delicately unpicks the circumstances which lead to a lack of consideration of the needs of those other than what is considered to be the default. Her examples are wide-ranging, touching on every area of life, and consistently return the same conclusion: women just haven’t been thought about. It’s not that their needs have been considered and dismissed. It’s that the fact that they might have different needs hasn’t even occurred to the people creating these structures.
(Generally. There are some notable exceptions.)
This quote from Tim Schalk really burned my cookies. But it’s not actually the norm.
From Sheryl Sandberg’s explanation at Google that heavily pregnant women can’t walk long distances to Apple Health’s omission of allowing tracking of a menstrual cycle, for many examples in this book, the reason for these omissions is that people didn’t even think of them as a potential need. Cars are crash tested rigorously before making it to market – but the dummies used are 1.7m tall. This is the size of the average man, not the size of the average person, and it leads to shocking statistics like the fact that women – despite being less likely to crash – if they are involved in a crash, are 47% more likely to be seriously injured. Criado Perez points out myriad ways that this unthinking acceptance of male as default – and as applicable to all – unfairly impacts on women, and leads to their being unconsidered in further development.
The book has one overarching message, which calls clearly from every page. Do something about this. Don’t accept data as applicable to all. Sex-disaggregate data, and investigate how men and women are differently impacted. In an era which relies on big data more than ever, the gender data gap needs to be acknowledged, counteracted, and filled. And it needs to be done with a specific focus on counteracting the detriment which the gender data gap had caused. Otherwise we end up with situations where a policy designed to create more family-friendly situations actually end up disadvantaging those it intended to help.
Criado Perez is not myopic in her discussions either – she skillfully acknowledges the intersections of race, gender identity, disability, and other minority identities can have to create a cumulatively detrimental effect. Invisible Women is a primer on how not to design, a feminist manifesto, a fantastic example of hard research with incredible readability, and a thoroughly engaging experience. It has filled me with rage and frustration – my friends and family have borne the brunt of several rants already – and I’ll be passing it on and recommending it to pretty much everyone I know.
Five Stars. I absolutely recommend you read this.