While 50% of the world population may be female, the world discounts so much of the benefit that comes from that half of our population. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez aims to show us how that bias is harming not just women, but society in general.
Early on Perez states that this bias comes because we assume male as the default mode of human existence and that “gender neutral” often means, something men thought of.
I will argue that the gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. 1
Perez says that there are three main areas that women aren’t thought of. First, the female body is treated as an aberration and the male body is the default. Second, we don’t count almost any unpaid work that women do in any form. Third, we discount violence against women by not taking basic steps to provide spaces that women deem safe. 2
Invisible Women is broken up into 7 main parts which the author uses to explore the three points above. She starts by walking us through all the ways that language, science, and society assume male as the default mode of existence. From there she shows how women are discounted in disaster relief, public life and spaces, medical treatment and research, product design, the workplace, and daily life.
While the book wasn’t repetitive, the narrative of discounting women came out so strong that I won’t cover every section. You can safely assume that in every section of the book Perez overwhelmingly shows that women aren’t counted and that harms the safety of women and the health of society in general.
We Assume Male
One of the first areas Perez explores is that we assume male unless proven otherwise. She cites the Birka Warrior that had hip and other bone measurements consistent with female anatomy but was assumed male because it was buried with weapons. It was only after a DNA test in recent years showed that it was a female skeleton that the tide of belief changed3.
Language often assumes male as well. Think about all the times you hear “you guys” or some male based variation of that to mean a group that includes females4. I find myself doing that with my three daughters, when the only male in the house is clearly me. Emoji suffered from the same default until 2016, with characters being male5.
In video games, it’s some special note if you can play a female hero. Articles online about women contain “she, woman…” and other references to the sex of the article focus, while articles about males contain no such notation6. The writing assumes male unless otherwise specified.
Looking at history for notable women to put on bank notes is hard to find any women that qualify. This is because so much of what women discovered was claimed by men and the women were pushed out of the picture entirely7. That means women don’t qualify in any fashion for awards since they weren’t known due to the male theft of their discoveries.
The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience — that of half the global population, after all — is seen as, well, niche. 8
One of the most interesting thoughts that threaded through the discussion of daily life was the different travel patterns of men and women and how everything from snow clearing to transit favour the travel patterns of men. Most snow clearing strategies and transit systems prioritize going to and from a traditional work environment in a centrally located part of a city. This travel pattern fits men more than women.
Men are more likely to go into work, and then back out, on the hub and spoked wheel transit system. Women are much more likely to trip chain and require multiple stops on the outside of the wheel, which means travelling to the hub and then up different spokes9. City zoning also often assumes that home is for relaxing, which means stores and other amenities are put far away from where we live, but women more often need to travel from home to groceries, doctors, and other local services which are located far away due to zoning laws10.
Going outside the public transit systems, snow clearing usually prioritizes the work routes at the expense of the side streets and paths between the spokes. We see this locally as only the major roads get cleared, and sidewalks never get cleared, which means pushing a stroller must be done on the road or you stay home. When we see this pattern of snow clearing we’re saying that women, and anyone without a car or that must use any type of mobility aid, simply aren’t as important as those with cars. We reduce the safety of these people by making them travel on the road alongside cars.
Add to this that women are less likely to have access to the car, and we’re choosing to make it harder for women to be mobile. I’ve seen my neighbours go from walking to get groceries to needing to take a cab (which is a big cost increase) because they suddenly can’t get their groceries home for weeks because the snow has made all but the main part of the road where traffic drives inaccessible.
Moving outside of mobility, the choices society makes in space utilization makes it harder for women. Take bathrooms for example, where it’s not uncommon to see a line of women waiting as men breeze in and out of the bathroom. While we may dedicate the same amount of space to both males and females, that doesn’t mean the same amount of convenience. In general, women take longer to use the bathroom, they’re more likely to have kids or elders to care for, and toilets take up more space than urinals. To make things equal, you would need to stop focusing on floor space and start focusing on the number of people that can flow through the bathroom facilities in a given amount of time11.
Now looking at our public spaces, women simply don’t have access to cities in the same ways that men do. While men are more often victims of official crimes12, women live in a haze of sexual aggression from men. This constant threat means they don’t feel safe using the city in which they live13.
Many times the solution is as simple as moving a bus stop from an poorly illuminated, untrafficked corner to directly in front of a business that’s open later in the evening. The extra light and people around will increase the safety of the female passengers14. Unfortunately, the predominately male city planners don’t think about this and public spaces become male dominated spaces.
When planners fail to account. For gender, public spaces become male spaces by default. 15
There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who isn’t paid for her work. 16
As women join the workforce, men don’t do more chores to split evenly or take up the slack. Working women just do the chores and housework when they get home so their total work hours increase17. We also advantage men with our tax codes, as tools and uniforms are tax write-offs but emergency child care isn’t18. We just assume that there is someone around to watch children if work needs to happen.
The implicit bias is clear: expense codes are based on the assumption that the employee has a wife at home taking care of the home and the kids. This work doesn’t need paying for because it’s women’s work, and women don’t get paid for it. 19
We also see bias against females in the workplace as it comes to parental leave when a baby joins the family. Properly paid maternity leave increases female workforce participation, as does properly paid paternity leave20. All In by Josh Levs explored this idea from the male perspective.
Millions of stay-at-home moms want to get back to work and advance their careers. Millions of working dads want more time at home to raise their kids. But society doesn’t allow it. All In
Levs showed that when men actually take the parental leave they’re legally entitled to they pay the price with their careers. Formerly star employees come back to find they’re shunned and suddenly always on report for things that were never issues before. Perez showed this as well, that men are shamed and penalized for making family a priority and this harms women21.
Sticking with work, Perez, next looks at the idea of meritocracy. Meritocracy is the idea that if you are the best and do the best work, you’ll win the position or the accolades. Unfortunately this isn’t true. She cites a study I’ve read before about orchestra auditions that shows it’s only when you do blind auditions where the listeners can’t see who is playing that women suddenly qualify for positions22. Players that were formerly classed as “too weak” are ranked as the best by far, and gender equality starts to come to orchestras.
Unfortunately, this gender blind evaluation hasn’t trickled out to other fields like the review of scientific papers for publishing. Men get published more than women, unless you take any hint of the author’s gender off the paper. Then a few studies show that papers written by women, but with no gender assumption possible for the author, were ranked as more creative23.
What makes this finding even more notable is that women get less time to even do good research. Combine their outside work care burden with the fact that they get asked to do more administrative tasks than their male peers, and women just don’t have the same amount of reading and writing time that male colleagues do.
Women are asked to do more undervalued admin work than their male colleagues — and they say yes, because they are penalized for being ‘unlikeable’ if they say no. 24
Unfortunately the fix for many places is not to change the procedures, it’s to tell women to act more like men. When Google found that women were not recommending themselves for promotion like men were, the fix was to give females classes on how to act more like men25. This of course discounts the heavy cost that assertive women pay when they are assertive like men. Assertive women are labelled as bossy and penalized for their behaviour in employee reviews26
The conclusion that Perez reaches is that meritocracy really only advantages those who don’t have care-giving roles to fulfill and don’t have the burden of the unpaid work around households. This means it mostly advantages men, leaving out people of colour and women.
This section ends with two points about not collecting data on women in the workplace. It starts with a story about Google, where they only designated parking for pregnant women when Sheryl Sandberg was pregnant. She was high enough up the organization chart that they would listen to her. The cries of women before this point fell on deaf ears27.
Since women are less likely to be in the most influential roles in an organization, it’s likely that many businesses out there never hear about the issues that their female employees are dealing with. If they do, they’ll do little about it because there will always be male focused things that take priority.
Our lack of data on women in the workplace is a result of so much of the work women do being an extension of what they do at home28. While we have controls around chemical exposure in factories, there isn’t much for cleaners who are inhaling toxic fumes all the time. The same extends to nail salons and other female dominated industries29.
Women working in nail salons, in auto-plastics factories, in a vast range of hazardous workplaces, are some of the most vulnerable, powerless workers you can find. They are poor, working class, often immigrants who can’t afford to put their immigration status at risk. And this makes them ripe for exploitation. 30
This also extends to the much talked about ‘gig economy’ and how workers are treated.
Zero-hour contracts, short-term contracts, employment through an agency, these have all been enticingly rebranded the ‘gig economy’ by Silicon Valley, as if they are of benefit to workers. But the gig economy is in fact often no more than a way for employers to get around basic employee rights. Casual contracts create a vicious cycle: the rights are weaker to begin with, which makes workers reticent to fight for the ones they do still have. 31
More women are in the gig economy which impacts the wage gap, because you’re generally paid less in the gig economy. You have less benefits (say goodbye to any parental leave) and since the contracts start with less rights people don’t work to fight for the rights they do have32.
Design of Everyday Things
From stab vests that aren’t designed to fit breasts, to pianos that are built for the average male hand size, much of what we have around us simply isn’t built for women[^]. This extend to items designed to help women in developing nations.
To start, women don’t have the leisure time men do. When offered a class to learn to farm better, women still have to do all their other main work, plus their unpaid work on top of finding time to attend the class33. When presented with stoves that burn clean and thus reduce their exposure to harmful smoke, women stopped using them.
Instead of figuring out why, the organizations aimed for more education about why smoke from the traditional stove was harmful. The fact was that the stove took longer to cook, required more tending, and needed more fuel. Since women collect the fuel, and do the cooking, they had to spend more time collecting fuel and monitoring the stove. They lost any time they may have had and increased work hours34. The stove was never designed to take anything but the smoke factor into account, seemingly deeming the other concerns of women’s time as irrelevant in the face of smoke.
There are more examples, like my wife’s higher voice regularly not working with voice software35. If she pitches her voice lower, it suddenly works. She also can’t use the fingerprint sensor on her phone. We assume it’s because her fingers are regularly cold, which lines up with 3 or 4 other friends that the fingerprint sensors just ignore. For each of these devices my fingers, and their husbands fingers, work just fine. In fact, warming their fingers helps it work as well.
Are You Seeing the Trend?
I’m going to stop covering the book in such detail, because I think you’re starting to see a trend. We just don’t care enough about women to put the work in to understand them. Drugs are tested first on male mice and if they don’t work they are discarded. A bunch of research is showing that many of these discarded drugs would work on women, but were abandoned and no one is willing to test with female’s36.
When a women comes into the hospital with pain, she’s going to wait an hour longer than a male, and is more likely to get anti-depressants instead of pain killers37.
In public life, the UK’s austerity measures after 2008 focused mostly on the services that women use38.
Women’s unpaid work is work society depends on, and it is work from which society as a whole benefits. When the government cuts public services that we all pay for with our taxes, demand for those services doesn’t suddenly cease. The work is simply transferred onto women, with all the attendant negative impacts on female paid labour-participation rates, and GDP. 39
Women’s rights are discounted and if women promote laws that increase female rights they get watered down40.
…US analysis has found that framing human rights issues as women’s rights issues makes male politicians less likely to support legislation, and if a rights bill is mainly sponsored by women, it ends up being watered down and states are less likely to invest resources.41
When we’re rebuilding after natural disasters women aren’t consulted, which means we get stupid things like apartment built without kitchens42. Or we take a complex that was accessible to grocery stores and reduce the units and parks around while increasing the prices and making amenities like those grocery stores farther away as we “revitalize” a neighborhood43. It’s like we don’t want to build soft cities because they would make the work that normally falls to women easier.
The Big Takeaway
If you take one thing away from this book it’s that we should have around 50% women in any field where we’re making decisions for a population. We should be changing the workforce so that these women can participate, even if they have “extra” care responsibilities. We need to change the male default and male entitlement because it will make our cities safer for everyone and more accessible to everyone.
Now that you have this knowledge, what are you going to do about it?
Should You Read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
Yup, no other way to say it. You should read this book no matter your field. You’ve got a mom or interact with female’s and having a better understanding of the bias that women live with is going to help you counteract the bias you’ve grown up with.
I started by borrowing the book from the library, but about 100 pages in I ordered a copy so that I can reference it and read it easily again.
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- This makes me think very much of the stuff going on with Jessica Yaniv who seems to be taking advantage of minority and immigrant workers for…who knows what ↩
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