screen shot of Caroline Criado Perez's website, which includes a laptop with a photo of her book, Invisible Women, as the background of the laptop screen

The Absence of Presence: Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

This is a book that might leave most readers frustrated about the state of things. It’s also a book that I wish didn’t need to be written but was glad I came across. Caroline Criado Perez patiently demonstrates that collecting data mostly on men and applying those findings to people in general might be erasing women’s perspectives and needs. Criado Perez’s systematic and untiring exposure of the inadequate data that leads to poor design, policies, guidelines, and safety measures, among others, has a clear conclusion: a better, safer, fairer world is only possible if we take women into account.

One of Criado Perez’s main arguments goes something like this: we have more data than ever before, but the quality of these data is lacking. Specifically, sex- or gender-disaggregation of data is often impossible because no information has been collected on sex or gender. Criado Perez points out frankly terrifying gaps in data from all paths of life, from medicine (turns out sleeping pills take much longer to be metabolized in women), to car design (car manufacturers have declared unsafe the most forward driver seat position that women are more likely to use), or algorithms (Google translate is notoriously gender biased).

Without collecting data on sex/gender, it is impossible to find out in advance whether an intervention (medication, design solution, policy, algorithm) will impact one of the sexes or genders more than others. Of course, if we assume that men and women are identical, that women are simply smaller men who go about their lives in exactly the same way, collecting data on sex or gender isn’t useful. On the other hand, if we accept the forward-thinking premise that women are different from men in a number of ways, that their physiologies differ, that their daily obligations don’t completely overlap, sex- and gender-disaggregated data does a world of good. In support of this latter premise, Criado Perez demonstrates time and time again that although the word “people” has largely replaced the word “men” as a collective noun for humanity, in research, policies, and algorithms, the word “people” continues to represent mostly male perspectives, resulting in a skewed image and understanding of the world.

A white woman with wavy dirty blonde hair wearing a black short sleeved jumpshuit, her hands in her pockets
Caroline Criado Perez. (©Caroline Criado Perez)

In case study after case study, Criado Perez presents issues that could have been avoided if researchers had seriously considered the question “what about women?” For example, when researchers evaluated travel patterns of men and women in Karlskoga, Sweden in 2011, they noted that women, who were more likely to travel on foot, had more injuries related to snow-covered pavements. As a result, the snow-clearing schedule was reversed, with pedestrian routes cleared before the main roads, and the number of injuries from slipping on the snow and ice declined in the following years. We also learn about a Spanish police officer who bought a women’s bulletproof jacket for herself (at a cost of €500) because the standard-issue men’s jacket did not fit her—and who faced disciplinary action as a result.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is another instance of systemic erasure of women and their work. When the frame of GDP was established during the 1940s in the US, the definition prioritized the needs of the war economy and effectively rejected unpaid domestic work as a part of the economy. Although economists discussed whether they should include unpaid services in the GDP, they decided that the collection of data would be too burdensome and it would be too complicated to calculate the monetary value of domestic work.1 Between the 1950s and mid-1970s, the number of women joining the workforce increased, and with it the use of paid services (such as childcare) and sales of market goods (including ready meals that replaced unpaid home-cooking). The ever-growing GDP calculations for that period suggested a golden economic era, when, in fact, productivity did not grow—it only shifted from a sphere that wasn’t included in the calculations (female-dominated domestic work) to one that was (male-dominated public sphere).

Have you ever heard an argument along the lines of “it’s not a problem for me, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you”? It’s infuriating—and pretty stupid, too. Criado Perez shows that it is also unfortunately pervasive when it comes to gendered issues in society. Examples include phones too large for smaller (usually women’s) hands; women’s clothes that do not have pockets or that—and this might be even worse—have inadequately deep pockets; shelves that you need a ladder to reach; and insufficient numbers of women’s bathrooms, despite evidence that women spend more time using the toilets. For instance, it takes women longer to pee, and they are more likely to be be accompanied by dependents or be on their period.2

The more you read, the more serious it becomes. Years of efforts by development agencies have not resulted in universally used indoor cooking stoves that don’t poison those who cook (women) because attempts to redesign the stoves failed to take into account women’s circumstances and needs. In one example of a failed program in India, the redesigned clean stove required more maintenance than traditional stoves. Maintenance and repairs were traditionally men’s duties, but men did not prioritize the fixing of stoves because they were likely to think that their wives could still use traditional stoves to prepare meals. Even though we intuitively recognize design as an important part of creating products, we’ve yet to have seatbelts that can comfortably accommodate large breasts or pregnancies. Criado Perez persuasively argues that this situation is a result of neglecting women as equal participants in the world.

It is not straightforward to write about the absence of presence. There is usually a lot of digging through literature and data to make sure there really is nothing to be found—and then we end up with a measly “no data are available” to show for days, weeks, or even months of work. Criado Perez documents this systematic absence (or near-absence) in an impressive display of meticulousness, passion, and patience. Her book is also an attempt to put a thorn in the side of academics, politicians, policy-makers, software engineers, and doctors. It makes everyone uncomfortable and causes resistance3 among those who take the act of pointing out a past behavior as an accusation. Criado Perez’s book might be a ruthless critique, but, unlike an accusation, it offers constructive feedback: let’s not do it anymore. Although it may be more expensive and complicated to collect data that can be sex- and gender-disaggregated, Criado Perez argues that it is worth all those lives saved, injuries prevented, and frustrations spared. It could even save money, too.

As an anthropologist attuned to nuance and difference, I was sometimes bothered by the way in which Criado Perez constantly positioned men against women or by how she occasionally used the categories of sex and gender interchangeably, but I understand this oversimplification in the name of addressing a very specific gap in data that could be filled with information about women. Invisible Women does an excellent job not only of exposing gaps in existing data sets that impact policies and politics, but also of helping to articulate why this should not be the case. Criado Perez dedicates her book to women and encourages them to be difficult, to complain, and to insist on change. After all, women are literally not invisible. The road ahead might be long and bumpy, but there is precedent for women being heard. Research, policies, and design solutions that took women into account have produced satisfying results—remember the snow-clearing schedule in Karlskoga. It’s always handy to have good arguments, though. Criado Perez’s work can supply them in abundance.

Notes

  1. See e.g. Luke Messac, “Outside the Economy: Women’s Work and Feminist Economics in the Construction and Critique of National Income Accounting,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 46, no. 3 (2018): 552–578. Return to text.
  2. See the classic essay by Taunya Lovell Banks, “Toilets as a Feminist Issue: A True Story,” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, 6 no. 2 (1991): 263–289. Return to text.
  3. Twitter and conservative press outlets were the main sources of this resistance, see e.g. a Tweet by user CCriadoPerez.Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts