When I first came across this book, which won the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2019, I thought it was about data bias in science. But as I flipped through the pages, I realised it was a book about data on bias against women in a world designed for and by men.
Invisible Women reveals that no matter which part of the globe you are in, government policies, medical science, technology, smart phones, workplaces, urban planning, and media all systematically ignore half the population. Some of this bias may not be conscious. For instance, most smart phones or standard piano keyboards are too big for the hands of women. While voice recognition software in cars that only respond to male voices can be annoying, those in medical science and patient care that do not recognise women’s voices could even lead to fatalities.
As a woman living in India, I sometimes think non-males living in the West are better off. But the examples given by Perez show that not all is hunky dory there either. An innocuous activity such as snow-clearing can be, and continues to be, sexist. City planners focus on first clearing motorable roads (which are used by cars, mostly driven by men) rather than pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths (used more by women). The central figure of the world, the book argues, is the quintessential white male.
While many women will identify and resonate with the examples given, it is important that more men, too, read this book because the gender problem cannot be solved by preaching to the choir alone. For instance, across the world, women tend to carry shawls and jackets to offices where the default temperature setting is customised for men dressed in three-piece suits. These are not petty subconscious biases; they indicate that the prejudice is deeply ingrained and therefore far more difficult to address.
The bias could even prove detrimental to the well-being of women. To give another example, several car safety measures do not account for women’s measurements. More alarmingly, women’s heart attacks go undiagnosed because their symptoms are deemed “atypical”. The vast majority of drugs, including anaesthetics and chemotherapeutics, continue with gender-neutral dosages, thus putting women at risk of an overdose.
The medical system itself seems designed to discriminate against women, leaving them chronically misunderstood, mistreated, and misdiagnosed. It all begins with how doctors are trained. Historically, it was assumed that there was no fundamental difference between male and female bodies other than size and reproductive function. And so for years, medical education focussed on a male “norm”, with everything else designated as “atypical” or even “abnormal”.
This male-default bias dates back to ancient Greece, where the female body was seen as a “mutilated male body”. In 4th century CE, Aristotle successfully argued that the male default was an undisputable fact. Modern doctors may think twice before articulating this view but the representation of the male body as the human body persists. If our theory of evolution is based on this norm, then where does this place female evolution, asks Perez. She adds: “If human evolution is driven by men, are women even human?”
Perez identifies three themes that define women’s relationship with the world. The first is the invisibility of the female body. The routine neglect in accommodating the female body in design, whether medical, technological or architectural, has resulted in a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It has led to women injuring themselves in jobs and cars that were not designed for their bodies. It has led to them dying from medicines that do not work. It has led to the creation of a world where women simply do not fit in.
The second theme that defines women’s lives focuses, ironically, on the visibility of the female body. Writing about male sexual violence against women, Perez reiterates that the reason why women get raped or intimidated and violated as they navigate spaces is not female biology but gender and the social meanings imposed on male and female bodies. These meanings mark the female as someone to be interrupted, outshouted, catcalled, stalked, raped or simply obliged to make the tea.
The third theme identified by Perez is unpaid care work. As with male violence against women, she says, female biology is not the reason women are the “bum-wiping class”. However, recognising a child as female is the reason she will be brought up to expect and accept that as her role. Recognising a woman as female is the reason she will be seen as the person to clear up after everyone in the office and still be paid less.
Perez says that the gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the “unthinking” that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination while simultaneously neglecting to take note of this discrimination.
Closing the data gap, Perez says, is good for everyone. When we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge, we lose out on potentially transformative insights. Incorporating women’s perspectives could well change the way we perceive life as we know it. In a 2004 article in The Guardian, the comedian Sandi Toksvig wrote about how when she was studying anthropology at university, one of her female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it and said this was man’s first attempt at a calendar. As everybody looked at the bone in admiration, she asked the students which man would need to know when 28 days had passed. It was far likelier that this was a woman’s first attempt at a calendar.
Reading this book and learning about the various ways in which the world around us is designed to keep women subservient in many small and big ways makes one go through a flood of emotions from anger and helplessness to more anger and despair. The book is not the first time we learn about prejudices against women. On the contrary, every woman, no matter her economic or social status in society, learns early on that the odds are stacked against her. If anything, the book is highly relatable as it only confirms the prejudices one notices in one’s daily life. However, since there are bigger worries to address, such as abortion rights and equal pay, these relatively minor issues get brushed under the carpet to be addressed at a future date when the feminist revolution has been achieved.
Feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir have articulated how the man never thinks of himself without thinking of the Other; and being different from man, it is naturally to the category of the Other that the woman is consigned. But to read example after example of bias does open one’s eyes all over again to the design flaws, as they are, in the world around us. For instance, the home where I am reading this book suddenly feels very unjust. For the first time, I see it as a home built by men for men. The shelves in the kitchen are too high for me to reach without a stool; there is no full-length mirror, let alone a dressing table; the solar-powered heater is way above my head; there is no attached bathroom in the bedroom, not to speak of sundry other design elements that do not work for me.
Sometimes these biases require women to put in more of an effort to get through the day but most of all, it denies them the chance to be full human beings or achievers in any field. Over a period of time, it becomes debilitating, as ingrained bias and prejudice against women pervades our societies.
Writing in 1970, the radical feminist activist Shulamith Firestone noted in her book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution that the sexual class system was so deep as to be invisible. Or it could appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms or perhaps by the full integration of women into the labour force. But Perez’s book shows us that the problem is far bigger than that, an oppression that goes back many millennia. The case for closing the gender data gap extends beyond women’s rights.
While Perez admits she does not know the reason why the gender data gap exists, she suggests that the only solution to it is to close the female representation gap in all spheres of life. As more women move into positions of power or influence, more women get employed, their perspectives are reflected, their histories are remembered and their rights are upheld.
In male-biased disaster relief programmes, researchers found that masculine and muscular images of relief workers that dominate the post-disaster scenario are more often than not belied by women who work tirelessly behind the scenes. Moreover, the data presented by Perez proves that the gender data gap is not merely a coincidence but there is a pattern to the distortion of data that increasingly rules our lives. The imbalance is found in statues, banknotes, news media and school textbooks. As we move into the era of artificial intelligence, it becomes more urgent to address this gap.
Despite the book’s compelling nature, one thing that nags at the reader is the normalisation of the gender binary as male and female. There is no mention of non-male and non-female bodies or personalities. Whether this, too, is by design or default, remains to be asked of the author. It might be that the scope of the book was limited to the male and female, but with all that feminism has achieved and arrived at, this invisibilisation of trans and other lives seems jarring.
Perez is a writer, broadcaster, and award-winning feminist campaigner who not only got a woman to feature on British banknotes but also forced Twitter to revise its procedures for dealing with abuse, and also won the battle to get a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett placed in London’s Parliament Square. Her passionate research has to be understood as one more effort towards gender equality.