Review of ‘Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ (2019) by Caroline Criado-Perez

In this post, I will:

  • Show off my new-found knowledge of the gender data gap
  • Rail against the injustices in society
  • Recommend you read this excellent book

Why I’m interested in this

One of the things I am interested in is gender equality.

This book is incredibly insightful about the ways in which one gender has been promoted at the expense of others.

Some of these things are obvious, if you give them some thought, and others are things I never would have considered, which makes me exactly the kind of person this book was designed for.

What the book’s about

Invisible Women is about the gender data gap.

Essentially (and I’m not an expert, even after reading this book), we now live in a world of data.  And that data incorporates a hidden bias.  It generally leaves women out.  That means most of the data we have about ‘humanity’ is actually data on men.

Medicine which is developed and made available has been tested on men, not women. 

Technology like mobile phones and voice recognition software has been designed for men, not women. 

To give you an example of these: the modern smartphone is designed to fit an average male’s hand, which means that the average man can hold his phone in one hand.  However, the phone is too big for the average woman’s hand and so she has to hold it in two.  Your voice recognition software has been programmed to respond to your voice.  Well, actually it’s been programmed to respond to the male voice.  Women with higher-pitched voices won’t be able to get that same software to work.  I won’t even mention the problems with what queries that software can respond to – I’ll leave you to discover that when you read the book.

What’s scary is that Criado-Perez demonstrates that, as more and more data is being gathered, we are handing over control of the analysis of the data to computers and algorithms which have been programmed with an invisible bias.  That means that the things being designed, produced, funded and promoted from now on will already incorporate a gender bias, even without meaning to.

Why I liked it

This is an incredibly interesting topic, for many reasons:

1. It shows how the data gap has a real-life impact

It gives an insight into the way in which third-world countries still have overt gender inequality.  It describes some of the ineffective ways that people or companies have tried to overcome this and analyses why they failed.  Spoiler: it’s because they didn’t gather the right data before starting work.

2. It contrasts the gender roles of modern western countries

It shows how invisible bias still affects a large portion of first-world countries which claim to have gender equality.  It contrasts the gender roles that men and women are still expected to fulfil.

3. It explores what future impact the data gap will have

It begins an analysis of the way in which society is progressing now that we have the means and opportunity of collecting so much data.  Even if you’re not specifically interested in feminism or gender equality, this aspect of Invisible Women is fascinating because it considers what our future will look like when data analysis is done solely by computers.

4. It shows the range of gender inequality

It shows that gender inequality isn’t just about physical things (like whether there are adequate childcare facilities so mothers can go back to work) but the social and psychological things as well (why women are still the primary care-givers, why salary and childcare cost hinders women from getting back into full-time work and why men don’t generally take paternity leave).

Some problems with it

            1. There are lots of statistics.

This might sound obvious, since the entire book is about data (or, rather, the lack of it), but for a casual reader, it was rather statistic-heavy.

I managed to read it by focusing on the story elements rather than the numbers.  Criado-Perez is excellent at explaining what the numbers mean in terms of how the data affects women (and men, and society as a whole) and the numbers are there for reference if you want them.

I’m not sure that my approach was the best, but I glossed over the numbers and absorbed the meaning.

            2. The anecdotes, examples and data come from all over the place.

The other issue I had with this book was that it chopped and changed between countries.  One moment it was talking about a study from the UK, then a statistic from the USA and then a phenomenon in another country.

I understand why it does this: Criado-Perez is using the data that is available and, if the data comes from those countries, of course she will analyse it.  However, it does then jump around a lot and I never really got a sense of place, and couldn’t quite position the UK (where I live) in relative terms to the rest of the countries.

Of course, this criticism only goes to support Criada-Perez’s entire argument, which is that there is a lack of data on women.  There simply isn’t enough data in any one country for her to analyse.  She has to use what data she can gather from around the world.

Who I recommend reads Invisible Women

This is a book for both men and women.

With the statistics there in front of you, it’s difficult to shrug off the idea of gender inequality.  I’d recommend this to women because it’s likely you weren’t aware of how prevalent the data bias is, and I’d recommend it to men because you should understand how women are disadvantaged every day in small ways.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in social development and change.  It gives a very clear picture of how our modern society has ended up in this particular state.  Although the agenda is clear, it does also talk about how this lack of data (or lack of awareness) affects various elements of society, including city planning, social mobility and medicine.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in feminism or gender equality.  It demonstrates how simple things that we (as a society) take for granted are actually biased in favour of men, and particularly the men in power. 

It’s an incredibly important piece of work for the people who want to instigate successful change – men and women alike.  I say ‘instigate successful change’ because Criado-Perez proves, time and time again, that even the most well-meaning initiatives have failed to have a positive impact because they have not been properly thought through with reference to women and the data.

A warning

This is not an easy book to read.

It is a catalogue of inequality and bias against women, from every aspect of our lives.

Whilst these inequalities and injustices won’t surprise most women, seeing them listed in this way is difficult.

Women living in modern, western countries will find it sobering and upsetting to read about women living in poorer countries who have far fewer rights than we do.

However, I think it’s important that people are aware of these differences, rather than ignoring them because they are difficult to confront.

Let me know what you think

If you’ve read Invisible Women or are reading it now, let me know what you think!  I’d love to chat about it – it’s an incredibly dense piece of work and I’m still unpacking it.

Recommend similar books ad documentaries, please!  I’d love to learn more about this so if you have any good recommendations, pass them my way.

Either drop me a line in the comments section below or say hello on Twitter.  You can find me at @AlisonJanetBro1.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back next week to read my latest blog post.

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