How Can Women Be So Invisible?

As I continue to read Invisible Women, I find myself more and more upset, just as the author is very upset by what she is revealing. And I also find myself more and more drawn in; the writing seems better and the statistics are becoming part of what makes the book so good. I fear that my own male prejudice was showing in my previous post about this book. And that is kind of the point of this book.

The author’s hypothesis (already proven beyond the shadow of a doubt after the first two chapters) is that the world and nearly everything in it suffers from a male-centered bias. The standard human anything is considered male. One example from the book — anatomy and female anatomy. When one studies anatomy, the vast majority of the images are of male bodies, even when the presence of a penis is not required to illustrate that particular part of the anatomy. Female is treated as an afterthought, if it is considered at all. One might be tempted to think this is no big deal; the differences are minor or a matter of scale. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. And this book shows over and over again just how much this is so.

There is a myth in the United States that life, and business in particular, is a meritocracy. That this is simply not so, is clear by how disproportionate representation is across a great many sectors of society. For example, if life were a meritocracy, for the most part, the percentages of women in orchestras would be close to matching that of the population in general. And until blind auditions were instituted in 1970s, there were close to zero women in orchestras. In chapter 4, The Myth of Meritocracy, the author shows that about a decade after this simple change, women filled approximately half of the chairs in the New York Philharmonic. Not a meritocracy after all.

This myth is most obvious in the tech world. And the author here asks the very important question, Are women really less capable or are they taught to see themselves as less capable? After all, until age five, boys and girls

draw roughly equal percentages of male and female scientists, averaged out across boys and girls. By the time children are seven or eight, male scientists significantly outnumber female scientists. By the age of fourteen, children are drawing four times as many male scientists as female scientists.

Chapter 4, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

It seems that girls are taught subtly that they are not what scientists and computer programmers look like. We need to do something about this.

In Chapter 5, The Henry Higgins Effect (Why can’t a woman be more like a man?), the author revisits much of what Sheryl Sandberg brought out in her bestseller Lean In about the gender inequity in business. Much of this is simply because men do not have the same experiences as women, so it never even enters the thought of (male) leadership that there should be pregnancy parking, for instance. Additionally, we have different expectations of men and women, so while a man showing conviction and confidence is perceived as a leader, a woman expressing those same qualities is labeled bossy, or worse, a bitch. And if women fit the stereotype of nurturing and supportive, they are overlooked. The playing field is far from even. Pretending it is a meritocracy when there isn’t even a common scoresheet to measure that merit, is proof that isn’t a meritocracy.

In chapter 6, Being Worth Less Than a Shoe, the author explores poorly regulated industries that pose undue dangers to and unfair treatment of the disproportionate number of women who work in them.

In 2015 the New York Times reported the story of manicurist Qing Lin, forty-seven, who splashed some nail-polish remover on a customer’s patent Prada sandals. ‘When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay’, and Lin was fired. ‘I am worth less than a shoe,’ she said. Lin’s story appeared in a New York Times investigation of nail salons which revealed ‘all manner of humiliation’ suffered by workers, including constant video monitoring by owners, verbal, and even physical abuse. Lawsuits filed in New York courts include allegations of sixty-six-hour weeks at $1.50 an hour and no pay at all on slow days in a salon that charged manicurists for drinking the water.

Chapter 6, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

And because women do the majority of the unpaid care work around the world, many of these women find part-time work, which often is in these precarious situations with little to no protection. It’s time we learn to value the contributions of women in the same way we do those of men.

A recurring theme throughout the book is what the author calls “the gender data gap”. Most studies conducted focus exclusively or primarily on men. Those that include a significant number of women often don’t disaggregate the data by sex. So we often have little to no data on how these studies affect men and women differently. And there is often a great deal of difference, when the data is disaggregated. This fact is front and center when the author covers women in agriculture in chapter 7, The Plough Hypothesis.

In this chapter she covers in great depth the disaster of design and distribution that surrounds the history of “clean” stoves in the developing world.

The trouble with traditional stoves is that they give off extremely toxic fumes. A woman cooking on a traditional stove in an unventilated room is exposed to the equivalent of more than a hundred cigarettes a day.

Chapter 7, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

The clean stove was developed to solve this problem at a low cost. The fact that they weren’t universally accepted and adopted was blamed on the ignorance of women, saying that they needed to be “educated” in proper stove usage. But the real issues included:

  • the stoves increased cooking time and required more attending
  • the stoves required more maintenance
  • women’s lack of purchasing authority

Simply talking to the women before designing the stove would have prevented many of the problems. Indeed, one manufacturer did survey women and the results were very different.

Based on their findings they set about fixing the stove technology to fit the women. Realising that ‘a single HEC stove cannot possibly replace all of these traditional stoves’, the researchers concluded that ‘significant fuelwood reductions can only be achieved with locally customizable solutions in different parts of the world’. The result of their data-led design was the mewar angithi (MA), a simple metal device that ‘was engineered to be placed in a traditional chulha in order to provide the same airflow mechanism in the traditional chulha as occurs in the HEC stoves’.

Chapter 7, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

The author covers another design issue in chapter 8, One-Size-Fits-Men. This is the idea that gender neutral products work equally well for men and women. Too often, that is simply not the case.

The standard width of the keyboard keys on a piano seems to be gender neutral. But because men have larger average hand size than women, there is a disproportionate number of male virtuoso piano players. Despite the creation of a piano keyboard with narrower keys, most manufacturers don’t offer it for sale. The adherence to the standard design is hard to overturn, even though it would benefit both women and men with smaller hands. And the chapter goes on to show similar situations with other product designs, such as smartphones, voice-recognition software, and artificial intelligence.

In chapter 9, A Sea of Dudes, Perez addresses the male bias in technology and venture capital. Women are half of the world’s population. Yet when product ideas that serve women (breast pumps and menstrual tracking apps, for instance) are presented for funding, the male-dominated VC firms nearly universally pass. The only hope these women often have is of finding a woman on these boards.

Women struggle to be taken seriously in the tech world because they don’t fit the sterotype.

It all feels rather catch-22ish. In a field where women are at a disadvantage specifically because they are women (and therefore can’t hope to fit a stereotypically male ‘pattern’), data will be particularly crucial for female entrepreneurs. And yet it’s the female entrepreneurs who are less likely to have it, because they are more likely to be trying to make products for women. For whom we lack data.

Chapter 9, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Once again, the gender data gap rears its ugly head. And this leads to situations like this, when Apple completely forgot about at least 50% of their users.

When Apple launched their AI, Siri, she (ironically) could find prostitutes and Viagra suppliers, but not abortion providers.17 Siri could help you if you’d had a heart attack, but if you told her you’d been raped, she replied ‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.’18 These are basic errors that surely would have been caught by a team with enough women on it – that is, by a team without a gender data gap.

Chapter 9, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Perhaps the most maddening section for me thus far was Part IV: Going to the Doctor. The first chapter in this part (chapter 10, The Drugs Don’t Work), covers how women’s biology differs from men and, because of this, drugs don’t work for women the same way they do for men.

Drug trials don’t often account for the differences between women and men, so the dosage and effects of drugs are often based on a 70kg man, not particularly accurate for all men, but potentially fatal for women. And there doesn’t seem to be much happening to address this. Many countries require drug trials to include women and even disaggregate the data when they fund these trials. Despite these mandates, they are not always followed. As I said in my title to this post, How can women (half the world’s population) be so invisible? It’s simply maddening!

I most recently finished reading chapter 11, Yentl Syndrome. This chapter focuses on how medicine and medical research treats men and women the same despite their differing biologies. The most extreme example of this is the fact that even though the typical image of a person having a heart attack is a middle aged man clutching his chest or left arm, women have more heart attacks than men. And that isn’t even the worst part. Their symptoms of heart attack are completely different from men’s!

Women (particularly young women) may in fact present without any chest pain at all, but rather with stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea and fatigue.

Chapter 11, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

As with drug treatments in general, the treatments for cardiovascular disease are male-biased as “sex differences have not generally been integrated either into ‘received medical wisdom’ or even clinical guidelines.” Similar issues arise with the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis, ADHD, and Asperger’s. This leaves women undiagnosed, suffering, and in danger for their lives. Why is this okay?

As I said at the beginning of this longer than usual post, I have come to share the author’s concern and sharp attitude about the nonchalance surrounding how half of the world’s population is being poorly served or ignored. Surely our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters deserve better than this. I look forward to learning more about how we can address these issues as I continue to read.

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