The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book last year when someone suggested it in my book club. It didn’t get chosen then, but I heard more about it on a podcast episode. I was blown away by the story of these young women (girls, in many cases). So when this book came back around this year as a possibility for our book club, I was excited when it was selected.

It is the well-researched history of mostly teenage women who worked painting luminous watches and other instruments in the early part of the twentieth century. What made the watches glow was radium in the paint. At that time, they weren’t fully aware of the dangers of radiation. In fact, radium was often seen as a miracle cure. But as the dangers became known to the employers, they did nothing to protect their employees. These young women would even put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths to get a fine point. And they were playful with it, painting themselves with it like makeup before they went out after work.

Years down the road, they started having medical problems that no one understood. The most common was their teeth falling out and their jaws literally coming apart. Eventually they discovered that it was the paint that had caused their issues. They hired lawyers to sue the employers who fought them with everything they had.

This is a hard read, but not because of the writing. The writing is excellent. But to read what these women went through physically and emotionally due to the negligence and heartlessness of their employers was deeply effecting. If this had been fiction, I would have had a hard time finding it believable. It is important to remember what these women went through to fight for workers’ rights.

My rating: 4.5/5

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife book cover

The premise of this book really drew me in. It fits with other dystopias like Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It also has a feminist twist that amped my eagerness to read it. The story is that of a woman who is an obstetric nurse at a hospital in San Francisco when an airborne plague breaks out that kills nearly everyone who gets it. The thing is, women and children are ten times more likely to die from it, leaving a world of almost no women or children. Everyone is left to fend for themselves. What does a lone woman do in a world like this? That is the premise. Unfortunately for me, it did not live up the the promise I saw in it, despite it having won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award.

The thing that really spoiled this book for me was the editing. This book really needed better editing. Many times, especially in the beginning, I found myself struggling to understand the action happening in the story. It was unclear and seemed to subtly but not clearly contradict earlier action. For example, in one paragraph the characters might be facing each other; in the next, one turns around to face the other. Huh? When and how did they end up facing away from each other? But I also found a complete, glaring error.

This mistake occurs in chapter eight where the author describes the scientists seeking a vaccine for the plague. They develop one and then look for those who are already infected to test it on. “They developed a vaccine, and a FEMA crew flew it into St. Louis to find infected persons on whom to test it.” Except that is not how vaccines are tested or used. They don’t treat disease, they prevent it. Vaccines are tested on those who are not infected. In challenge trials, those who receive the vaccine are deliberately exposed to the disease-causing agent to see how effective the vaccine is. That is how the editor and author could have handled that part of the book.

Despite this very distracting mistake and the at times poorly written action, I found the story itself fascinating and engrossing. The main character struggles realistically with what she faces. The expressions of emotions feel real as do the people and their responses. And the responses are not all the same. Some people act to help others. Most are more selfish. It is a dark world but an interesting exploration of a plague-ravished world written before the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the interesting story line, though, the poor editing really pulled me from the action and frustrated me.

My rating: 3/5

Unusual Writing Style Choices

Matrix book cover

I can’t remember how I first learned about Lauren Groff’s novel MatrixWhat I do remember is being attracted to the subject matter. A story about a reluctant nun who uses her newfound role as abbess to build her abbey and protect the women in it. It deals with feminist themes during a time (England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries) when women’s roles were limited, to say the least. After reading the novel, I can’t say that I’d recommend it to everyone.

On the positive side, it is extraordinarily well-written. The reader is absolutely immersed in the convent and the life of the sisters there — the cycle of church services, the prayer, the work. And you are immersed in the emotions of the characters as well. And while the novel is very feminist in its philosophy, it emerges gently from the experience of the main character Marie. I never felt like I was hit over the head with it. On the contrary, I often found myself trying to navigate what exactly the main character was aiming at ultimately.

Unfortunately, while the writing is excellent, it is also very laden with terms of the world in which it takes place. Many of these are understandable from the context, but many are left unclear. This pulled me from the story to try to figure out what was being said. And there were absolutely no quotation marks in the whole book. Dialog takes place in this odd sort of reported way without the use of direct quotation. And the text almost reads like it was written in first person, though it is not. I found this combination of style choices jarring, repeatedly taking me out of the story.

In the end, I have to say that I am happy to have read the book and I enjoyed it somewhat while reading it. However, I would not recommend it to the casual reader. This feels like a book that is best read in a college English class exploring feminist themes and/or medieval monasticism. So if those themes are your happy place and you enjoy exploring an unusual writing style, this book may be for you. Everyone else, I suggest giving it a pass.

True Leadership

Virginia Hall with sheep in her lap in the doorway of a barn in France

The university I graduated from started an online book club earlier this year. I thought it might be enjoyable to read books and discuss them with others and joined. I just finished reading our second book, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. It is the story of perhaps the most successful Allied spy of World War II, Virginia Hall. On top of being a woman in the male dominated world of espionage, she was an amputee. She lost her left leg at the knee in a hunting accident. And the work she accomplished is simply incredible.

She grew up always wanting to do something more than marrying well, her mother’s dream for her. She visited France in the 1920s and fell in love with the freedom she felt there as a woman as well as the people. After her time in France, she attempted to find work at the State Department as a diplomat. They never saw her in that role, resigning her to support roles that “fit her better.”

In early 1940 she became an ambulance driver in France for the French army. When France fell to the Nazis, she found herself in London where she sought to join the newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE). They were looking to place spies in Vichy France to build up resistance fighters. They struggled to do so. They were so desperate that they decided they had nothing to lose by giving Virginia a chance, never expecting her to last very long.

She outperformed every man in the SOE (and later the US’s Office of Strategic Services or OSS) over and over again. The things she accomplished were simply incredible: jail breaks, multiple disguises and names, escaping over the Pyrenees (with one leg!). Despite her performance, she was never given a command until near the end of the war. But she never let that stop her. She was always a leader, whether recognized for it or not. People looked to her and relied upon her to get things done. The result: she and her resistance fighters liberated the Loire valley without regular troops following the Normandy invasion, the first resistance group to do this in France.

Unfortunately after the war, the good old boys’ club kicked in again. She served in the CIA until she retired (mandatory) at sixty. Unlike the men, she was never invited back in a consulting role. After she died, the leadership at the CIA finally gave her the recognition she deserved. Interestingly, Virginia herself was never much interested in recognition. She just wanted to be allowed to do her work. When she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, she refused a public ceremony as she feared it would compromise her continued work as a spy. She was the only civilian woman in World War II to receive this award.

Virginia’s story is astounding for anyone, man or woman. The fact that she did it as a woman who was often overlooked or looked down on makes it all the more impressive. Add to that the disability of a prosthetic leg and you have the story of one of the most incredible leaders of the twentieth century.

An End to Invisible Women

The last part of Invisible Women (Part VI, When It Goes Wrong), starts with chapter 15, Who Will Rebuild. It focuses on what happens after natural disasters and wars. Mostly, women are excluded from these efforts as those charged with recovery are almost exclusively men. These men come up with a range of excuses for delaying or ignoring women’s concerns, such as a need to rebuild the economy or focus on saving lives.

But the truth is, these excuses won’t wash. The real reason we exclude women is because we see the rights of 50% of the population as a minority interest.

Chapter 15, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

But these excuses are nonsense anyway. The author shows how involving women actually creates better outcomes for men and women. Once again, the main obstacle is the gender data gap and “closing the gender data gap is better for everyone.”

The final chapter of the book is It’s Not the Disaster that Kills You. When things go wrong, it’s women who are disproportionately affected. Because the world is designed for men, steps taken to mitigate disasters often don’t work for women. Oftentimes culture is a further barrier.

When women do manage to escape violence and disaster, things don’t get better for them as refugees. Once again, the human default is male. One stark example is the fact that free condoms are made available in UK homeless shelters but the same is not true of menstrual products. This is often true for global refugees despite the fact that women make be up to 70% of such populations. Here is a basic human need being ignored that can lead to disease such as urinary tract infections from the use of unhygienic products. As the author states, “getting to grips with the reality that gender-neutral does not automatically mean gender-equal would be an important start.”

My favorite chapter of this book is the Afterword. The author summarize succinctly much of what she has described throughout the book, focusing on the need to close the gender data gap.

… the case for closing the gender data gap extends beyond women’s rights. Closing the data gap, as we’ve seen from the impact women have in politics, in peace talks, in design and urban planning, is good for everyone….

When we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge we lose out on potentially transformative insights.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

She covers three themes throughout the book and summarizes them as:

  • The female body and its invisibility
  • Male sexual violence against women, “how we don’t measure it, don’t design our world to account for it, and in so doing, allow it to limit women’s liberty.”
  • Unpaid care work , “… perhaps the most significant in terms of its impact on women’s lives worldwide”

And the beginning of solving these issues is to measure them by collecting the data to close the gender data gap.

Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this discrimination. Or really, we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on. It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

And there are excuses galore. But how can any of them legitimate the exclusion and ignoring of half the world’s population? It is unconscionable. And with the fact that more and more of our world is controlled and governed by algorithms and the data fed to them, the need for accurate data that includes women is even more urgent.

… when you’re missing out half the global population in the numbers you feed your statistical algorithms, what you’re actually creating is just a big mess.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

I’ll conclude with the author’s call for better inclusion of women. As I said in an earlier post, these are our mothers, sisters, and wives. It’s time we stopped ignoring them, excluding them, and oppressing them.

There is a better way. And it’s a pretty simple one: we must increase female representation in all spheres of life…..

The solution to the sex and gender data gap is clear: we have to close the female representation gap.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Women in Public Life

Part V of Invisible Women is titled “Public Life”, and chapter 12, A Costless Resource covers the genesis of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as well as how and why women were largely left out of its calculation. Plainly put, “GDP has a woman problem.”

To begin with, GDP is not a very precise figure. It is a combination of a lot of other measures that are themselves largely imprecise. The author quotes Diane Coyle, a professor of economics at Manchester University, when she writes

When you see headlines proclaiming that ‘GDP went up 0.3% this quarter’, she cautions, you should remember that that 0.3% ‘is dwarfed by the amount of uncertainty in the figures’.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

World War II solidified the definition of GDP around the capacity of the economy to wage war. The calculation of unpaid housework was purposely left out as it did not directly affect war fighting efforts. On top of this was the difficulty in measuring it. So it was decided to leave it out.

Like so many of the decisions to exclude women in the interests of simplicity, from architecture to medical research, this conclusion could only be reached in a culture that conceives of men as the default human and women as a niche aberration. To distort a reality you are supposedly trying to measure makes sense only if you don’t see women as essential. It makes sense only if you see women as an added extra, a complicating factor. It doesn’t make sense if you’re talking about half of the human race. It doesn’t make sense if you care about accurate data.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Then after the war, there was a tremendous boom in productivity. Or was there? Since women working at home did not count toward GDP, when they started to do so after the war, their new work showed up as an increase in productivity. But instead of an increase in productivity, it simply started counting women’s previously uncounted contributions since they moved their efforts into industries that were counted toward GDP. As the author puts it, “The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender data gap of all.”

With the advent of the internet and digital collaboration in projects like the Linux operating system and Wikipedia, economists started to rethink their position on including unpaid work in GDP. Why? What changed?

And what’s the difference between cooking a meal in the home and producing software in the home? The former has largely been done by women, and the latter is largely done by men.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Perez spends the latter portion of the chapter discussing what is called “social infrastructure”. She explains

The term infrastructure is generally understood to mean the physical structures that underpin the functioning of a modern society: roads, railways, water pipes, power supplies. It doesn’t tend to include the public services that similarly underpin the functioning of a modern society like child and elder care.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Those public services are social infrastructure. These are things like early childhood education, child care, and elder care. Two studies the author cites “concluded that investing in [early childhood education] had a greater positive impact on long-term economic growth than business subsidies”. But then men aren’t as involved with early childhood education as they are in business, right? But this exclusion isn’t simply ingrained misogyny. Much of it is due to the gender data gap. Without enough data to show the benefits of changes in policy like these, how are we supposed to justify and implement them?

We just need the will to start collecting the data, and then designing our economy around reality rather than a male-biased confection.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Chapter 13 is called From Purse to Wallet and covers how public policy often moves money from the hands of women to those of men. The main example of this is jointly filed tax returns. Because of the way most income tax is calculated and the fact that women often make less than their husbands, their smaller income is taxed at a much higher rate. Lack of data is again the main reason for this.

There’s a fairly simple reason why so many tax systems discriminate against women, and that is that we don’t systematically collect data on how tax systems affect them. In other words, it’s because of the gender data gap.

Chapter 13, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

When austerity measures are taken in countries, women are more often the ones to take the hit in income. Theirs is generally lower, so they become the ones to have to take up the unpaid care work that the couple can no longer afford. And this further contributes to the gender pay gap. Perhaps without meaning to, men continue to perpetuate inequality for women simply by being ignorant of the problem. This can be resolved by closing the gender data gap by talking to women and separating study data by sex. Then the issues can become visible.

The final chapter in this part is Women’s Rights are Human Rights. In addition to failing to collect data, the gender data gap is also responsible for “the male dominance of governments around the world.” When women are in government, they have a voice that brings women’s issues to the attention of the public and government in a way that just doesn’t happen in male-dominated legislative bodies.

One of the biggest obstacles to women in government is that many women who aspire to positions in government are simply seen as too ambitious. This is despite the fact that men in similar positions do not face this criticism. Many leveled this criticism toward Hilary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016.

Being the first woman to occupy the most powerful role in the world does take an extraordinary level of ambition. But you could also argue that it’s fairly ambitious for a failed businessman and TV celebrity who has no prior political experience to run for the top political job in the world – and yet ambition is not a dirty word when it comes to Trump.

Chapter 14, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Because she was a woman forging her way into traditionally male territory, it was seen as a norm violation. Such violations turn people off. “There’s a very simple reason that a powerful woman is experienced as a norm violation: it’s because of the gender data gap.”

Because there are no or few women in government, we don’t expect them there. This creates a very challenging bind for women. Some are going to need to brave the name-calling and negative attention it will take to get more women into government. Only then will it start to feel more normal to have women there, only then will it no longer seem a norm violation. An ambitious woman will then be acceptable and perhaps even common.

What seems a little crazy is how a male-dominated world can feel normal, even to women, making male-default thinking the “norm” while ignoring half the population. When those making the rules are all men, maleness is the norm.

If the majority of people in power are men – and they are – the majority of people in power just don’t see it. Male bias just looks like common sense to them. But ‘common sense’ is in fact a product of the gender data gap….

Like a male-dominated product-development team, a male-dominated legislature will … suffer from a gender data gap that will lead it to serve its female citizens inadequately. And most of the world’s governments are male-dominated.

Chapter 14, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Much of this chapter outlines some practical ways to address this imbalance alongside how these methods have been and are being applied in countries around the world. There are ways to level the playing field to get the level of representation of women in government closer to that of the population as a whole.

One challenge once women are part of legislatures and governments is that they are treated differently, by men and women. The best example of this may be that women are interrupted far more than men. The biggest issue here is that women are penalized if they interrupt while for men this behavior is perceived as normal and acceptable. Many governmental bodies have addressed this by allocating time for everyone to speak and not allowing any interruptions. The example from the book of where this was used is in the writers room of the FX TV drama The Shield where it made the entire team more effective.

Simply put, government is not setup to serve men and women equally. As the author says toward the end of this chapter, “We have to stop wilfully closing our eyes to the positive discrimination that currently works in favour of men.”

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.

An Abundance of Stats

When I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, I was excited. It was named the best business book of 2020 by McKinsey & Company. As I read the introduction, I became even more interested to learn what I wasn’t seeing about how women are being discriminated against in the name of neutral gender policies. And the book does not disappoint on the facts and illustrations. Unfortunately for me, the book bogs down a bit with the statistics, so it is taking me longer to read than I anticipated. I’ve read three chapters so far, and it has felt like a long sheet of statistics with prose holding them together. That makes it sound like I don’t like the book. I do. However, it could be written in a more engaging manner. Regardless, the knowledge it shares and the awakening it is stirring within me is worth the time invested so far.

Chapter 1 is entitled Can Snow-Clearing Be Sexist? It shows how prioritizing the largest roads is implicitly male biased. Most women drive less than men, take more public transportation, and walk much more. In one country (I don’t recall which), when they prioritized the smaller roads and sidewalks, municipal costs actually went down. Many more accidents happen on the smaller roads and sidewalks when they are not cleared. This illustrates how a more holistic view of resources not only is more women-friendly — it also saves money.

Chapter 2 is called Gender Neutral with Urinals. This centers around the idea of how simply making all restrooms in a building “gender neutral” works against women. Men end up using all the bathrooms while women tend to use exclusively the previously ladies-only restrooms. This is because the men’s rooms lack the female friendly features they need, such as a place to dispose of feminine hygiene products. Also, bathrooms are traditionally allocated the same square footage to men’s and women’s rooms. However, due to the smaller footprint of urinals, more men can be served by the same sized bathroom than women. In order to serve men and women equally, women’s rooms need to be allocated more space. I never knew or even considered this. Very informative and enlightening!

Chapter 3 is The Long Friday and highlights the differences in men’s and women’s responsibilities in caring for others and how this affects women’s careers negatively. This one came as no surprise, but the detailed statistics from around the world are eye-opening. There are some places making progress but many more that aren’t. There is a much room for the world to get better at this.

While I might like the book to be a bit more narrative, the content is fascinating and informative. I can see already how it is changing my view of the world and the problems in it. I expect I will learn even more as I continue to read and bring this knowledge to my personal and work lives.

The Experience of Women

Last evening, I finished reading Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It won the 2019 Oregon Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Neukom Award for Speculative Fiction. And for good reason, I think.

The story is a dystopian future in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In many ways, I prefer Red Clocks. This is mainly because it is much more accessible and hits much closer to the world we live in today. Atwood’s story takes place in a future where a conservative Christian coup has taken place and overthrown the government of the United States. The result is a society that subjugates women in the name of protecting them. It is certainly a scary prospect but feels a bit remote.

Zumas’ tale could take place any time in the next decade, should things go in that direction. No date is given but it feels like today with a few twists.

Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)

Chapter 10, Red Clock by Leni Zumas

The story is about four women that are each dealing with challenges in their lives that are made more challenging by these laws. The magic is in the storytelling; the author never goes into a lengthy exposition about why these laws are wrong. The strength of the novel is in simply showing how these laws affect the women, individually and personally.

The girl slumps down against a green filing cabinet. Holds her head in both hands, knees up to her chest, rocking a little. “I just want it out of my body. I want to stop being infiltrated. God, please get this out of my body. Make this stop.” Rocking, rocking.

She is terrified, realizes the biographer….

Mattie is a kid, light boned and soft cheeked. She can’t even legally drive.

Four and a half months.

Of swelling and aching and burning and straining and worrying and waiting and feeling her body burst its banks. Of hiding from the stares in town, the questions at school. Of seeing the faces, each day, of her parents as they watch the grandchild who won’t be their grandchild be grown. Having to wonder, later on, where is the someone she grew.

Chapter 100, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

This story helps to break the illusion that difficult questions like these are black and white. They affect real people whose welfare and future need to be taken into account.

The characters are compelling and fully human. This is exactly the kind of speculative fiction that I like most, taking a current possibility and extending it into a near future to explore what the consequences might be. The result is both entertaining and thought provoking. Thank you, Professor Zumas.

Women Focused Reading

Without intending to consciously, I find myself reading what I think of as feminist literature. Years ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve started to get back into science fiction and decided to read it’s sequel, The Testaments. I started reading it on Saturday and just finished it.

On Saturday, I read about another feminist speculative fiction novel entitled Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It’s about a future where “abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo.” This dystopia seems a little closer and a little scarier. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I don’t remember where I learned about it, but yesterday I started reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s already eye opening. The ideas aren’t all that new to me, but it is giving me a perspective I didn’t have before. Here is an example from the introduction.

The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. But male universality is also a cause of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority.

Obvious, but somehow I had never realized how ridiculous it is to refer to women as a minority as they are half of the population. I’m looking forward to learning even more as I read.