Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

2019 Business Book of the Year

2019 Business Book of the Year

The stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future. They are all marked–disfigured–by a female-shaped ‘absent presence’. This is the gender data gap. …These silences, these gaps, have consequences.
Invisible Women is a story about absence–and that sometimes makes it hard to write about.
The point of this book is not psychoanalysis. This book cannot provide ultimate proof for why the gender data gap exists. I can only present you with the data…
Private motivations are, to a certain extent, irrelevant. What matters is the pattern.
I will argue that the gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male.
Invisible Women is the story of what happens when we forget to account for half of humanity. It is an exposè of how the gender data gap harms women when life proceeds, more or less as normal. In urban planning, politics, the workplace. …It’s when women are able to step out from the shadows with their voices and their bodies that things start to shift. The gaps close. And so, at heart, Invisible Women is also a call for change.
In such a framing, women are set up to be forgettable. Ignorable. Dispensable–from culture, from history, from data. And so, women become invisible.
The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men so good for nothing and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome. Jane Austen
Caroline Criado Perez; Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men 

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There are times when I read a book, and I almost want to…if not give up, at least wonder if these authors have put in all this effort, and it makes no difference at all.

I struggle with these feelings when I read books on racial issues.  And, also, when I read books dealing with women in modern life – in business life, and in society in general.

I certainly struggled with this when I presented Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men last Friday at the November First Friday Book Synopsis.

Invisible Women was the Business Book of the Year for 2019; it is an acclaimed, and valuable book. And, yet, after I presented my synopsis of this book, one woman said that it was just so depressing.  Because, she said, she knew it was true; and that nothing had ever really changed.  She spoke from painful experience.

Caroline Criado Perez, the author, among other efforts, led the campaign to keep an image of a woman (other than the Queen) on British Currency.  Jane Austen is now on the back of the £10 note, thanks to the effort she led.  This book was the Business Book of the Year of 2019, selected by McKinsey and The Financial Times.

And, note:  this book is truly international in its stories and illustrations.

In my synopses, I always ask What is the point?  Here is my answer for this book:
Because the default is male, in every arena, in every region, then women are ignored, not taken into account, invisible…  There is a serious, very, very long-term, data shortage about women. 

And I always ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a sweeping history and international overview of the “invisibility” of women. You will learn much.
#2 – This book is filled with “I never thought of that” insights.  You will stop and think much.
#3 – This book provides plenty of “call to action” examples.  You might think about actions you can take.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are the best of the best that I selected from my highlights from this book:

• One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even: men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all. Because when we say human, on the whole, we mean man.
• The female-specific concerns that men fail to factor in cover a wide variety of areas, but as you read you will notice that three themes crop up again and again: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women.  
• “What were the females doing while the males were out hunting?” Answer: gathering, weaning, caring for children during ‘longer periods of infant dependency’, all of which would similarly have required cooperation.  This knowledge, the ‘conclusion that the basic human adaptation was the desire of males to hunt and kill,’ objects Slocum, ‘gives too much importance to aggression, which is after all only one factor of human life.’   
• When in 2017 the first female head of London’s Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, suggested that we should replace ‘fireman’ with the now standard (and let’s face it, much cooler) ‘firefighter’, she received a deluge of hate mail.   
• Former doctor Peter Davison expressed ‘doubts’ about the wisdom of casting a woman in the role of Doctor Who. Colin Baker, the body into whom the Peter Davison doctor had morphed, disagreed with his predecessor. Boys have ‘had fifty years of having a role model’, he argued.   
• The history of humanity. The history of art, literature and music. The history of evolution itself. These facts have been lying to us. …and if the past few years have shown us anything it is that how we see ourselves is not a minor concern. Identity is a potent force that we ignore and misread at our peril. 
• The truth is that white and male is just as much an identity as black and female. 
• The reporting rate is even lower in New York City, with an estimated 96% of sexual harassment and 86% of sexual assaults in the subway system going unreported, while in London, where a fifth of women have reportedly been physically assaulted while using public transport, a 2017 study found that ‘around 90% of people who experience unwanted sexual behaviour would not report it’.  
• I am invariably faced with the comment, ‘But, surely, it’s getting better? 
• In other words, they held workshops to encourage women to be more like men. 
• Recent research has emerged showing that while women tend to assess their intelligence accurately, men of average intelligence think they are more intelligent than two-thirds of people. This being the case, perhaps it wasn’t that women’s rates of putting themselves up for promotion were too low. Perhaps it was that men’s were too high.   
• Article 8 of the legally binding Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union reads, ‘In all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women.’ Clearly, women being 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash is one hell of an inequality to be overlooking. 
• For millennia, medicine has functioned on the assumption that male bodies can represent humanity as a whole. As a result, we have a huge historical data gap when it comes to female bodies, and this is a data gap that is continuing to grow as researchers carry on ignoring the pressing ethical need to include female cells, animals and humans, in their research. … Women are dying, and the medical world is complicit. It needs to wake up. 
• (When) a woman speaks loudly in parliament she is “shushed” with a finger to the lips, as one does with children. That never happens when a man speaks loudly’.
• Analysis of 182 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 demonstrated that when women are included in peace processes there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years, and a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least fifteen years. 

Here are a few of the key points I included from this book in my synopsis:  

  • Because women are invisible, women are not “valuable…” (they have little to no “worth”)
  • None of this means that the Bank of England deliberately set out to exclude women. It just means that what may seem objective can actually be highly male-biased… …The fact is that worth is a matter of opinion, and opinion is informed by culture.
  • So much missing data…
  • But when your big data is corrupted by big silences, the truths you get are half-truths, at best.
  • The male-unless-otherwise-indicated approach to research seems to have infected all sorts of ethnographic fields.
  • So much missing data, because…women are not in the room.
  • in the conference rooms
  • in the political committee rooms
  • in the leadership seats
  • in the disaster planning rooms
  • in the technology company planning rooms
  • When women are in the room, they are:
  • not listened to; sometimes not even seen (they are …invisible)
  • interrupted; talked over
  • not called upon
  • and…harassed (in word and action)
  • when women “act male” (forceful; assertive; confident; ambitious)
  • they are ridiculed; rejected…
  • interrupting simply isn’t viewed the same way when women do it….So telling women to behave more like men – as if male behaviour is a gender-neutral human default – is unhelpful, and in fact potentially damaging.
  • Yes, we do need more women in public office
  • As little as a single percentage point rise in female legislators was found to increase the ratio of educational expenditure. The presence of women in politics makes a tangible difference to the laws that get passed.
  • The first is that when you exclude half the population from a role in governing itself, you create a gender data gap at the very top. 
  • What do women need to do about this?
  • Sheryl Sandberg’s approach for navigating hostile work environments, outlined in her book Lean In, is for women to buckle up and push through. And of course that is part of the solution. I am not a female politician, but as a woman with a public profile I get my own share of threats and abuse. And, unpopular as this opinion may be, I believe that the onus is on those of us who feel able to weather the storm, to do so. …So, to a certain extent, it is an ordeal that our generation of women needs to go through in order that the women who come after us don’t.
  • The better way…
  • 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. When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten. …All ‘people’ needed to do was to ask women. 

And, here are my six lessons and takeaways

#1 – Don’t have meetings; don’t build teams; without full participation by women.
#2 – If you are male – quit interrupting! Especially, quit interrupting women.
#3 – Read more books; study more about gender ignorance, and gender bias…
#4 – Recognize that if (since) this is true about women, ask: which other groups do we leave out of our “default” understandings?
#5 – Intentionally read more about the accomplishments of women.
#6 – Maybe, make your work decisions — about which products to buy, and which companies to interact and do business with — based on how they value and treat women.

I have presented synopses of many books focusing on issues of women in the workplace. I could recommend a number of them. But my new recommendation would be this:  start with this book.  It provides the data about the missing data.  This is a foundational book; a foundation worth knowing, and grasping, and then acting upon.

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