Exposing the Gender Data Gap: Read an extract from Invisible Women
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Exposing the Gender Data Gap: Read an extract from Invisible Women

13th March 2020

Exposing the Gender Data Gap: Read an extract from Invisible Women

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
 

 Having been a huge bestseller in 2019 Invisible Women is now published in paperback, in which award-winning campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez lays out clearly that we live in a world largely built for and by men that systematically ignores half the population. Women live in a world where phones are too big for their hands, workplace temperatures are uncomfortable, car accidents are more likely to result in serious injury and their heart attack symptoms are ignored—all due to the gender data gap, a pervasive and generally unintentional bias in assumptions and research that excludes women.

It’s a powerful and important book that demands we confront this issue and push for change. In the extract below, Criado Perez introduces the impact and root causes of the data bias.

 


Most of recorded human history is one big data gap. Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, the chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological. Instead, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the lives of the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence.

 

And these silences are everywhere. Our entire culture is riddled with them. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics. 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.

 

The gender data gap isn’t just about silence. These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact on women’s lives every day. The impact can be relatively minor. Shivering in offices set to a male temperature norm, for example, or struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm. Irritating, certainly. Unjust, undoubtedly.

 

But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety measures don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like having your heart attack go undiagnosed because your symptoms are deemed ‘atypical’. For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.

 

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.

 

This is not a new observation. Simone de Beauvoir made it most famously when in 1949 she wrote, ‘humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. [...] He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ What is new is the context in which women continue to be ‘the Other’. And that context is a world increasingly reliant on and in thrall to data. Big Data. Which in turn is panned for Big Truths by Big Algorithms, using Big Computers. But when your big data is corrupted by big silences, the truths you get are half-truths, at best. And often, for women, they aren’t true at all. As computer scientists themselves say: ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’

 

This new context makes the need to close the gender data gap ever more urgent. Artificial intelligence that helps doctors with diagnoses, that scans through CVs, even that conducts interviews with potential job applicants, is already common. But AIs have been trained on data sets that are riddled with data gaps – and because algorithms are often protected as proprietary software, we can’t even examine whether these gaps have been taken into account. On the available evidence, however, it certainly doesn’t look as if they have.

 

Numbers, technology, algorithms, all of these are crucial to the story of Invisible Women. But they only tell half the story. Data is just another word for information, and information has many sources. Statistics are a kind of information, yes, but so is human experience. And so I will argue that when we are designing a world that is meant to work for everyone we need women in the room. If the people taking decisions that affect all of us are all white, able-bodied men (nine times out of ten from America), that too constitutes a data gap – in the same way that not collecting information on female bodies in medical research is a data gap. And as I will show, failing to include the perspective of women is a huge driver of an unintended male bias that attempts (often in good faith) to pass itself off as ‘gender neutral’. This is what de Beauvoir meant when she said that men confuse their own point of view with the absolute truth.

 

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. These are issues of such significance that they touch on nearly every part of our lives, affecting our experiences of everything from public transport to politics, via the workplace and the doctor’s surgery. But men forget them, because men do not have female bodies. They, as we will see, do only a fraction of the unpaid work done by women. And while they do have to contend with male violence, it manifests in a different way to the violence faced by women. And so these differences go ignored, and we proceed as if the male body and its attendant life experience are gender neutral. This is a form of discrimination against women.

 


 

Caroline Criado Perez Author Photo
 

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker. She writes across the major national media, most regularly for the New Statesman and the Guardian, and appears in both print and broadcast as a commentator. Her first book, Do it Like a Woman, was published by Portobello in 2015. Eleanor Marx hailed it in the New Statesman as ‘an extended and immersive piece of investigative journalism,’ while Bridget Christie chose it as one of her books of the year in the Guardian, declaring that ‘young girls and women everywhere should have a copy.’

Criado Perez is also an award-winning feminist campaigner. Her most notable campaigns have included co-founding The Women’s Room, getting a woman on Bank of England banknotes, forcing Twitter to revise its procedures for dealing with abuse and successfully campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.                                                                     

She was the 2013 recipient of the Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award, and was named an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2015. She lives in London.

 

 

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