Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

R-Ladies NYC Book Club

This week I attended my first R-Ladies Book Club event. As I have mentioned in the past, R-Ladies is an organization that promotes gender diversity in the R Programming community through talks, workshops, mentorship and even book clubs. Book choices range from general data topics to learn more about what is out there in the world of data to books that focus on technical skills like data visualization.

For this specific Meetup, we read “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez, and I was captivated from page 1. Yes, it is obvious that gender bias exists in the world, but this book is truly eye-opening to the problems women are facing around the world and how clear the solution to these issues are: closing the gender data gap and female representation in government.

In this book, Perez explores the gender data gap and the effect this has on women in society. The premise is that throughout human history males have been considered the “norm” while females are a “deviation” or “atypical”. It seems the world has forgotten that females make up half of the human race and this means that throughout generations, communities and cities have been designed and built for men.

From transportation to work tools to healthcare, data has never been collected on women because they were never asked, never considered and never a part of the planning. Even when the data is there, men don’t know what to do with it because they cannot relate to women’s experiences and, therefore, it becomes less important. Women’s opinions have never been considered and women have simply been forgotten – leading to the title of this book “Invisible Women”.

Perez focuses on four common themes throughout the book: 1) forgetting to accommodate for the female body, 2) sexual violence against women, 3) unpaid care work and 4) excuses.

Women in the military and the police force have to wear “unisex” uniforms that don’t fit them. Not only is this uncomfortable to wear, but having uniforms that do not fit properly are less protective and inefficient for women. Women have actually altered their own bodies to fit into “unisex” uniforms – this is outrageous. The lack of gender data in healthcare is even more serious as women are given medications that aren’t effective and are even harmful because they were created based on male-biased data. A world that is not designed with women in mind is a world that is dangerous for them.

In slums where there are no indoor toilets or public toilets for women, forces women to defecate at night. A woman having to work odd hours means that she is taking public transportation at night, and still has a long way to walk home. Situations like these put women in vulnerable positions where they are likely to be assaulted. Then, there are women trying to escape domestic violence only to end up in shelters and facilities that are run by men where they are also abused. It’s not because of sex that women are raped, it’s because of gender and “the social meanings we have imposed on male and female bodies.” So tell me, when will this end?

With social expectations comes the expectation for women to do more unpaid work then men. Women are expected to handle housework, childcare and eldercare all on top of a regular job and taking care of themselves. It’s no wonder that women are less likely to have a full time job or leave the work force entirely, because unpaid work is essential for society to function. But – if cities and systems were designed with needs of this unpaid work in mind, for both men and women to do this work efficiently, women could work more and this would actually help the economy.

So, why isn’t this happening? Excuses. Women are too complicated and cannot be measured. Across all industries, from healthcare to transportation and tech, everyone complains that the female bodies are too hormonal, that women’s travel patterns are messy…etc. This leads to a common question: “Why can’t women be more like men?” Maybe because women aren’t men. Because of half the world is made up of other genders other than men. These issues aren’t just women’s issues; these are issues for all humans. And this is just the beginning.

While Perez proposes to fix these issues (and more) through closing the gender data gap and increase female representation – this is much easier said than done.

The truth is that from a young age people need to be taught that women can achieve and have success just like men. All children need to be presented with female examples alongside male examples. The social norm must change, because only then will women in power have more power, and actually be listened to at all levels of government. Only then, can we get the proper funding for proper research to be done on these issues so that women can be fairly represented among the design processes in tech, healthcare, transport etc. Only then will women have time to work, be safe while working or traveling and actually be able to “live”. This doesn’t just benefit women; this benefits all humans.

This post just scrapes the surface of the issues presented by Perez in “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”. If you are at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend it for your next read.

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