From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters
In this important book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Harry N. Abrams, 2019), author Caroline Criado Perez explains how the notion that all of humanity can be represented as “man” or “mankind” has caused devastating, worldwide harm to all women and all of society. It references numerous studies and anecdotes showing how different areas of life are profoundly affected by our subconscious belief that the male experience is universal and the female experience is “niche,” unusual, and unimportant.
Women are half the human race, and our collective experiences of how we operate in the world need to be considered to plan for the common good whenever data is collected.
Perez focuses on how this bias towards seeing only the male experience exists even without the presence of conscious sexism because it is so embedded in our culture. She describes how a man told her she could not be objective because she viewed the world through a feminist lens, not grasping his own perspective was shaped by his experiences as a white man.
IS THERE A ‘UNIVERSAL HUMAN’?
This cultural inability to imagine women as important has led to ignorance of women’s collective impact on history. It has also led to the contributions of individual women in the arts and sciences being attributed to the men in their lives. The cultural belief that a woman can’t contribute to a profession or other public endeavor perpetuates itself when women are unaware of the accomplishments of other women and become discouraged from participating.
The view of man as the universal human causes injuries and impediments to job efficiency for women struggling with tools, uniforms, safety equipment, automobiles, and musical instruments designed for men. It leads to drugs being tested on only men and male lab animals, leading to ineffectiveness or danger when the same drugs are taken by women. Women miss out on access to medications such as Viagra, which can relieve intense menstrual pain.
Perez discusses how harmful chemicals could have been removed from plastic products much sooner if their effects on the women making the products had been studied.
She explains how the invisibility of women’s unpaid caregiving for children and elderly or disabled relatives causes numerous, avoidable problems at their jobs. She explains the damage when governments attempt to cut spending by cutting public services, putting even more caregiving work onto women. As with the medical issues, Perez shows how listening to women’s input about their real needs is more cost-effective for governments and businesses in the long run. Taking their activities into account for urban planning can avoid huge problems for women.
THE VIOLENCE OF IGNORING WOMEN
Perez also discusses the invisibility of male violence against women and the disproportionate impact of natural disasters and war upon women. Women have improved security at refugee camps by insisting upon solar lighting and sex segregated facilities. They have explained the need for menstrual hygiene products, contraception, and abortion.
In spite of her encyclopedic amount of evidence for numerous and seemingly overwhelming problems, Perez is optimistic. She says women tend to listen to other women and promote their inclusion in the public sphere.
For example, female politicians and relief workers gather the missing data from women on how their lives actually function to provide innovative solutions. Society is also enriched when women can give their fresh perspectives that are not even imagined when only one point of view is heard. This book is an important and insightful reference work for creating a livable world.