My first book of the new year was an audiobook. I have taken to listening to books on lengthy car rides. Family business led me to some long journeys recently.
My wife and I listened to a book I bought her for her birthday, “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In a World Designed For Men” by Caroline Criado Perez.
I will admit that I began to listen with a bit of trepidation. Sexism is an issue where the emotions rise quickly in all directions.
I am intellectually allergic to rhetorical overstatement, and did not relish the heated conversations that might ensue if I as a man expressed reservations or disagreement with some part of a woman’s argument.
In actuality, I shouldn’t have worried. The author presents a thesis that is clear and easily established. In far too many instances, women’s experiences are simply ignored by institutions, practices and products that are designed by and made for men.
Often, the relevant information is simply not measured. If there is one key term in the book, it is “sex-disaggregated data.” In other words, when designing things, whatever they are, we should try to determine whether men and women are affected differently, instead of simply assuming that the experiences of men are typical.
Although Perez slips a few acerbic comments into her account, the book is based on facts, specific examples, and instances where the data we collect simply ignores women’s bodies and life experiences.
For example, women die at a higher percentage than men in automobile accidents, yet most safety testing is done with men’s larger bodies in mind. It was not until recent years that female crash test dummies were developed, and even now, their use is still quite limited. Women’s lives are at risk because safety engineers base their design on the basis of 170-pound dummies representing men.
Women sit farther forward than men to drive, and they are disproportionately likely to be in the passenger seat. They also have difficulty using seat belts designed for male chests. These things lead to injury and death.
One particularly striking chapter is about how medical research is often based on male-only samples. It becomes clear that women and men frequently respond differently to things like drugs and exercise. Their heart attacks are not like men’s. The male body is taken as the standard—women are seen as too complicated to model.
Bathroom design often does not take into account that women are the primary caregivers for the very young and the very old, and that they need more space than men do.
Women’s travel patterns are different from men’s. Whereas men want the quickest route, women often are concerned with the safest one. Traffic engineers usually do not take this into account.
Perez keeps piling the facts and sorting them into chapters dealing not only with technology, transportation and medicine, but also with international aid and recovery from natural and human-made disasters.
Simply put, after disasters, women are often not part of the planning process. Men making decisions simply forget about the unpaid labor that women contribute.
The strength of the book is its simple central message, that it is unforgivable to ignore the needs of half the human race and to assume that what works well for men also must work well for women.
This book certainly elicits emotion, but its focus on the specific details and facts of inequality make it particularly important for men to read.
Gathering data on half the human race is hardly a radical proposal.