Joan Smith

Female Unfriendly

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By

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If I want to walk along the river near where I live, I have to cross one of the busiest roads in west London. The only access is via an underpass, an enclosed tunnel where a female friend of mine was once sexually assaulted. Every time I use it, gritting my teeth and checking whether anyone is approaching from the other side, I think about how much of the urban environment is designed without a thought for the safety of women.

Caroline Criado Perez gives many examples of this in her book Invisible Women, showing how women approach everyday experiences – using a multistorey car park or waiting at a lonely bus stop – with a very different attitude from men. If you are a woman, checking for danger becomes second nature: walking home at night, I always pay attention to who is using the same street and, if it is a man, whether I need to pause under a street lamp until he passes.

Some men are sensitive to women’s apprehensions, making sure not to walk too close or making a point of crossing to the other side to signal they are not a threat. But our use of public space still feels conditional, a point brought home every time the police warn women not to go out after dark following a particularly egregious murder. I’ve never heard a senior police officer ask men to stay at home at night. Criado Perez’s book is a reminder of how much the status quo stealthily favours the male half of the population.

For that reason, I suspect what she has to say here will seem, to some readers at least, more controversial than it really is. Most people think that the world they grow up in is both normal and fair, unless they happen to be blatantly disadvantaged by it. Women still don’t have equal pay in this country, we don’t make up half the legislature or senior judiciary, and the government’s austerity policy has been much tougher on women than men. Yet I still hear people, usually on the right of the political spectrum, complaining that the drive for equality has gone too far, leaving men as the disadvantaged sex.

This book, which demonstrates the bias men enjoy in both familiar (to me at least) and less obvious scenarios, sets the record straight. I knew, for instance, that women fare worse after heart attacks because they present with different symptoms from men; Criado Perez cites research showing that women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed because they tend not to have the classic ‘Hollywood heart attack’, which begins with chest and left-arm pains. But I didn’t realise that women are also more likely to suffer serious injuries in a car crash because crash test dummies have traditionally been designed to reflect the ‘average’ male body. So have cars, as it happens, which means that women have to sit further forward – and are at greater risk in a frontal collision – when they are driving.

Even as mundane an activity as snow-clearing in Sweden turns out to have carried an inherent male bias. It came to light in 2011 when council officials in the town of Karlskoga were required to assess how far their practices promoted gender equality, prompting one of them to joke that snow-clearing was at least one activity that the ‘gender people’ would keep their noses out of. He was wrong, as it happens. What the equality audit revealed was that the council’s policy of clearing roads first favoured men, who used cars in greater numbers, over women, who tended to walk or use public transport more than men. When councillors in Karlskoga switched priorities, they actually saved public money because the number of women admitted to hospital after falling on snowy surfaces decreased dramatically.

If women in prosperous modern democracies are affected by unrecognised sex discrimination, it is much worse for women in conflict zones. In a chapter entitled ‘It’s Not the Disaster That Kills You’, Criado Perez describes how going to the toilet has become a high-risk activity in refugee camps, where some women have resorted to wearing adult nappies for fear of being raped. For years, NGOs have been calling for contraception and obstetric care to be provided for female refugees, yet such essentials remain low on the list of priorities.

The cumulative effect of all this evidence is devastating, even if it confirms what most women already know. Invisible Women appears at a moment when our rights are under attack, not least in the USA, where the arrival of the Trump administration has given fresh wind to attempts to restrict abortion. Anyone who doubts that we live in a world designed by and for men needs to read this book, with its implicit message that even what we’ve won so far can never be taken for granted.

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