Still missing after all these years

According to Caroline Criado-Perez, women are not people; we are a niche; an exception to the rule, even when we are not.

Criado-Perez explores this phenomenon in her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. She provides ample evidence to support her thesis that women are ignored in many important ways. For example, she reports on a study in which people were asked to draw a “beautician.” Despite the fact that the vast majority of beauticians are women, most people drew a man. In another study, she notes, when people were asked to draw words that were, on their face, genderless – words like user and participant – both women and men tended to draw male images.

It is no secret to those of us who are women that we are MIA in many places in our worlds: health research, corporate board rooms, highly paid jobs; the list could go on from here.

As a result, we often feel like uninvited guests in our own world.

Male unless otherwise indicated

Even the most even-tempered and generous among us can get a tad snarly when confronted with everyday reminders that we don’t matter. Why are so many kitchen cupboard shelves well beyond the reach of the average-sized woman when women continue to be responsible for most of the tasks carried out in a kitchen?

And when (and why) did beds get so high? At 5’4”, I am a little over the average height for a Canadian woman (5’3.4”), yet I often have to take a running jump at a hotel bed just to get into it. The frustration of this is compounded by the reality faced by most ageing women: we need to get out of bed at least once a night for a trip to the bathroom, so the leap has to be repeated several times.

As Katha Pollitt, feminist columnist with The Nation magazine, writes in her review of Criado-Perez’s book:

“It might not astonish you to learn that I keep an ongoing mental file on the annoyances, indignities and even dangers to which women are subjected in daily life.”

After listing a number of such problems, she concedes that they “are not the most important problems in the world,” but points to Criado-Perez’s book, which illustrates how even these relatively small inconveniences are symptoms of a much broader problem: human beings are presumed to be male.

Pollitt also notes that an all-woman space walk, originally planned by NASA for March of this year, had to be cancelled because there was only one woman-sized space suit; further proof of our invisibility.

Data, data and more data

Criado-Perez’s book focuses on the collection and analysis of data and information; a space in which, according to her, men are still most often in charge.

She writes about car safety data, noting that while men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, women are 71 percent more likely to be moderately injured, 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die. This is not because we are worse drivers than men, but because automobile design is built around crash-test dummies based on the average male. Female dummies started to be used by car designers less than a decade ago, in 2011, but only in the passenger seat.

To this day, seat belts are not designed to accommodate pregnant bellies, even though, according to Criado-Perez, car crashes are “the number one cause of fetal death due to maternal trauma.”

Can you hear me, Siri?

Her book is rich with examples: when orchestras conducted auditions without knowing the gender of the applicant, the proportion of women musicians hired increased to nearly 50%.

As if any of us needed convincing, she notes that public washroom design does not take into account the longer time women require. As a result, when we go to hear that orchestra with 50% women musicians, we spend the entire intermission lined up to use the facilities while men can nip in and out with time left for a glass of wine.

Bring on gender-inclusive washrooms everywhere, I say.

Most offices, she says, are five degrees too cold for women because the formula used to set these temperatures was developed more than 50 years ago using data about men’s resting metabolic rate.

Speech-recognition software is trained to respond to the male voice.

Criado-Perez’s point is, at its essence, a simple one. Eliane Glaser, reviewing the book for The Guardian, writes:

“The neat thing about data is that it avoids thorny questions of intention. Criado-Perez doesn’t set out to prove a vast conspiracy; she simply wields data like a laser, slicing cleanly through the fog of unconscious and unthinking preferences. Unless we crunch the numbers and take positive steps to correct bias, she argues, inequality will automatically continue.”

These realities can be changed. At one time in Sweden, main roads were cleared before sidewalks in order to accommodate mostly men driving to work. Urban planners changed this to clear smaller streets and sidewalks, used mostly by women taking kids to school or running errands, first. The number of snow- and ice-related injuries, where women made up 70% of those hurt, dropped.

Perhaps Invisible Women should become mandatory reading for those studying to become researchers, designers and urban planners.

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