How the world was built for men

From tech to transport, women are overlooked in a world not designed for them.

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On a recent afternoon, I picked up my toddler from day-care during a snowstorm. Cars and buses whizzed past us on well-gritted roads, but the pavements were slick with ice and slush. When snow ploughs clear the streets in New York they frequently pile the snow up along the curb, leaving pedestrians scrambling over uneven mounds of compacted snow to cross the road. It’s infuriating – especially when, as I was, you’re five months pregnant and half-pushing, half-carrying a buggy. It had never occurred to me that it’s sexist, too.

At the beginning of Invisible Women, the second book by the writer and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, she recounts the story of a town in Sweden that decided in 2011 to evaluate all its policies in terms of their gender impact. At least snow-clearing is something the “gender people” would keep out of, one official joked. Or would they? Studies (and there aren’t as many of these as there should be) show that men are more likely to drive than women and tend to commute directly to and from work. Women are more likely to use public transport or walk, and to “trip chain” – that is, make several short interconnected trips. They might, for example, drop their children off at school on their way into work, and then check in on an elderly relative and pick up some dinner on the way home.

Instead of prioritising drivers – because, after all, it’s easier to drive over three inches of snow than it is to push a wheelchair through it – the town decided to clear snow for pedestrians and public transport users first. The policy change proved an unexpected money-saver. Most of the people injured during snowstorms are pedestrians (and women), and when the pavements were safer hospital admissions declined.

In some ways, it was a bold decision by Criado Perez to start with this example. Sceptical readers will no doubt be rolling their eyes at the concept of sexist snow clearing. She could have opened with any number of hard-hitting and hard-to-refute examples to illustrate her central argument, which is that women are routinely overlooked in research and data collection, so that everything from the tech we use, the medicine we take, the cities we live in and the laws and policies we live under, are designed primarily with men in mind. But in other ways, the snow clearing story is a perfect starting point. It demonstrates just how pervasive the problem is, and how unintentional – and, let’s face it, sometimes intentional – gender bias in data collection manifests itself in diverse and unanticipated ways.

Sometimes the result is an inconvenience for women. Have you ever noticed how many modern smartphones are too big for women to use one-handed? Or that voice recognition software often struggles with high-pitched female voices? Sometimes, the consequences are deadly. When women are involved in car accidents, they are 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured than men are. That’s because engineers mostly test car safety using dummies modelled after the “average male”: the most common version is 1.77m tall, weighs 76kg and has male muscle mass proportions. (Astonishing and enraging side-note: we still haven’t developed a seat belt that is safe for pregnant women to use, even though car-crashes are the leading cause of foetal death related to maternal trauma.)

Often, women experience a terrible combination of daily inconvenience and hidden dangers. For example, hundreds of policewomen have complained about their ill-fitting protective clothing, which has been designed to suit male bodies. Their kit belts leave them bruised and their stab vests leave no space for breasts and are so uncomfortable that some officers have required physio or breast reduction surgery to continue working. The vest often rides up, leaving the lower abdomen unprotected. In 1997, a female police officer was stabbed and killed while battering down a flat door. She’d had to remove her body armour because she couldn’t operate the ram while wearing it.

The data gap is particularly dangerous, and maddening, in medical research. Women are severely under-represented in clinical trials, which means we could be missing out on drugs that work for us and are regularly prescribed inappropriate drugs, or inappropriate doses. As a result, women are significantly more likely than men to suffer adverse drug reactions. Scientists don’t even know the specific effects on women of a huge number of existing medications. This is alarming. We now know, for instance, that one commonly prescribed drug for high blood pressure lowers heart-attack deaths among men but increases them for women. One of my mother’s closest friends died of a heart attack within a few hours of visiting her GP, complaining of excruciating abdominal pain. Women are more likely than men to suffer fatal heart
attacks, and 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed when they are suffering a heart attack because they are less likely than men to suffer chest pain. Many, such as my mother’s friend, instead experience nausea, stomach pain, breathlessness – and medical negligence.

Compounding the data problem and the fact that women’s bodies have not been studied in the same detail as men’s, is the tendency for medical professionals to dismiss female pain, to relabel physical suffering as psychological instability: hysteria, madness, irrationality. The same often holds for how society responds to female expressions of anger or criticism. “If I had a pound for every time a man questioned my sanity in response to my saying anything vaguely feminist on Twitter I would give up work for life,” Criado Perez writes.

In 2013, after she launched a high-profile and successful campaign to have a woman, Jane Austen, represented on British £10 notes, Criado Perez was subject to a torrent of misogynist abuse and online rape and death threats. So whose anger, whose mental state, should rightfully be pathologised? There’s a sense of rage simmering beneath the surface of Invisible Women, every now and then it bubbles up in the text, but the book’s force doesn’t derive from the power of its rhetoric – instead it’s the steady, unrelenting accumulation of evidence, the sheer weight of her argument.

There’s a risk the problem could get worse before it gets better. With the expansion of big data and artificial intelligence, computer algorithms perpetuate gender biases even while much of the public views them as politically neutral and fundamentally non-discriminatory. To start undoing the damage, and to prevent old biases self-perpetuating, Criado Perez suggests we need to begin with boosting female representation. When women reach positions of influence in business, politics and academia, they can identify the gaping data holes, the massive design flaws, the deeply entrenched injustices that male-dominated teams tend to miss. This is easier said than done. Invisible Women is also an account of the structural biases that hold women back in their personal and professional lives.

Mapping out the extent of the problem is also a good way to begin. Some of the research Criado Perez cites may be familiar, other insights are completely jaw-drop-ping. Where she excels is in making connections, her ability to tease out why the supposed unlikeability of female politicians, the lack of research into common women’s health conditions – from labour to period pain – and those infuriatingly big smartphones are all part of the same problem. Reading Invisible Women one might experience, as I did, the dizzying sensation that so many of my own stories, so many of my friends’ stories, so many incidents I had experienced as discrete and unrelated – at work, at home, on the streets, in hospital – are in fact interconnected. As women, we are so used to contorting ourselves to fit into men-shaped spaces, we’ve learned to ignore how often it hurts.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Caroline Criado Perez
Chatto & Windus, 432pp, £16.99

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control