By Helena Wynne
When Invisible Women was gifted to me, I was itching to read it, not only because of the critical acclaim that accompanied it, but also because of the author, Caroline Criado Perez and her successful reputation as a feminist campaigner. Perez is responsible for numerous feminist campaigns, her most notable of which includes her campaign to get a woman on a Bank of England banknote and successfully campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square. The crux of both these campaigns: female representation. Invisible Women is a collection of data analysis to support the theory that because of a lack of female representation and a failure to collect data on women and their lives, we, as a result, live in a world that is almost exclusively designed for men. It sounds rather ridiculous to believe, I know. Especially considering that women do make up 50% of the population, and because it is difficult to fathom that the majority of the things we do are tailored towards men. Especially as we believe that some things - 'snow clearing', for example - cannot be connected with gender bias or any bias for that matter; that they are “objectively” managed. However, as Perez so successfully explores, examples of these are few and far between.
In Invisible Women, Perez dissects society's systemic gender data bias through data research, and in turn helps to destroy the “natural” narrative that surrounds feminist discussions. This narrative is the inference that women are naturally more inclined to adopt certain positions within society because their “natural” biological makeup - their sex - makes them more prone to do so. For example, the idea that women are naturally not able to perform as well as men in the workplace because of their biological ability to fall pregnant. Through destroying this “natural” narrative that has previously pervaded feminist discussion, Perez re-emphasises that gender, not sex, is the reason behind the social determined failure that we ascribe to women. However, her angle from which she articulates this differs from other feminist books and I would argue is far more effective. Perez constructs her argument around specific examples to show how embedded and subconscious gender bias is, both within the design of our cities and within our society. Her revelations include how 'snow clearing' can actually be sexist, how women are far more likely to die from a natural disaster than men, and perhaps the most revolutionary one for me: a dissection of the reasoning, and a rational reason at that, behind why there is always such a long queue for the female loos. Full disclosure - this is not because we spend all our time chatting and looking at ourselves in the mirror, or as I am often faced with, that we go in “packs”. Most importantly she uses these examples to not only stress how rife systemic gender bias is, but to emphasise how, when this is addressed and women are accounted for, all of society benefit.
At the heart of Invisible Women is Perez’s unique dissection of the gender data bias. She surrounds all her examples with data analysis and statistics, helping to show how both conscious and subconscious everyday sexism can be, contributing to the formation of an argument that is more digestible and less disputable. Perez’s decision to put data at the centre of her argument provokes both a reality check for the reader and ensures the book has a myth busting effect. For me this approach was revolutionary; the revelation of the “gender data gap” helps stress both the reality of everyday sexism and the reasoning behind it. It is within this medium of delivery that this book shines out from other feminist books. The use of statistics helps to provide us with some well needed perspective towards the feminist discussion, as well as providing us with digestible and concrete reasoning behind why things are the way they are, whilst, most importantly, also highlighting how simple the solution is. If women are accounted for and represented within data and design, women and all of society will benefit. To show this, examples of schemes without a “gender data gap” are compared with schemes with a “gender data gap”. For example, Perez compares Sweden’s successful accommodation of women in their society with that of India’s and this is incredibly important.
What I am often faced with is, “it is getting better”, with direct reference to the Western world and the world that surrounds us. Yes, I agree that it is getting better for women within the Western world. However, it is still not what it should be and even then, I would argue that this “better” is exclusive to white, heterosexual, middle-class women - not all women. Perez highlights in Invisible Women the importance to bring up all women. In order to be rid of the gender bias that perpetuates our world we need all women to benefit. Successful female representation within data and design cannot be exclusive to the privileged woman. Perez explores how women are still experiencing serious infringements on personal liberties, reducing their ability to engage freely with society. For example in India, due a complete lack of access to private female toilet facilities, women are forced to relieve themselves in unmonitored spaces. These spaces are known as predatory hunting grounds for sexual assault.
What Invisible Women has re-emphasised is how damaging both active and passive sexism is. Most crucially for me is the danger and everyday reality of subconscious and passive sexism, especially when it is not wholly accounted for in a society that is governed by meritocracy. Meritocracy and its criteria, in principle, is admirable and I do believe has the best of intentions. However, in reality and in practice it is rarely applicable as its foundations are based on the idealistic notion that one can separate someone from their position within society. That one’s social position does not have a direct effect on their ability to achieve these “merits” and as a result that these “merits” can be objectively valued and managed. What Invisible Women has highlighted to me is that this is rarely possible - especially within minority groupings, where women exist within a society that is quite frankly, in every sense of the word, tailored against them, whether this be in design or in anything else. Existing within a society that does not wholly account for your existence reduces your ability to function within it. For example, having calculated that women do 75% of the world's unpaid care work, this is still not accounted for, it is undervalued and most importantly it is not put into economic perspective. Perez does just this through data - for example, Mckinsey estimated that women’s unpaid care work contributes $10 trillion to annual GDP. If this was universally valued as this economic equivalent, the importance and necessity of unpaid care would be universally acknowledged and universally accounted for, giving woman the ability to engage more freely within the workplace. This is because going to look after your kids or an elderly relative would not be valued by societies or employers as a luxury, but as an economic necessity, and as Perez reveals, would benefit all of society. Working women have a positive effect on global GDP; for every percentage increase in women’s employment there is a greater increase in global GDP.
Yet Invisible Women’s overarching message is not to blame, but to inform. Despite outlining through incredible examples how systemically sexist society is, it is important to note that Perez does not suggest that this data gap is always conscious or malicious. Instead, it is a result of a way of thinking that has been around for so long and is so deeply engrained in our subconscious that women, as a result, become “invisible” factors when making decisions, whether that be decisions regarding design or anything else. Her solution, however: more female representation. Women making decisions ensures that women are accounted for in those decisions and that goes for every minority grouping. This is not difficult, but incredibly necessary to ensure a successful and functioning society that is truly representative of the people that make it.