A friend of mine recommended Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019) by Caroline Criado Perez to me, and it sounded like something I would find interesting. I’ve read a number of feminist books that have been pretty eye opening. In fact, going into this book, I suspected there wouldn’t be much that would surprise me. I was wrong. Criado Perez hits a wide variety of topics, some familiarly irritating and some astonishing.
Because I’ve been trying to read more with limited time, I’ve been listening to more audio books. Audio books tend to work best for me with straight forward stories and interesting non-fiction. I did not have a hard time paying attention to Criado Perez’s reading, but I sometimes wished I could have the page to look at when comparing the thousands of statistics that pop up in this book. I’m naturally a little skeptical of statistics without a lot of context because they can be skewed to make a number of different points. I think they would have been easier for me to absorb if I could have looked at them on the page.
Criado Perez begins the book with the unlikely effect of snow removal policy in Sweden on different genders. After it snowed, the policy was to plow the main streets first, and follow that up with the sidewalks and side streets. It seems like a reasonable plan. However, they plow the main streets in order to clear them for going to work. Because there are still gender differences in who is going to work and how they get there, men benefit more than women by having their way to work cleared immediately. Women are more likely to have to deal with getting children to school or daycare, or taking care of older relatives. Even if/when they work, they are often taking care of these chores as well. This means they are more likely to be using the sidewalks and side roads. While cars can generally push through a couple inches of snow, walking or pushing strollers can be much more difficult. What’s interesting is that when they switched their policy and hit the sidewalks first, the number of injuries and visits to the emergency room from falls and accidents decreased significantly. It was an interesting example of how government policies can affect genders differently.
Criado Perez continues with a number of different examples from around the world. The unifying theme is that the people creating laws and policies will focus on issues and people they are familiar with. When we have no women making these decisions, women and their needs are often left out of the equation. So policies, products, and laws are created that take men and their needs into account but often ignore or forget women. Criado Perez hits a large number of examples in her book, which is both a strength and weakness. Jumping from country to country with numerous statistics sometimes made the book feel a little scattered. On the other hand, there were a lot of examples, and I found myself thinking differently about the world after I finished this book.
Although Criado Perez focused on maternity policy, representation in government, refugee and aid programs, technology development, technology jobs, and many others, her discussion of car safety standards and drug testing stuck with me the most. Women are more likely to die or be seriously injured in car crashes. Unfortunately, I can’t remember all the details now, but car safety standards are formed and tested around the average male body. If they use “female” bodies, they are simply a scaled-down version of the men’s and this only started after 2010. Criado Perez used an example of a car that had a five-star safety rating, but when they finally used the female test dummy in the driver’s seat, the rating was significantly lower. Half of the population is driving around in vehicles that were designed to keep men safe, and it makes a difference.
In addition, I’d already heard some vague discussion on the news how simply decreasing the dosage of drugs tested on men doesn’t work well for women. But this problem isn’t going away. Men have higher metabolisms and they react to drugs differently. In addition, women have very different hormones and cycles of hormones than men. Drug companies have decided that men are “simpler” to use as subjects (even though they have their own cycles of hormones). There have been some pushes to include more women in clinical trials and separate out data by sex, but it sounds like it has been largely unsuccessful. When women are consistently left out of medical trials, not only are we unsure exactly how this medication affects women, but they also miss out on the benefits of discovering unintended side effects. I was shocked to learn that men were used for a clinical study on “female viagra.” Seriously?
I found this book both interesting and eye opening. The only thing is that this book sometimes felt one-sided. Criado Perez is certainly out to prove a point, which I think she does in a compelling manner. However, she often didn’t go into enough detail on each specific subject for me to be convinced that I was hearing the whole story. I sometimes wondered if there was a counterpoint to some of her arguments. On the whole, though, I would recommend this book. Criado Perez hit a number of topics that I’d never thought about. It made me think about the world in a different way.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.