Article | 7 min read

Caroline Criado Perez on systemic data bias that counts women out

By Susan Lahey

Last updated September 21, 2021

Years ago, I read an article explaining that most objects that appear solid aren’t; they are, in fact, mostly empty space filled with dancing electrons. That includes tables, and people, and rocks. Reality wasn’t what I thought it was. I had the same experience reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Built for Men by Caroline Criado Perez.

From the design of automobiles to urban planning, from pharmaceuticals to disaster recovery, Criado Perez shows how—because they are seldom at the table where planning is happening—women are simply left out of the equation. Decisions about the built world are made with men’s data, for men’s bodies, needs, and tendencies, and women are either forgotten or deliberately marginalized, she argues. Men, white men in particular, are seen as the default subject of everything, whereas the needs, the lives, the work of the other half of the global population, are seen as “niche.”

And Criado Perez has the data to prove it.

A variation on the universal

The book starts with the reality that men are considered the universal and women a variation. For example, as Criado Perez wrote, “a 2015 study of multiple language Wikipedias found that articles about women include words like ‘woman’, ‘female’ or ‘lady’, but articles about men don’t contain words like ‘man’, ‘masculine’ or ‘gentleman’ (because the male sex goes without saying.)” There are health courses, and women’s health courses; literature studies and women’s literature studies; artists and female artists; sports teams and women’s sports teams; issues and women’s issues. The latter are often considered a step down, something we’ll get to once the “universal” issues are dealt with, even though historically “women’s” issues include caring for children, elderly, sick people, and families, which impacts everyone. Viewed through this lens, it bears asking: Is violence against women (by men) a women’s issue or an everybody issue?

Men, white men in particular, are seen as the default subject of everything, whereas the needs, the lives, the work of the other half of the global population, are seen as “niche.”

Sometimes, Criado Perez says, men just don’t think to do things in a way that would work for women because they don’t know what women need and don’t include women as part of the process. Thus, algorithms are designed to solve problems for “people” without realizing how much relevant data is missing, how the data in place is not actually “universal.” Other times the exclusion is more deliberate.

[Read also: Cold at work? Why it’s time to turn up the heat on conversations around workplace norms]

Inequities stemming from science, technology, engineering, and math

Scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians design a lot of the built world. Unfortunately, that means they’re responsible for a lot of the ways women are forced to fit, calling to mind Procrustes’ bed. Criado Perez quoted several contemporary medical researchers who contended that although medical issues like Parkinson’s and heart disease often present differently in men and women, including women in medical studies was a waste of resources and it was good enough just to use men’s results. So, women wind up with treatments that may not help their bodies at all.

Other scientists have tried to erase women in other ways. When a female Viking warrior was discovered in a tomb surrounded by tools of war, male scientists scratched their heads trying to figure out how that woman’s skeleton got in that warrior’s tomb. In their own arena, many male scientists unabashedly took credit for the discoveries of women scientists. It was Nettie Stevens who discovered that a person’s sex is determined by chromosomes; Cecilia Payne-Gaposchikin who discovered the sun is composed primarily of hydrogen; and Rosalind Franklin who first described the structure of DNA. But their names weren’t in the history books, though some of those errors are being amended.

Today the tech industry struggles to find women to hire, but, Criado Perez notes, the first programmers were women. The world’s first fully functional digital computer, unveiled in 1946, ENIAC, was programmed by six women. A 1967 article in Cosmopolitan quoted Grace Hopper, computing pioneer, as saying programming was “just like planning a dinner” and required patience and the ability to handle detail, which made women ideal for the task. But, around this time period, Criado Perez said, employers “were starting to realize that programming was not the low-skilled clerical job they had once thought…it required advanced problem-solving skills.” A psychological paper published the same year as the Cosmopolitan article claimed that programmers, by nature, were geeky loners with poor social and hygiene skills. With that description in hand, employers started hiring male programmers who fit the profile. Reality remade.

When the makers of the Assassin’s Creed video game announced in 2014 you couldn’t play their new multiplayer mode as a woman, many gamers were pleased, including women, saying that playing as a female character would alienate them from the game. But, Criado Perez quoted journalist Sarah Ditum as saying “Come now, you’ve played games as a blue hedgehog. As a cybernetically augmented space marine. As a sodding dragon tamer…but the idea that women can be protagonists with an inner life and an active nature is somehow beyond your imaginative capacities?”

[Read also: How men can serve as allies for women in the workplace]

Hidden obstacles in daily life

A big part of the design disconnect, however, is around women’s daily lives. Women still do a lot more of the unpaid work—work that men often don’t factor into their plans—which demands extraordinary accommodation around a world built by, and for, men. The whole idea of working in the city and then going home to the suburbs where you can just “relax” reflects none of women’s reality. Women are not relaxing at home, they are working: going to the grocery store, cooking, doing laundry, taking kids (or elderly parents) to the doctor, the park, the pharmacy, helping with schoolwork, and contributing to the school fundraiser. Women’s travel patterns include myriad short trips, often with a stroller or wheelchair or shopping cart. Having the home far from the workplace and not necessarily in relation to anything else they have to do—like get kids to school—creates a logistical nightmare.

Criado Perez described a program to relocate a group of people who had been living in what is known as a favela In Brazil. The housing there was old. But the residents lived in multigenerational homes surrounded by their entire community—schools, shops, work, and neighbors that helped watch your kids. The government moved this community to a new apartment complex on the outskirts of the city that was designed for one-generation families without the shops and schools where breadwinners had to travel up to an hour each way by bus to get to work. They clearly did not understand the lives of the women they were relocating.

In her first chapter, Criado Perez highlights how even the way a Swedish city cleared the snow was inadvertently sexist. They focused on clearing the snow on the roads, for cars—more used by men going to work—first rather than focusing on clearing sidewalks, which more women used to get to public transit and get their children to school. It was far more difficult to navigate snowy sidewalks with kids or strollers than to drive in snow. The city changed its order of snow clearing.

[Read also: No boys allowed: why we still need women only spaces]

The take-away

Invisible Women includes hundreds of examples of the ways that women are simply not being considered. It honestly begins to feel relentless, but the book also makes it very clear that women have been making their way and shaping the world despite the fact that it’s built to thwart them. As former Texas Governor Ann Richards said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, she just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Criado Perez includes compelling social, health, and economic arguments about why we need to pay attention and make changes to the way we move forward—but she also leaves the reader with the profound sense of absurdity that this argument still even needs to be made.