Mind the Gap
Understanding the Gender Data Gap from Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez
“For women who persist: keep on being bloody difficult”
Invisible Women is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read. Yes, it’s dense, it took me around five months to read it cover to cover, but it was worth every single word. This article presents numerous data, statistics, and quotes that are directly in reference to the book, mixed with my personal thoughts and reflections on the Gender Data Gap.
Invisible Women is a call for change. It represents the hidden biases that exist in a world that has predominantly been designed for men. For too long, women have been underrepresented in society and this is a result of the gender-data gap. The gender-data gap is where a ‘one size fits all’ approach has left gaps in our understanding of the experience of different genders. Women make up 50% of the global population. However, throughout history, we have primarily skewed towards documenting the male perspective instead of the female perspective. That is 50% of the world’s population that is being underrepresented. Half of the world’s perspective is not being considered when designing products, conducting clinical trials for new drugs, and implementing public policy or setting up workplace benefits.
In the book, Criado-Pérez illuminates numerous hidden ways in which women have been underrepresented in society; from urban planning to public policy and the workplace, to medical research and product design — and its stark implications.
Perez argues that women are not being deliberately excluded from design and research, but instead are “invisible” or “forgotten” because men continue to be a dominant influence in government, business, healthcare, and our wider culture.
“Male bias just looks like common sense to them”.
The book creates a compelling argument for increased female representation in various positions of leadership such as; political power, the paid labor force, the medical industry, academia, and more. Perez also presents the argument that an increase in female representation in the paid labor force equals to an increase in global GDP (examples mentioned below).
The Examples in Context
Through a collection of wide-ranging examples, Perez presents the case that the world continues to be built for the “average man” — that is, a 70kg white male with a stay-at-home wife. This construct of “the average man” as the “default human” in society means that women’s needs are underrepresented and ignored.
A few examples and data taken from the book are as follows:
We are conditioned to see the male gender as the default and disregard or ignore the female experience.
“The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as what is universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority. With a niche identity and a subjective point of view. In such a framing, women are set up to be forgettable, ignorable, dispensable — from culture, from history, from data. And so, women become invisible.”
Data focuses on male experience and ignores the experience of a female.
“Most public transport systems have been designed with the male default in mind. The men who originally devised the transport schedule knew how they traveled and designed around their needs. ‘Care’ is the single and foremost purpose of travel for women, in much the same way as employment is the main purpose of men’s travel. In European public transport ticket prices are mostly fixed by the journey and not distance, and hence the system guides resources to peak travel times and doesn’t prioritize non-commuter travel. Women usually engage in multiple transport journeys due to care taking jobs. The result? Women regularly pay more to travel shorter distances.”
“Women’s employment is a really important input to GDP. For every percentage increase in women’s employment there is a greater increase in GDP. But for women to work, the city has to support this work. And one of the key ways to do this is to design transport systems that enable women to do their unpaid work and still get to the office on time.”
“This isn’t an issue of resources, it’s an issue of priorities.”
Women are underprivileged by data that doesn’t consider the experience of a female.
“Public planning regulations often specify that venues assign the same bathroom space for both men and women. However, this planning decision is based on data that disregard women’s needs.”
“Women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet. Women make up the majority of the elderly and disabled, two groups that tend to need more time in the toilet. Women are also more likely to be accompanied by children, disabled people, and older people. There is the 20%-25% of women of childbearing age who may be on their period at any one time. Pregnancy significantly reduces bladder capacity. Women are eight times more likely to suffer from urinary-tract infections than men, which increases the frequency with which a toilet visit is needed.”
“According to the UN, one in three women lack access to safe toilets.”
“In Afghanistan, female police officers go to toilets in pairs as the toilets often have peepholes and doors that don’t lock. The lack of safe toilet provision in fact often prevents women from joining the force at all, this in turn has a significant impact on how the police respond to crimes against women and girls.”
“More than half of Mumbai’s 5 million women do not have an indoor toilet and there are no free public toilets for women. Meanwhile, free urinals for men run in the thousands. A 2016 study found that Indian women who use fields to relieve themselves are twice as likely to face non-partner sexual violence as women with a household toilet.”
“A UK Department for Transport highlighted stark differences between male and female perceptions of danger; 62% of women are scared walking into multi story car parks, 60% are scared waiting on train platforms, 49% are scared waiting at the bus stop, and 59% are scared walking home from a bus stop. The figures for men are 31%, 25%, 20%, and 25% respectively. This fear impacts women’s mobility and their basic right to access a city. Studies show that women adjust their behavior and travel plans to accommodate this fear. They avoid specific routes, times and modes of transport. They avoid traveling at night.”
Many everyday products from pianos to smartphones are created with the male experience in mind.
“Many consumer products that are supposedly gender neutral are designed around the size of the average male hand, making them difficult for women to use. The average piano keyboard is about 1.2 meters long, which is more challenging for people with smaller hands, particularly women. One study found that the standard size keyboard disadvantages 87% of female pianists. Similarly, many modern smartphones are too large for women to comfortably hold and take photos with one hand.”
Women’s health and safety are compromised when safety measures are centered on male bodies.
“When a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die than a man. This is because of the widespread use of “average male” crash test dummies — in the US, car manufacturers only started using “average female” crash test dummies in 2011. Differences in women’s bodies, particularly their height, mean they typically sit in different driving positions to men, usually closer to the steering wheel and higher up. These driving positions are considered to be “non-standard” and are not tested for in the EU (except for in passenger seats), which means that car manufacturers have no incentive (or understanding of how) to make cars safer for female drivers.”
Women’s health consequences are affected by data that specifically neglects the woman’s body.
“Gender bias and the gender data gap are mainly deceptive issues in the medical field. This is because data is important in medicine. It defines how doctors identify and treat diseases and also how drugs and devices are established and given. Many studies have proven that male and female bodies are different at the anatomical, organ, tissue, and cellular levels. Collecting data on female bodies is serious in providing women with effective medical care. However, women are regularly excluded during medical trials.”
“Women make up just 22% of stage one medical trials despite drugs having a very different effect on male and female bodies. Some researchers argue against including women in trials believing that female bodies are not different to men but can be “too variable” due to changing hormone levels throughout their menstrual cycles.”
“Women are 70% more likely to suffer from depression than men, but animal studies on brain disorders are five times as likely to be done on male animals.”
“Women in the UK are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack and more likely to die during a heart attack than men. A key reason is that women often don’t have chest or left arm pain — typical symptoms of a male heart attack. Women are more likely to have stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea or fatigue. Doctors often don’t recognize these as symptoms because they do not fit the typical male heart attack pattern and don’t feature some of the NHS guidelines.”
“The bodies, symptoms and diseases that affect half the world’s population are being dismissed, disbelieved, and ignored. It’s all a result of the gender data gap combined with the still prevalent belief that men are the default humans.”
The world’s major gender gap is observed in GDP, and the consequence is the economy suffering.
“The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender data gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries, and as much as 80% of GDP in low-income countries”.
“In 2015, McKinsey estimated that global GDP would grow by $12 trillion if women were able to engage in the paid labor force at the same rate as men. But they aren’t because they simply don’t have the time.”
“It was reported by the World Bank in 2016 that Great Britain had a GDP of ￡2.7 trillion. The UK’s Office for National Statistics says that the number is about ￡3.9 trillion when unpaid work is included. And the UK is not alone. The UN approximates that in the US in 2012, $3.2 trillion worth of unpaid childcare was done. The value of that unpaid care work was equivalent to 20% of the country’s $16.2 trillion GDP for that year alone.”
Political systems marginalize women, and public policy suffers as a result of the gender data gap.
“There are substantial gender data gaps in government thinking, and the result is that governments produce male-biased policies that are harming women. These gaps are in part due to failing to collect gender disaggregated data, and part a result of a male dominance of governments around the world.”
“Women are underrepresented in politics. As of December 2017, only 23.5% of the world’s politicians were women. Several studies have found that women are more likely to make women’s issues a priority and more likely to sponsor women’s issues bills around family policy, education, and care.”
“In 2008, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley established that when a woman speaks in a stereotypically male setting — for instance like Wall Street– she is judged more negatively than a man who talks about the exact thing. Women in the political field are considered aggressive whereas men are seen as assertive. This affects their likability, which then affects their electability.”
“Research has shown that as female representation increases, so does hostility against female politicians. Violence against female politicians in Asia and Latin America has been shown to make them less likely to stand for re-election and more likely to leave after fewer terms compared to male politicians. The abuse faced by female politicians also makes women more reluctant to stand in the first place.”
“Democracy is not a level playing field: it is biased against electing women. The system is skewed towards electing men, which means that the system is skewed towards perpetuating the gender data gap in global leadership, with negative consequences for half of the world’s population.”
When women are in power they are able to represent the female perspective when things go wrong — war, natural disaster, pandemic. Women’s needs are often “forgotten” or misrepresented in relief plans.
“In the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which swept across the coasts of the Indian Ocean, killing a quarter of a million people, Sri Lanka’s rebuilding program didn’t include women, and as a result, they built homes without kitchens.”
What do we do with this data?
The solution is for companies and governments to collect more gender disaggregated data to understand the different ways men and women use products and services, and thus implement policies that account for the female perspective.
Collecting data on women’s unpaid work would enable the governments to create policy decisions that support women going into the labor force, which have an advantage to both women and the economy. This could take the shape of increased spending on social infrastructure such as affordable childcare and eldercare — spending that would really create jobs and increase GDP.
“By excluding half of the population from a role in governing, a gender data gap is created at the very top. The data accrued from a lifetime of being a woman matters and this data belongs at the very heart of the government.”
Modern workplaces disadvantage women. From its location, to its hours, to its regulatory standards, it has been designed around the lives of men. Companies need to establish better childcare policies that allow women to continue working and minimize the experience gap after having kids. Further, companies need to take a closer look at their regulations, equipment, and culture — to be inclusive of the female experience.
“The best job creation program could simply include universal childcare in every country in the world.”
As a result of the gender data gap, we live in a world with a severe design mistake: it’s designed for men. As designers, when designing products, whether they are tangible or digital, we need to ensure we are designing for both male and female needs. We need to make sure our user research studies include an equal representation of both male and female perspectives. This is a significant step in addressing and closing the gender data gap in the everyday products we use.
“Our current approach to product design is disadvantageous to women.”
I highly recommend reading Invisible Women. It illuminates the hidden biases behind how our world and its systems are designed. When we’re more aware of these biases, more action is taken to create more inclusive policies and products that benefit every individual, not just half of the population. Some readers argue that this book is depressing, but this is the reality of the world we live in. This is the reality of the experience that all women go through. To be a woman is a struggle to fit into a predominantly male dominated society, but it is the greatest honor to advocate for our equal share of the pie.
The first step in creating change is awareness, if we aren’t aware of the hidden biases that exist in a world designed for men, we are doing a disadvantage to the women of our society and the future of the girls we raise. Next, we must include female representation in all spheres of life.
When women are involved in decision making, research, knowledge production, women do not get forgotten. Female lives and perspectives are brought out of the shadows.
- Criado-Pérez, C. (2019). “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”. United Kingdom: Abrams Press.
- Ates, S. (2022). “Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez (Book Summary)”. United States of America: Good Book Summary. https://goodbooksummary.com/invisible-women-by-caroline-criado-perez-book-summary/
- Elliot, E. (08 March 2021). “Designing inclusively: Fixing the gender data gap”. United Kingdom: WSP. https://www.wsp.com/en-gb/insights/gender-data-gap#:~:text=The%20gender%20data%20gap%20is,data%20is%20actually%20male%2Dbiased.