Military Book Reviews

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. Abrams Press, March 12, 2019, 272 pages

Data is fundamental to the modern world. From economic development, to healthcare, to education and public policy, we rely on numbers to allocate resources and make crucial decisions. But because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our systems. And women pay tremendous costs for this bias in time, money, and often with their lives. 

Celebrated feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez investigates the shocking root cause of gender inequality and research in Invisible Women, diving into women’s lives at home, the workplace, the public square, the doctor’s office, and more. Built on hundreds of studies in the US, the UK, and around the world, and written with energy, wit, and sparkling intelligence, this is a groundbreaking, unforgettable expose that will change the way you look at the world.


Overview

We anticipate President Joe Biden will announce General Charles Quincy Brown as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If the president appoints him, it seems prudent to look at his professional military reading list to see what ideas might shape the military over the next four years. Amidst the books in his leadership library are the expected pop leadership books, books on military history, and forecasts for World War III. One book that stands out to me is Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez.

This book departs from the books I think populate military professional reading lists because it doesn’t glorify US history, essentialize national security, nor does it offer ten easy steps to become a better leader. Instead, it dives deep into the complexities of the data used to drive the policies we make and how, by ignoring or subordinating gender, every aspect of our society is affected. Did you know that bad maternity leave policies hurt employee retention? Did you know that females in the military suffer more musculoskeletal injuries because they use equipment designed for men? Did you know that body armor designed around the male anatomy does not protect women as efficiently? Of course, as I spout off these revelations, I can perpetuate the problem that is at the root of all gender bias. In my opinion, women must live in a world that is designed to support the needs of men. When I picture a default reader, it is a man. This embarrassing truth is that it is possible—both men and women—expect the default to be male. For Perez, this is just the beginning. In every aspect of society today, we default to the male perspectives, anatomy, and preferences. Sometimes, the impact of a social bias is inconvenient, and the impact can mean the difference between employment and unemployment, safety and danger, and even—in the case of gender-specific body armor—life and death.   

In Invisible Women, Perez weaves a powerful narrative that reveals how the gender data gap affects every part of a woman’s life. The gender data gaps, Perez argues, develop not from deliberate or malicious action, but from centuries of one way of thinking (and not thinking). Its impact is far more than simply silencing the interests of one group. The gap comes from historical tendencies to prefer men in society, from treating data about men as equally representative of women, and from not collecting data on women. As Perez bluntly states, “these silences, these gaps, they have consequences.” 

Perez reveals the evidence of the danger of the gender data gap beginning with its effect on daily life and then systematically expanding her focus to show how the data gap affects women across increasingly complex domains such as the workplace, product design, healthcare, public life, and disasters. Her organization of the evidence makes the book approachable, but it also builds the drama with each new revelation. Each chapter reveals a new and more significant consequence of data bias’ on the lives of women, the roles they fill in society, and their health outcomes. For example, the gender pay gap is well-known and well-documented, but Perez tackles it in a non-traditional way. She acknowledges regular talking points but dives deep into the data and then extrapolates the effects in a truly tangible and startling way. Perez examines the unpaid work women do and highlights the likelihood of women working multiple part-time jobs rather than one full-time job to support themselves and their families. She also discusses how structures in the workplace are more likely to undermine a woman’s role when coupled with society’s expectation of them as caretakers. Do employers subsidize hotel rooms for men to stay out all night or subsidize childcare and taxis for mothers to get home? Do structures like tenure tracks for professors (think promotion timelines) account for women taking maternity leave? Do work schedules appreciate the demands we put on women as both caregivers and employees? Fixing these shortcomings (just as Google fixed its maternity leave program) often impact the bottom line, but they can also benefit an organization just as Google’s decision did by increasing retention of highly experienced employees—who just happened to be mothers—by fifty percent. 

Perez finds new angles and reveals new consequences for well-known problems. She examines how the gender data gap causes and hides problems. When leaders in Sweden joked that plowing snow couldn’t have a gender bias, it turns out they were wrong. Because men are more likely to drive and women are more likely to walk, plowing roads before sidewalks favors the needs of men. When towns in Sweden reversed their priorities and cleared sidewalks before roads, they reduced accidents and hospitalizations, which benefited women while also benefiting society. 

Perez moves the reader through domains by weaving narrative and data. Her approach creates a book that is both readable and approachable, and packs the persuasive punch of evidence-based social science. Her conclusions make data, academic research, and policy outcomes undeniable. This approach makes the book resonate emotionally and logically. Regardless of politics or opinion, a reader cannot help but see the objective truth in each of her arguments. There is nothing “woke” or “feminist” about this book. It simply shines a light on a problem that deserves all of our attention, and it does so convincingly.

Takeaways

The greatest shortfall of Invisible Women is that it addresses the gender data gap only through the binary lens of male and female sex, but this is a weakness that Perez is well aware of. Acknowledging that sex and gender are not synonymous, she consciously chooses data regarding sex because it represents how the female gender is excluded from policy decisions and design considerations, and in a moment of irony, because a better data set does not exist. Despite this shortfall, the book’s purpose is not to reveal every moment when decisions about data affect women’s lives, but rather to highlight the issue of how data bias permeates every aspect of life and society. In this, she succeeds, and one can accept that if the examples presented in the book are true, then we all need to pay better attention to how data bias might affect people across sex, gender, and race. 

Perez highlights solutions to the problems she finds when they exist, but she is also careful to work through how we can address the gender data gap. First, we can develop better data and revisit old policy decisions to improve outcomes. Second, we can ensure we include diverse perspectives at the level of decision-making. Google, one of the biggest data companies in the world, remained blind to its own gender bias until female employees highlighted it. Only after the current Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, complained to Sergey Brin about the lack of pregnancy parking did Google see a gender bias blind spot. Regarding my own gender bias with my writing, I must embrace proofreading by a female peer or my wife rather than a peer who looks and thinks just like me.  Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men provides eye-opening lessons about how data and gender shape decision-making and outcomes. Its thought-provoking approach and insights make it worth the time of any leader, from the tactical to the strategic.

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