The writer, broadcaster and feminist activist with a blisteringly good book about systemic discrimination against women. From the gender pay gap and unpaid work imbalance between men and women, and the myth of meritocracy; to the fact that offices are, on average five degrees too cold for the female metabolic rate, or that standard piano keyboards make it much more difficult for female pianists to attain the virtuosity of their male counterparts, it is never less than eye-opening, and frequently staggering.
“AIs have been trained on data sets that are riddled with data gaps,” notes Criado Perez, “and because algorithms are often protected as proprietary software, we can’t even examine whether these gaps have been taken into account.” Even when algorithms accurately reflect reality, that reality contains historical biases that we may not wish to amplify. Unless the data gap is addressed, we risk perpetuating a status quo in which, as Criado Perez systematically shows, women are still considered the second sex, if they are considered at all.
There’s a sense of rage simmering beneath the surface of Invisible Women, every now and then it bubbles up in the text, but the book’s force doesn’t derive from the power of its rhetoric – instead it’s the steady, unrelenting accumulation of evidence, the sheer weight of her argument... Reading Invisible Women one might experience, as I did, the dizzying sensation that so many of my own stories, so many of my friends’ stories, so many incidents I had experienced as discrete and unrelated – at work, at home, on the streets, in hospital – are in fact interconnected. As women, we are so used to contorting ourselves to fit into men-shaped spaces, we’ve learned to ignore how often it hurts.
lthough it sells itself as a book about data bias, it’s more of a book about data on bias, a catalogue of the facts and figures that document persistent gender inequalities in society...The book offers endless nuggets to chew on. Women in the UK, Criado Perez notes, are 53% more stressed at work than men. One in three women in the world lack access to safe toilets. It took until 2011 for carmakers in the US to start using crash test dummies based on the typical female body... What I would have liked to see more of in this book is some investigation of why, given all the data we have, we do so little to fix things.
Criado Perez’s tone is cool, and sometimes wry, as she marshals her research (the end-notes are nearly 70 pages long). Most of it is taken from research papers and studies, interspersed with occasional interviews and personal anecdotes. This means it’s heavy on fact and slightly light on entertainment. What she does brilliantly, however, is let the facts speak for themselves...This book is a devastating indictment of institutionalised complacency and a rallying cry to fight back. Things won’t change, Criado Perez says, until women make their voices heard and take their seats at the tables where the decisions are made. That’s politics. That’s tech. That’s town planning. That’s big pharma. Invisible Women should propel women into action. It should also be compulsory reading for men.
[T]he originality of Criado Perez’s research is that she hunts down and uses hard data as her evidence, and when, as is often the case, there is no gender-disaggregated data, she shows how this too is discriminatory...Just occasionally Criado Perez can be simplistic. Having pointed out that UK benefit changes since 2015 have disproportionately impoverished women while advantaging men already in the richest households, she asks: “So why is the UK government enacting policy that is so manifestly unjust?” She replies, “The answer is simple: they aren’t looking at the data.” But that is not the only answer...This is an excellent book packed with practical information of the kind required by those attempting to dismantle the patriarchy.
What distinguishes this book from just another rant about institutionalized sexism — its focus on the “gender data gap” — is also what makes it a little dreary. And in order to cover all her arenas of indignation, Perez strains to define social shortfalls like the underrepresentation of women in politics as a data-collection deficiency.
The cumulative effect of all this evidence is devastating, even if it confirms what most women already know. Invisible Women appears at a moment when our rights are under attack, not least in the USA, where the arrival of the Trump administration has given fresh wind to attempts to restrict abortion. Anyone who doubts that we live in a world designed by and for men needs to read this book, with its implicit message that even what we’ve won so far can never be taken for granted.
It is also hard at times not to feel overwhelmed by the drumbeat of examples of how women have been routinely left out of the data on which the most important decisions — in disasters, in hospitals, in factories, on our roads — are made. But instead of being overwhelmed, I felt angry. Criado Perez comprehensively makes the case that seemingly objective data can actually be highly male-biased, and that public spending, health, education, the workplace and society in general are worse off as a result.
The neat thing about data is that it avoids thorny questions of intention. Criado Perez doesn’t set out to prove a vast conspiracy; she simply wields data like a laser, slicing cleanly through the fog of unconscious and unthinking preferences. Unless we crunch the numbers and take positive steps to correct bias, she argues, inequality will automatically continue. Technology is associated with innovation, but algorithms tend to reinforce the status quo: “If you like that, you’ll love this.”... By calling out persistent unfairness in a world that – for all the talk of technological “disruption” – seems to have given up on the idea of human progress, this book ends up treading more familiar ground than the data theme may initially suggest.