Invisible Women

Title: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Author: Caroline Criado Perez

Overview: Interesting look at ways systems focus on men and how that can lead to issues. I really enjoyed an interview I heard with the author and liked several of the examples, but didn’t feel like there was much in the way of solutions.


  • ‘The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence’, which claimed to reveal that humans have evolved to be six times more deadly to their own species than the average mammal.4 This is no doubt true of our species overall – but the reality of human-on-human lethal violence is that it is overwhelmingly a male occupation: a thirty-year analysis of murder in Sweden found that nine out of ten murders are committed by men.5 This holds with statistics from other countries, including Australia,6 the UK7 and the US.8
  • For over a hundred years, a tenth-century Viking skeleton known as the ‘Birka warrior’ had – despite possessing an apparently female pelvis – been assumed to be male because it was buried alongside a full set of weapons and two sacrificed horses.11 These grave contents indicated that the occupant had been a warrior12 – and warrior meant male (archaeologists put the numerous references to female fighters in Viking lore down to ‘mythical embellishments’13). But although weapons apparently trump the pelvis when it comes to sex, they don’t trump DNA and in 2017 testing confirmed that these bones did indeed belong to a woman.
  • decades of ‘draw a scientist’ data, where participants overwhelmingly draw men (the bias has historically been so extreme that media around the world celebrated as great progress a recent paper which found that 28% of children now draw women).
  • When I counted all the statues in the UK’s Public Monuments and Sculptures Association database I found that there were more statues of men called John than there were of historical, named, non-royal women (the only reason adding royal women to the figure just beats the Johns is down to Queen Victoria, whose enthusiasm for putting up statues of herself I have a grudging respect for).
  • Elite women, brought up to believe absolutely in the myth of their own helplessness, simply could not get over their understanding of work as intrinsically unfeminine. Unable to bring themselves to take up the jobs vacated by enlisted men, they wrote to their husbands begging them to desert, to come home and protect them.
  • When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too.
  • A 2016 article in the Guardian asking why we aren’t designing cities ‘that work for women, not just men’ cautions that the limited number of urban datasets ‘that track and trend data on gender make it hard to develop infrastructure programmes that factor in women’s needs’.84 Even when we do start collecting data, there is no guarantee we will continue to do so indefinitely: in 2008 a UK-based database of research on gender and architecture was set up; by 2012 ‘Gendersite’ had closed for lack of funds.85 And when we don’t collect and, crucially, use sex-disaggregated data in urban design, we find unintended male bias cropping up in the most surprising of places.
  • the report’s conclusion that the failure to invest in girls’ sport contributed to poorer mental health in girls. More unexpected, perhaps, is the claim that investing in girls’ sport could reduce the health cost of fractures due to osteoporosis. Physical exercise increases young people’s bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis later in life, with research suggesting it is especially important that young girls begin exercising before puberty.
  • When planners fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default.
  • Things are worse for women in the US, which is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee at least some paid maternity leave.76 The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees twelve weeks of unpaid leave – but, amongst other restrictions you are eligible only if you have worked for a business with at least 50 other employees for the past twelve months.77 As a result, even unpaid leave is only available to 60% of the workforce.
  • expense codes are based on the assumption that the employee has a wife at home taking care of the home and the kids. This work doesn’t need paying for, because it’s women’s work, and women don’t get paid for it. Bovasso sums it up: ‘You can get $30 for takeout if you work late (because your wife isn’t there to cook you dinner) or $30 for Scotch if you want to drink your face off, but you can’t get $30 for a sitter (because your wife is at home with the kids).’
  • belief in meritocracy may be all you need – to introduce bias, that is. Studies have shown that a belief in your own personal objectivity, or a belief that you are not sexist, makes you less objective and more likely to behave in a sexist way.10 Men (women were not found to exhibit this bias) who believe that they are objective in hiring decisions are more likely to hire a male applicant than an identically described female applicant. And in organisations which are explicitly presented as meritocratic, managers favour male employees over equally qualified female employees.
  • It is a perfect Petri dish for the myth of meritocracy to flourish in. Accordingly, a recent study found that male academics – particularly those in STEM – rated fake research claiming that academia had no gender bias higher than real research which showed it did.17 Also accordingly, gender bias is in fact plentiful – and well documented.
  • a recent study where participants were shown photos of male and female science faculty at elite US universities also found that appearance had no impact on how likely it was that a man would be judged to be a scientist.42 When it came to women, however, the more stereotypically feminine they looked, the less likely it was that people would think they were a scientist.
  • We teach brilliance bias to children from an early age. A recent US study found that when girls start primary school at the age of five, they are as likely as five-year-old boys to think women could be ‘really really smart’.43 But by the time they turn six, something changes. They start doubting their gender. So much so, in fact, that they start limiting themselves: if a game is presented to them as intended for ‘children who are really, really smart’, five-year-old girls are as likely to want to play it as boys – but six-year-old girls are suddenly uninterested. Schools are teaching little girls that brilliance doesn’t belong to them.
  • a recent study found that female students perform better in science when the images in their textbooks include female scientists.54 So to stop teaching girls that brilliance doesn’t belong to them, we just need to stop misrepresenting women.
  • quotas, which, contrary to popular misconception, were recently found by a London School of Economics study to ‘weed out incompetent men’ rather than promote unqualified women.
  • A study of 4,000 job ads found that women were put off from applying for jobs that used wording associated with masculine stereotypes such as ‘aggressive’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘persistent’.75 Significantly, women didn’t consciously note the language or realise it was having this impact on them. They rationalised the lack of appeal, putting it down to personal reasons – which goes to show that you don’t have to realise you’re being discriminated against to in fact be discriminated against.
  • Tech recruiter Speak with a Geek found a similarly dramatic result when they presented the same 5,000 candidates to the same group of employers on two different occasions. The first time, details like names, experience and background were provided; 5% selected for interviews were women. The second time, those details were suppressed. The proportion of women selected for interview was 54%.