For some reason I thought this book was much older than it is—I don’t know if that’s because I’ve just been excited for it for a while, but whatever the reason, I’m glad I got around to reading it sooner rather than later. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men is a valuable and cogent summary of the numerous ways in which our society’s perception of male-as-default is incredibly problematic. This is a feminist book, yes. But it’s also economics, data science, etc. Caroline Criado Perez packs a lot into these 400 pages—as evidenced by the fact that nearly 100 of those pages is endnotes citing all the various studies and sources that support her. The result is fascinating, illuminating, angering, but seldom very surprising.
As with many books like this, books awash in so many data and details, I find it at a loss to summarize or discuss it without feeling either too general or too much like I am bogged down in those details. Instead, let me describe what I hope people take away from this, as well as my reaction reading this as a trans woman.
My most important takeaway from this book is a potent reminder that ours is a designed world. As I said in my review of The Reality Bubble, I love reading books that remind me of all the hidden systems we take for granted but that have actually been created to allow our society to function. This is the bread-and-butter of Criado Perez’s book. She opens with a chapter about transportation design, making the points that women are both more likely to use public transit and more likely to trip-chain—make a bunch of stops, as opposed to a single commute in/out of town—but because the majority of transit planning is done by men, they design urban transit for men’s needs, mistakenly assuming that their perspective is universal. No one is setting out to intentionally discriminate against women in this case, but the discrimination happens. Not only is this bad for women, but the second- and third-order consequences are bad for our society in general.
Many of the examples in this book were already familiar to me. For example, I’ve previously learned about the disparity in women’s health outcomes from such books as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and also The Hormone Diaries. But what Invisible Women might lack in novelty for some it surely makes up in drawing attention to how the combinations of all these design issues and data gaps is a serious problem. The chapter focusing on the poor design of HEC stoves, designed to replace the indoor-pollution-causing three-stone stoves often used in developing countries, is a great example of this. Well-meaning organizations dive in, hoping to solve a problem, but because they don’t collect enough data disaggregated by gender, or they don’t listen to women, their efforts prove futile. The result is a massive waste of money. This is what I like about Invisible Women: this is a feminist book that nevertheless skilfully couches much of its polemic within an economic lens. Now, the book could be more anti-capitalist for my tastes, sure. But I appreciate and admire Criado Perez’s ability to speak the language, if you know what I mean.
That’s the second thing I hope you take away from this. We should care about women’s rights, women’s issues, etc., because they are human rights. But just in case there was still any doubt, Criado Perez demolishes the notion that oppressing or discriminating against women is actually somehow better for our society or our economy. She discusses (mostly from a UK point of view) how governments that don’t invest in subsidized childcare offload that cost onto women, which has negative effects on employment and other aspects of society. Childcare is costly, and when you don’t invest in it as a public good, that cost doesn’t go away—others have to pay for it, or balance their precarious employment with caring for their child themselves. In many ways, Criado Perez is demonstrating that our failure to design for women is in fact a failure of empathy, a failure to remember that the whole point of society is for us to take care of one another.
Since this book is so grounded in data, its flaws revolve around data—or lack thereof. Criado Perez spends a lot of time discussing how we often just don’t know how women are affected by certain decisions, because we don’t actually collect the data. So this book focuses predominantly on women in developed countries, and mostly middle-class white women. Where possible, Criado Perez mentions women of colour and women in developing countries—don’t get the idea that they are completely overlooked—but it’s telling, how even our understanding of data gaps has, itself, gaps along lines of race and ethnicity. Likewise, there isn’t much discussion of gender data gaps in research into disability, neurodivergence and autism, etc.
There’s also a dearth of data about transgender women like myself, which is not surprising. As someone who presented male for the first 30 years of her life, I definitely benefitted from living in a world designed for men. And now? I could make some superficial observations about how, as I transition, I’m starting to notice the gaps—certainly, very few of my dresses have pockets. But the deeper truth is that—despite seeing and interacting with so many trans people online, and a handful in my local community (at least prior to the pandemic)—I still feel very invisible, very disconnected from other trans people and very much ignored by our society. When I am seen, I still feel like I stand out as an isolated point of data rather than a member of a larger data set. And it is a little scary at times, not having significant longitudinal data on things like hormone replacement therapy, because no one felt it was important enough to study until now. If, to borrow from the title of this book, women are invisible to our society’s vast obsession with data, trans women sometimes are the most invisible of all.
Invisible Women is a book grounded in science, but its bedrock is the emotional truths of empathy and compassion. It is a book that assumes we want to build a better society than the one we currently have, a society that is more inclusive, more thoughtful, and more deliberate. This is Criado Perez’s rallying cry. For women in particular, this book might be angering or upsetting at times—but I hope it is also illuminating and inspiring. And I hope readers of other genders listen to this book’s ideas, so you get a sense of how your blind spots and preconceptions sometimes influence not just your world, but our worlds as well.