I had a hard time writing this review. Not because I can’t think of much to say about Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Built for Men—just the opposite. As I’ve read it over the last couple of weeks, I’ve hardly been able to shut up about it. But it’s not a lot of criticism so much as it is regurgitating whatever jaw-dropping revelation I’ve just read. Whatever else I have to say about the writing, the organization, or anything else, Invisible Women has changed the way I look at the world in some really uncomfortable ways.
But the writing and organization is good, too.
The premise of Invisible Women is fairly straightforward: the modern systems that surround society, from civic to medical to educational to social, are built on the assumption that male needs, wants, and specifications are the default, regardless of complaints or common sense to the contrary. Perez argues this in the introduction; it’s on the front flap; it’s practically in the subhead. But over the next few hundred pages, Perez uses data (or the glaring lack thereof) to show just how widespread and serious such a lack of consideration is.
For example: vehicle safety tests are only required to be done with the default crash-test dummy, meaning the crash-test dummy modeled with the specifications of the “average man” (whom, she notes whenever the idea of the “average man” comes up, which is frequently, no longer represents any population’s average in height, weight, or any of the other demographics placed upon this everyman). Yet women tend to sit in cars differently because of the size differences common between many men and women (in the driver seat, for example, women typically sit closer to the dash and steering wheel in order to see over the steering wheel and reach the pedals comfortably; in any seat with a two-point seatbelt, women frequently wear them incorrectly across their chests in an effort to accommodate their breasts, which is to say, incorrectly) contributing to the significantly higher rates of women being injured or killed in car crashes than men. After years of complaints about the lack of testing on female test dummies, some companies began using a “female” test dummy–but it was only a shorter version of the male dummy, a significant failing because of physiological differences between men and women.
Or, how in pharmaceutical trials, women often make up only a small percentage of participants, if they’re used at all (women are frequently left out altogether over concerns that hormone changes associated with periods would complicate trial results, as if women using the resulting prescriptions after the drugs’ release would not be experiencing hormone changes associated with periods). As a result, women are prescribed doses of drugs and pharmaceutical treatments based on the therapeutic effect observed in male bodies, which behave differently than women’s, not only because of hormone differences but also because of things like metabolic rates and the composition of muscle and fat.
These two examples use physiological differences as areas where basing “universal” concepts on the male standard is harmful toward women, but the vast majority of the examples explored in Invisible Women are based in social constructs and cultural expectations. It is because of this, Perez notes, that she chose not to distinguish between cis and trans women. As a cis woman, I don’t know that I can weigh in on the efficacy or appropriateness of that move, though I will say it was something I did consider throughout, possibly because I’m a thoughtful, inclusive person who considers all aspects of a situation at all times, or possibly because I’m an ignorant slut who has the luxury of occasionally forgetting to be thoughtful but who was reminded about potential discrepancies in the female experience because of Perez’s early disclosure. I like to think it was somewhere in the middle.
The social constructs seemingly architected against women, though, are far-reaching and frankly horrible. Yes, car manufacturers not caring if I live or die because of my gender is awful. Yes, pharmaceutical manufacturers not giving a flying fart about whether their male enhancement drug could potentially eradicate menstrual cramps because it seems sort of complicated to try is enraging. But seeing so many tiny things that so many people have to interact with daily that are disadvantageous or even discriminatory against over half the population, it’s just…it’s just…
Defeating, I guess. Because so many of them could be solved if anyone in charge asked literally any woman for her input—and then took half a second to actually listen instead of steamrolling over her opinion because his idea was cooler. Like, what do you even do with that? What am I supposed to do now, knowing my world is built against me, against cis and trans women all around the world?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m kind of stuck at the “tell everyone you know about how inconvenient for women X thing actually is” stage of things, which I’m sure is getting old for those around me. Perez has some ideas and recommendations, but the vast majority require the Powers That Be (who are virtually all male) care for once, or do something that’s not immediately advantageous to them. It’ll be slow-going, she warns near the end, but that sounds like a massive understatement.
Yeah. I don’t know. But I guess becoming aware—and, perhaps, angry—is the first step to change. Read this book.