Women are under-represented in all spheres of life; while there must be many who disagree with this, it’s a repeatedly demonstrable fact. But the value of Caroline Criado Perez’s important book is its demonstration of precisely why this is a problem. It’s not just representation for representation’s sake; Invisible Women shows how the gender data gap – which simply fails to take into account the needs of women – results in mass inequity affecting everything from GDP to death rates, urban planning to mathematical modelling. There are some serious flaws in the book, but in Criado Perez’s accessible prose, the data gap emerges clearly as one of the most significant problems facing the modern world.
It’s important to note from the start that this isn’t a book of new research (though Criado Perez does conduct some original conversations with academics and other public figures). It’s a work of journalism which surveys a huge range of existing literature. Criado Perez isn’t a scholar, and rarely offers any scrutiny of the work she surveys (indeed, in a particularly disappointing bit of practice, when she cites web articles (one of her most frequent sources, themselves often reports on reports, so third-hand), her notes normally don’t even acknowledge the author of the article). But this isn’t meant to be a work of scholarship; instead, it’s a fast-paced overview, designed to impress the reader with the sheer scale of the issues caused by the gender data gap.
And in this, it absolutely succeeds. The scope of the book is impressive: from war to town planning, social care to parental leave, cookery to sanitation, politics to academia and so on, it’s hard to pick an area of life that Criado Perez doesn’t cover. At its best, the book demonstrates clearly the problems that at first may seem innocuous but which turn out to have a profoundly uneven impact on people. Particularly powerful examples include decisions to prioritise cleaning roads rather than pavements – disproportionately affecting women who make up a larger proportion of pedestrians; seat-belt design that doesn’t take breasts into account – leading to higher instances of women dying in traffic accidents owing to wearing their belts incorrectly; and a failure to build ventilation into kitchens in developing countries – leading to women, who spend disproportionate amounts of time cooking, developing higher rates of cancer. The issues seem obvious when Criado Perez points them up, and her extensive documentation brings the receipts.
Criado Perez’s call throughout is for representation, as – quite sensibly – women are more likely to anticipate women’s needs. The book is shot through with hope, as she demonstrates how different approaches to city design that allow for integrated living, or simple provision of sanitary supplies, massively increase quality of life and productivity (capitalism is assumed as a default throughout the book, though there are occasional implications that different ways of running the world full stop might also be worth looking into). And as well as pointing out the issues specific to women that are overlooked, Criado Perez also sets out a compelling case that traditionally male-focused concerns such as GDP are positively affected by valuing women’s unpaid labour and designing working situations around care and leave. In the afterword, she outlines the three areas – women’s bodies, violence against women, and women’s unpaid labour – that are overlooked in design and governance, having demonstrated how a proactive approach to all benefits everyone. And in this, it’s an enormously important book.
However, it’s also a book that represents peak white feminism. Commendably, Criado Perez draws her examples from all around the world, paying attention to issues of inequity in developing countries as well as the West; but, in moving dizzyingly between them, she conflates and universalises issues rather than attending to their local distinctions. This isn’t the point of the book – fine-grained analysis is left to the scholars – but in doing so elides the local contexts of racism, ableism and class that are crucial to understanding these issues more thoroughly. And the fact that trans issues are never mentioned in a book about gender inequity seems like a conscious elision. There are occasional gestures to an intersectional feminism, but her brief discussions of e.g. the experience of African American women in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are side notes to the experience of All Women that, at its worst, risk underplaying crucially the differences that affect women differently.
And in pursuing this, Criado Perez inevitably reinforces stereotypes of what a woman is. Her book is understandably dependent on averages – ideas about the ‘average woman’ or ‘average man’ – without ever questioning the problems of this, or the fact that many of the problems facing women are precisely because women are assumed to be the same shape and size. When she discusses car deaths affecting women because they can’t reach the pedals, she’s talking about an issue that affects all people shorter than a male norm – which disproportionately means women, sure, but the continual dependence of the book on the ‘average’ woman is inattentive to the huge kinds of disparity of body and life experience even among cis white women, let alone women who are non-white, disabled, trans etc. This is a genre problem, as Criado Perez is working with big data, but big data risks perpetuating the same assumptions about women who deviate from female norms not being ‘real’ women that led, for instance, to the ongoing violence against Castor Semenya. In this, it’s a real shame that Criado Perez has not engaged at all with disability studies, which has already done a huge amount of modelling about the problems of a world that is designed with certain kinds of body in mind; without in any way wanting to undermine the core thesis of Criado Perez’s book that society discriminates against (broadly defined) women, Invisible Women risks making non-average women even more invisible.
But those criticisms aside, Criado Perez’s survey of the work is invaluable for bringing together a huge range of sources and studies that cumulatively identify the scale of the problems facing women in the world today, and offering solutions for their redress. While there needs to be much more nuanced work on all of these issues, she provides a wealth of ammunition and argues cogently and persuasively for the urgency of addressing these issues, especially given how quickly progress is derailed by disaster (indeed, the current Covid-19 crisis, with (so far) its lack of attention to how changed living circumstances might affect gendered needs differently, might be a pertinent example). It’s a valuable book that represents a great deal of work.