World designed for men constantly failing women: author

New book sheds light on how a 'mans world' fails women.
New book sheds light on how a 'mans world' fails women.
Image: 123RF/NYUL

 A “gender data gap” is making the lives of women around the world more dangerous — from the misdiagnosis of heart attacks to ill-fitting protective equipment, according to a new book published this week in Britain.

Caroline Criado Perez, a British feminist campaigner and writer, has compiled a comprehensive account of in-built sex discrimination that leads women to suffer results that range from the merely annoying to life-threatening. In Invisible Women, the author sets out to show the sheer extent to which gender bias pervades modern society and how it “distorts the supposedly objective data that increasingly rules our lives“. From urban planning to politics, daily life to design, Criado Perez spotlights how the long-held practice of seeing men as the human default has been embedded into our ever-more digital age.

“The lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall,” the writer argues, noting that “most of recorded human history is one big data gap” when it comes to women. “Invisible Women is the story of what happens when we forget to account for half of humanity. “It is an expose of how the gender data gap harms women,” she writes.

Criado Perez became prominent in Britain after successfully campaigning for a woman to be put on British banknotes and a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected opposite parliament. Her new book stemmed from discovering doctors are more likely to misdiagnose women suffering a heart attack, in part because female symptoms — stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea, fatigue — differ from those of men and so are classified “atypical“.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told The Sunday Times in a recent interview. “Science is meant to be objective.” Criado Perez began researching the subject and amassed a dizzying number of examples of this male-oriented approach — enough to fill a book.

She found cars have been designed using crash-test dummies based on the “average” male, contributing to women being 47% more likely to be seriously injured when involved in a car crash. Frontline female emergency workers have been given protection gear like stab proof vests which are mostly based on the sizes and characteristics of males — with sometimes fatal consequences.

Even the formula for determining optimum office temperatures turns out to have been developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of an average man, often leaving workplaces feeling too cold for women. Meanwhile everyday consumer products are also prone to being male-centric, with voice recognition software far more likely to accurately recognise men’s speech and cell phones too big for many women’s hands.

“Designers may believe they are making products for everyone, but in reality they are mainly making them for men,” Criado Perez writes. “It’s time to start designing women in.” Sarah Hawkes, who leads University College London’s Centre for Gender and Global Health, said Criado Perez’s conclusions struck a chord.

“The default in medicine for about the past 2,000 years has been male,” Hawkes told AFP. Helena Kennedy, an eminent barrister and member of the upper house of parliament who has championed women’s rights for decades, welcomed the book’s “penetrating gaze on the absence of women from the creation of most social norms“.

“Here are the facts!” she said. “Knowledge is power — we all need to know how our systems work if we want change.” Criado Perez’s 411-page work — which includes 69 pages of endnotes citing case studies and research — concludes that reform will only come from women making their voices heard.

“The solution to the sex and gender gap is clear: we have to close the female representation gap,” she writes. “When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten. “Female lives and perspectives are brought out of the shadows.” 

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