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Book Summary – Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Imagine living in a world where every step you take, every tool you use, and every policy that affects your life is tailored not for you, but for someone else. This is the reality for women in a world primarily designed by and for men. In this book, Caroline Criado Pérez presents extensive research to show the deep-seated biases that prioritize male-centric data, perspectives, and needs, and shows how women are inadvertently left out from product design to medical research and public policy. These impact women’s lives, as well as the economy and society at large. In this Invisible Women summary, you’ll get an overview of the key messages, themes and insights in this book.

The Male Default, Gender Data Gap, and Invisible Women

Throughout history, the word “human” has been used interchangeably with “man”. Words like “mankind”, “man-made” or “manpower” are meant to include women. Yet, research suggests that such terms conjure mental images associated with men, leading to the male default where male physiologies, needs, and perspectives are treated as the standard, while those for women are considered atypical.

This contributes to, and is also perpetuated by, the gender data gap. This refers to the systemic omission of female-specific data across various areas—from medical research to the workplace and infrastructure planning—which perpetuates misconceptions about women or their needs. Left unaddressed, such gaps will only grow when incomplete or biased datasets are used to train modern tools like artificial intelligence (AI).

Invisible Women summary - Gender Data Gap overview

In the context of this book and summary, the word “sex” refers to biological traits, while “gender” refers to societal interpretations of those biological traits. Data exclusion comes from differences in gender, not sex.

Criado Perez argues that women aren’t being excluded intentionally. It’s a natural outcome of men holding influential positions in government, business and society at large.

The book is written in 16 chapters that address the gender data gap in daily life, the workplace, design, medicine, public policy, and crises management. In our Invisible Women summary, we’ve organized the key ideas into 3 main parts: (i) medicine and health, (ii) work environment and product design, and (iii) public planning and policy.

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It’s impossible to cover everything in this article, so we’ll just outline a few key ideas and examples. Feel free to do a deeper dive into these themes in our full 18-page Invisible Women summary bundle!

Medicine and Health

For millennia, it was assumed that male and female bodies are similar, except for size and reproductive functions. Consequently, research and education has historically been based on a 70kg male body.

In reality, male and female bodies are drastically different—from cells to tissues, organ systems, metabolism, etc. Drugs can affect men and women differently. Yet, medical research and clinical trials have focused primarily on male subjects and neglected sex-specific analyses. As a result, there’s a chronic lack of data about the female body and physiology, leading to treatments that are ineffective or even harmful for women.

In our full summary, we share more statistics to show the imbalance in medical trials, how women’s symptoms—from cardiovascular diseases to female-centric diseases, colon cancer, and ADHD—are being misdiagnosed or misunderstood because they differ from men’s. This has led to inadequate care, health complications, or even death.

Work Environment and Product Design

In the world of work and business, women are disadvantaged by biases and burdens from unpaid work. Their needs and safety are also neglected in various types of designs, standards, and equipment. These can be summarized into 4 sub-themes: (i) burdens of unpaid care work, (ii) gender bias in workplaces, (iii) intervention and product design, and (iv) workplace safety.

Burdens of Unpaid Care Work

The term “work” refers universally to paid employment, ignoring unpaid work that are primarily undertaken by women. Globally, women undertake 61% of household chores and shoulder 75% of unpaid work including care-giving. These take a toll on women’s health, makes them poorer, and they even have lower pensions since traditional pension schemes don’t recognize the unpaid hours contributed outside the “workforce”.

In our full Invisible Women summary, we share more facts/statistics and discuss how governments and organizations can help to address the imbalances.

Gender Bias at the Workplace

Despite proclaimed meritocracies, women face real challenges and biases, especially in male-dominated sectors like technology. In the U.S., women hold half the undergraduate degrees, yet they represent only 25% of employees in the tech sector and a mere 11% at the executive level.

Men are not naturally stronger in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). For instance, women drove the early growth of computing in the 1940s-60s. The key programmers of the ENIAC—one of the first electronic general-purpose computers—were all women. Yet, when you think of a “tech whizz” or a “genius” the likely image that comes to mind is a man.  Why?

In our full summary, we share more about:
• The “brilliance bias” in favor of men;
• How women’s accomplishments have been consistently written out of textbooks and media;
• How biases have been unconsciously built into all sorts of professional opportunities;
• More examples from the tech industry and STEM academia; and
• How to address workplace gender disparities.

Workplace Safety

Many workplace safety standards, equipment, and policies are designed on the assumption that women are just smaller versions of men—a concept called the “Henry Higgins Effect.” Women have less upper body strength, thinner skin, and different responses to drugs/chemicals. Their breasts and wider hips also affect their posture and movements. Yet, there’s a lack of gender-specific research on work-related hazards, ranging from endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to work tools, equipment, uniforms and guidelines.

This is worse in under-regulated industries—in addition to working in precarious conditions with little/no protection, women on independent contracts might be dismissed just before they give birth, or experience more sexual harassment and violence than men.  More details and statistics in our full 18-page summary.

Intervention and Product Design

Women have different needs from men and play vital roles in society. Yet, they’re often excluded from user research or product design, from the standard piano keyboard to smartphones.

Design biases are not just inconvenient; they can also present health issues. A woman in a car crash is 47% more likely than a man to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die—because car crash tests are primarily done using male dummies.

In our complete Invisible Women summary, we’ll take a close look at a wide range of projects and initiatives ranging from agriculture to venture capital (VC), to show the wide-ranging impact of the male bias and gender data gap.

Public Planning and Policy

Women’s needs are also neglected in infrastructural planning, public policy, and crisis management. The implications go beyond inconvenience and danger to women; there are also real economic and social costs.

There are several sub-themes within this section. In our full summary, we’ll dive into specific details on:

Infrastructure and public spaces, with examples and solutions from public transportation planning to urban zoning, snow-clearing, public spaces (e.g. parks), and public restrooms.

Economic policy, including the implications of excluding unpaid household tasks from Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or blind spots in public policy decisions and financial policies. 

• The challenges and implications of low female representation in political leadership; and

Crisis management and recovery efforts, during and after crises like war or natural disaster. Effects range from neglected needs (e.g. post-disaster homes being built without kitchens) to deaths and sexual violence against women.

Conclusion: 3 Main Themes

There are 3 underlying themes or messages across the domains discussed above.

Invisible Women summary - 3 main themes
• The invisible female body: We live in a world that often fails to consider the female body—from jobs to product design, infrastructure and medicine. Such oversights are not just inconvenient; they can be a matter of life and death.

Male sexual violence against women persists because we don’t measure it or demand accountability for it. Sexual abuse isn’t caused by female attributes, but the norms and associations ascribed to those attributes. Why should having a female body make you a target for oppression—from cat-calls to rape or subservient roles like serving tea?

• Women are expected to bear the bulk of unpaid care work, which reinforces gender biases and undervalues women’s contributions. It’s time to stop normalizing gender discrimination, and to start addressing them.

Getting the Most from Invisible Women

Closing the gender data gap won’t magically solve all the problems. But, it can lay the foundation for women’s voices to be heard and considered, so we can create a safer and more inclusive environment for all.

Ready to zoom in on the various issues outlined above? Get detailed insights, examples and actionable strategies from our full book summary bundle, which includes an infographic, 18-page text summary, and a 31-minute audio summary.
Invisible Women summary - book summary bundle

The book is packed with lots of statistics, data, and research insights about the gender data gap. In this summary, we’ve presented the key messages along with a fraction of the statistics and research from the book. You can purchase the book here or visit carolinecriadoperez.com for more details

Do also check out our Lean In summary to get more perspectives on women and work.

About the Author of Invisible Women

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men  was written by Caroline Criado Pérez—a British journalist, author, and women’s rights activist. She was born in Brazil, raised in Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Portugal, before moving to the UK. She’s best known for her advocacy to promote the representation of women in the public sphere, and successfully got a woman represented on a Bank of England note. For her advocacy and impact on public policy, she was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2015. Caroline continues to be an influential voice on gender equality and women’s rights in the UK and beyond.

Invisible Women Quotes

“The gender data gap isn’t just about silence. These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact on women’s lives every day.”

“Male bias just looks like common sense to them.”

“Instead of believing women when they say they’re in pain, we tend to label them as mad.”

“There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who isn’t paid for her work.”

“Women’s work, paid and unpaid, is the backbone of our society and our economy. It’s about time we started valuing it.”

“Because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal.”

“The male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience…is seen as…niche.”

“Women are not scaled-down men.”

“It’s not always easy to convince someone a need exists if they don’t have that need themselves.”

“Bad data leads to bad resource allocation. And the data we have at the moment is incredibly bad.”

“The real reason we exclude women is because we see the rights of 50% of the population as a minority interest.”

Click here to download the Invisible Women infographic & summary

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