Book Review: Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez
AUTHOR: Caroline Criado Perez
PUBLICATION DATE: 2019
DIFFICULTY FROM 0 – 5: 4 (A little heavy on statistics and methodology)
Why you should read Invisible Women:
Invisible Women explores data bias that unconsciously excludes women in areas from economic development and healthcare to education and public policy. This book explains that the most common things we do and use have been created with men as the default, despite the fact that men only account for half of the population. Adding women’s schedules and bodies to study design complicates research, and so women are often excluded from crucial data sets. This leads to systems that are built on male-centric data, forcing women to adapt to systems that are not built for their body types, routines, or needs. If you have noticed things that don’t work well for you and your body and wondered why that is, this book is for you.
The scope of the book does not extend to trans and non-binary people so keep that in mind if you’re looking for something addressing a broader audience. Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book though.
My Top Five Takeaways
1. As women have joined the paid labor force, men have not matched this shift with a comparative increase in their unpaid work: women have simply increased their total work time.
This is true regardless of the proportion of household income they bring in. Even in wealthier households who hire help, the remaining unpaid work is still distributed at the same male to female ratio, with women doing the majority of what’s left. The most disheartening data I read in this book is that even when men do increase their unpaid work, they often take the more enjoyable jobs (unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, taking kids to sports practices, etc.) and the rest of the routine housework is done by women.
2. The extra work that women do is affecting their health.
In every age range, women have higher rates of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression than men. This stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education, health, and social care (where women often take positions because it allows more flexibility for childcare) and when working more than a certain number of hours (a range of 37 to 55 hours). When you factor in women’s paid and unpaid labor, I can’t imagine many women who don’t reach that range of deleterious work-related stress daily.
I’ve heard so many working mom friends who experience mental breakdowns at the end of the night after working full-time, coming home to make dinner, putting kids to bed, tidying the house, and then realizing there is no time left for them if they want to get enough sleep to be able to repeat it all tomorrow. This way of life is unsustainable for many, leading to high levels of burnout for professional women.
3. Gender bias still very much exists in the workplace.
An analysis of 248 performance reviews collected from a variety of US-based tech companies found that women receive negative personality criticism that men simply don’t. Women are told to watch their tone, to step back. They are called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional, and irrational. Out of all these words, only aggressive was used to describe men. With more than 90% of American companies using reviews as factors for promotions and bonuses, we can understand how white men are rewarded at a higher rate than equally performing women and ethnic minorities.
In the book, Perez shows how women are leaving their jobs not because of a lack of interest or qualification but because of “workplace conditions,” “undermining behavior from managers,” and a “sense of feeling stalled in one’s career.” The LA Times similarly found that women leave their jobs because they are repeatedly passed up for promotion and have their projects dismissed.
In a science lab where I worked, I was told that the best workers are married women without children because they are not distracted by dating or childcare and will work harder than men for the same opportunities. When women take the burden of managing childcare, running the household, and other invisible labors, their responsibilities outside the workplace are often interpreted as a lack of commitment, which makes it easy to justify passing them over for promotions. While mothers are seen as less competent and are often paid less, being a father can work in a man’s favor, often leading to more flexible work opportunities or even more promotions because being a father often means they are seen as more responsible than other men (read more about the Fatherhood Bonus and Motherhood Penalty here).
4. Even the most mundane things like transportation are designed around men.
Men are more likely to have a simple travel pattern: a twice-daily commute in and out of town. But women’s travel patterns tend to include more variety such as walking, taking public transportation, and more small, interconnected trips called “trip-chaining.” Public transportation routes are designed for the simple there-and-back trips in and out of a city. You’ve recognized this if you’ve ever said, “I’ll drive because the bus takes too long,” or if you’ve calculated how far you’d have to walk from the bus stop to get to your location. I’d like to take the bus with my son more (he is obsessed with buses now), but the routes don’t go from the post office to the grocery store without requiring more walking than my young son can do without tiring.
If you’re like me, you’ve also noticed examples of mobility-related hardships in a lack of sidewalks, curb cuts, and safe walkways, which makes moving with children, strollers, and wheelchairs more challenging. Even in the family-friendly city I live in now, our public library only has stairs at both main entrances. This forces me to push my toddler in his stroller up and down more than 20 concrete steps with our library books from the day. If public facilities and our transportation systems had been designed with women in mind, this wouldn’t be the case.
5. Ordinary objects are designed with men specifically in mind.
This bias has existed for hundreds of years, with basic farming equipment being created for the male body despite the fact women have historically shared farming responsibilities. For example, tools like ploughs, pruning shears, hand-held leaf blowers, and sprayers require more upper-body strength and are thus much easier for men to use than for women.
Grip strength is another example. Women have on average a 41% lower grip strength than men, and this is not a sex difference that changes with age or training. I lift weights (my husband does not), but I still struggle with grip strength tasks that he does easily. This challenge is magnified while I am pregnant. I am tired of not being able to open doors easily, unlock a five-point car seat harness without my hand spasming, carry a baby long distances in a car seat with a too-large handle, pull in and hold the lawn mower grips, or open tight jars.
You might think (like I did) “well that’s just the way it is,” and work to change yourself to make life easier. But there really is no reason why simple, everyday items that women regularly use cannot be designed more effectively for them. For example, in our home we finally replaced our door knobs with door levers. My mom chose to spend a lot more money than my dad so that she could get a pickleball racket that she could grip better with her hands. And I decided never to buy unisex (read: male) clothes because they are too big in the shoulders and waist and too small in the chest and hips. We still don’t have seat belts that fit women’s chests or pregnant bellies, but when we do, I’ll buy one of those too.
Here are some quick examples from the book of other objects designed for men:
- Piano keyboards prioritize larger hands, so, of course, they work better for men. The minimum handspan of top acclaimed pianists is 8.8 inches, well over the 7–8 inch average female handspan.
- Phones are intended to fit in one hand but can’t actually be held safely in most women’s hands. I just bought the new iPhone 13 Pro for the camera, but my hand isn’t big enough to do simple features like screen capture.
- Voice recognition software more accurately captures male voices than female. It’s unfair for women when a device doesn’t work for them, potentially dangerous when it’s a vehicle’s navigation system, but life-threatening when it is an emergency physician using speech recognition software.
- Women’s restrooms have the same floor space as men, even though men’s bathrooms have double the number of toilets (because urinals take up less space). Women take 2.3 times longer in the restroom because we often have more complicated clothing, are more likely to be with children or elderly or disabled people, and are also more likely ourselves to be elderly or disabled. Women also have more to do in the restroom during menstruation and have an increased need to use the restroom when pregnant. Yet the equal floor plans persist, and the long lines at intermission continue.
I saw a modern-day adaptation of My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center in New York City a few years back. I was transported back to that performance when I read Invisible Women. It all comes down to Henry Higgins’s lament, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” This mentality has been baked into the design of our world, and it has to change. Until we accept that women are different from men and make the effort of accounting for those differences, women will be burdened by living in a society based on male experience.
If you don’t have time to read:
Caroline Criado-Perez on Invisible Women
Caroline Criado-Perez on Invisible Women at 5×15
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholemew.