Review: Invisible Women

Written by: Amber O’Connor

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for Men, one of Off the Shelf’s recent talks, promised to be a success even before it began: having its venue relocated because of the demand for tickets. Based on the book of the same name, which won the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize, the talk was chaired by Professor Fionn Stevenson, of the University of Sheffield, and featured the book’s author Caroline Criado Perez, as well as her dog, Poppy.

The talk touched upon a range of the subjects covered in the book, from medicine, to technology, and politics, highlighting different ways gender data gaps in each of these fields can and does produce dangerous consequences for women. Caroline repeatedly cited statistics she discovered during her research for the book, including that during car accidents women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and that women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack, in Britain. As she relayed her findings, Caroline carefully balanced scientific objectivity against her own personal responses to the data. She would ensure to reference the research journal or newspaper report from which she gained her knowledge, explaining the nuances, or rather lack of nuances, in the studies, before labelling their promulgation of the gender data gap “baffling” and “idiotic”.

Both Caroline and Professor Fionn entertained the audience with witty remarks and comic anecdotes, reducing the tension produced by the serious nature of the topic, without undermining the importance of the book’s message: highlighting this systemic problem and the way of thinking that has allowed it to continue unnoticed, or perhaps noticed but uncared for. Caroline achieved what she set out to do at the beginning of the talk: break down the prestige with which science can be regarded and re-position it as a fallible enterprise, recognising that mistakes can be made and need to be challenged. She also paired her critiques with questions about a world that has allowed this gap to develop, looking at other instances where women are made invisible. For instance, why it is ‘football’ and ‘women’s football’, not ‘men’s football’ and ‘women’s football?’

Throughout the evening, Caroline’s remarks were met with several ‘yeses’ and nods of approbation from the audience, and they responded with equal enthusiasm to the following Question and Answer session, touching upon questions about intersectionality and what can be done in response to the gender data gap. Though some members of the audience admitted to being researchers themselves, and Caroline quickly took up the opportunity to discuss the significance of ‘sex-disaggregated data’, she also ended the talk with a message that everyone can follow: look for where you can see men being used as the standard, and challenge it; in other words, notice the invisible women.

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