She wakes up at 4:30 to prepare breakfast for her children and her husband’s great uncle who lives across town while the rest of her family is asleep. She has to, because to deliver that breakfast to that great uncle means an extra hour navigating the local transit, a system designed around inter-city commuters, and not intra-city travelers like herself. She slips on an icy patch that has not yet been removed because her neighborhood has low priority on the ice clearance schedule.
She returns home, tired and sore, to gather up her children in order to drop them off to school on her way to work. Because she has to schedule in elder care and the kids’ school calendar, she can only find part time work, in a nail salon surrounded by chemicals that have never been clinically tested for their effect on women’s biology. She has to give most of her earnings to the shop owner because her work isn’t the type governments monitor closely, and so she ends up earning less than minimum wage.
At the end of a long shift, she waits for a bus at a stop that has not been designed with clear walls and which therefore invites sexual predation. She reported an incident last year, only to be told there was no official procedure in place to follow up on it. It was no the last incident.
Checking her phone, there is a note from her doctor that the bleeding she started noticing after taking a new medication is not a “known issue,” and that he is prescribing her anti-depressants. She stops by her step-great-uncle’s again on the way back from work, and hurts her back trying to lift him from the floor where he’d fallen. By the time that she has done the shopping and picked the children up from their non-subsidized child care that she can’t afford but must have, she arrives home having worked for fourteen hours and been paid for only seven of them, while being exposed to chemical harm and physical injuries that will eat up in health bills anything she might have saved for her children’s education and retirement.
Everything, literally every part of Julie’s day, is ruled by systemic miseries that ought to have been recognized and handled long ago. The scope of the Unpaid Work problem, the absence of pharmaceutical, chemical, and equipment testing on both men and women, the prejudicing of transit choices to favor certain travel patterns, the unwillingness to investigate the impact of unsubsidized child care on the most vulnerable segments of society, all of it avoidable if only civilization cared enough to vigorously collect the relevant data and act on it with purpose.
Which brings us to quite possibly the most important book I have ever read: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. Perez’s book is a harrowing tour-de-force of the cascading consequences that result when we only collect data from male perspectives. It is that rarest of things, a book that causes you to fundamentally reconsider every assumption underlying daily existence. Seat belts, heart attacks, uniforms, plastic factories, crash test dummies, tax credits, cell phones, doctor visits, charity programs, child birth, public space design, thermostat settings – item after item and service after service, women engage with a world that treats them as biological and social aberrations who need be neither consulted nor considered.
And it is killing them, a thousand blows from as many directions, each forcing healthy and capable individuals to twist and contort to fit into the world around them, and to remain quiet, believing themselves crazy, when the consequences of their official invisibility take very real tolls on their bodies and minds.
Perez details a vicious circle in which nobody and everybody is at fault for pushing the structure of civilization closer and closer to male norms. Nobody necessarily said, “Hey, let’s design this city to make women unsafe and these tax incentivies to make them underemployed and this medicine to slowly kill them.” Instead, a series of decisions unfurled that, step by logically inevitable step, nudged the weight of civilization off of one gender’s shoulders and onto another’s.
Studies are easier when you only use one gender, the data much neater, so governments and private companies gravitated towards male-only safety studies, leaving the assumption of gender neutrality unchallenged in spite of vast differences in how women process and respond to chemicals and physical trauma.
It’s cheaper to design one uniform for all, and since we already have all these men’s uniforms around, let’s call that “neutral” and shake our manes in Victorian disgust if a woman dares to point out how difficult and sometimes dangerous it is to attempt to eliminate waste when engulfed in the resulting be-flyed monstrosities.
It costs more to gather and analyze gender segregated data to see if there are fundamental differences that need to be addressed, so let’s keep it lumped together and let important insights get swallowed in the mean. Laziness in data becomes incomplete information becomes a world of driver’s seats that kill women with disturbing regularity and economic programs that pull money from child and elder care in order to spend it on tax breaks.
Invisible Women is not a light Summer read – it is a journey through manifold horrors wrought from compounded thoughtlessness. But it is a book that must be read. For men, facing Perez’s meticulously collected statistics is essential in order to see the world as it is, rather than the comfortable just-right hammock we experience it to be. For women, it provides a context that links together a myriad of seemingly isolated injustices into a system that can be understood and, once understood, combated. If there is a comfort here, it is that an exciting new world lies ahead, once we bother to equitably measure and respond to the confines and assumptions of the one we have.