Book Reviews

Caroline Criado Perez. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York, NY: Abrams Press, 2019. 411p. Paper, $27.00 (ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2). LC 2018-59561.

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

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men illustrates how we continue to naturalize sex and gender discrimination by failing to collect data on women. As a society we have accepted and normalized the ways in which, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, the “representation in the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.” The default is male. Caroline Criado Perez refers to this “tradition” as the gender data gap.

Drawing from expert research, interviews, and case studies, Criado Perez illuminates the underrepresentation of women in data and details the fallout of this phenomenon by employing three ubiquitous themes that define women’s relationships with the world: the invisibility of the female body, male sexual violence against women, and unpaid care work. In an attempt to account for the breadth and depth of this ignorant imbalance, the book is divided into six parts. Each part delves deeper into the consequences of the gender data gap in relation to daily life, the workplace, product design, medicine and healthcare, public life, and disaster.

The gender data gap presents itself in silences: the human history of an entire group of people being unaccounted for. Criado Perez does not credit the gender data gap to malice or an intentional erasure; instead, she views it as the result of “a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. A double not thinking, even: men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all.” Male is the default, always.

As a woman, a social scientist, and a librarian, I would be remiss to ignore how the gender data gap affects my work. Like many academic librarians, I spend a lot of time in the classroom providing students with information literacy and data literacy skills, battling fake news and misinformation during a time when the truth is challenged by political agendas and ideologies, and, as Barack Obama told us at the 2005 ALA Annual Conference, information is used not to illuminate but to obfuscate. It has become increasingly important to learn how to conduct feminist-centered socially just research, recognize the systems of oppression in research and academia, and develop new research skills that help to dismantle those systems.

What does it mean for data to be biased? What effects has the perpetual thinking that the male body is synonymous with the human body had on medical education and medical research? Why are women’s bodies not taken into consideration when designing safety equipment even though we know they differ from men at a cellular level? Why do women continue to be unaccounted for even in the time of fourth-wave feminism? How do we account for the statistical warp and data inaccuracies caused by the systemic gender data gap? Criado Perez’s Invisible Women provides the evidence to interrogate the imbalance ingrained in supposed authoritative scholarship, to ask questions about the consequences of not counting women, and to change the trajectory of data collection policies and practices to minimize the gender data gap. As librarians we can educate students on the gender data gap, what it means to sex-disaggregate data, and how to start accounting for the themes that define the ways women move through the world.

Invisible Women reads more like a call to arms than a dry nonfiction academic monograph. Criticisms of Invisible Women have suggested that it is too theoretical. Such critiques are more representative of a public hungry for change and actionable guidance than critiques of validity or merit of her arguments. Criado Perez plans to address these requests in Now You See Us: How to Close the Data Gap and Design a World for Everyone; expected publication is 2022 by Chatto and Windus. Now You See Us, says the publisher, will be “the shorter, practical, more hopeful sister to Invisible Women. It will give her many readers a plan, a toolkit, for rebuilding the world,” the publisher said. Additionally, her emphasis on biological factors can read as exclusions of the wide range of ways to be a woman. Criado Perez’s work could more clearly address the idea of sex and gender as societal constructs. Still, Criado Perez brings us one step closer to closing the female representation gap. Arguably we have a long way to go, but Invisible Women provides us a tool to continue the fight.—Melissa Chomintra, Tulane University

Copyright Melissa Chomintra

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