Mind the Gender Data Gap: How Caroline Criado Perez is Exposing Data Bias
By Alice Sarsfield-Hall
There are some books that change you. That alter your perception of yourself or the world, and once read you cannot go back to how you used to be. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men by Caroline Criado Perez is one of those books for me. It is persuasive, addictive, and should be required reading for everyone, young or old, whatever your gender. Perez is an extraordinary woman, whose activism is well-documented. She campaigned to keep a woman on the Bank of England bank notes, created The Women’s Room, a database of female experts for the media, and campaigned to get a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square.
This is Perez’s second book, and it’s remarkable. She describes how there is a gender data gap everywhere in the world, which often ignores, and therefore silences, women. The qualifier ‘male’ is all too often left out, making a statement or statistic appear to be universal when it is in fact gendered. When people say tennis, they mean male tennis, because female tennis is of course qualified as being female. Yet because of this, half of the population have found themselves underrepresented. This can affect them in a variety of ways, from having the office temperature set to a male temperature norm, or car safety measures not taking into account women’s measurements. As Perez argues, this data gap is often not deliberate, but it does affect women’s lives in very real ways.
Take, for example, public transport. You might ask yourself, what data gap can there possibly be with public transport? Well, the answer is more complicated than it first appears. Women do more unpaid labour than men (such as childcare, taking care of the elderly etc), but given a general lack of car ownership amongst women, public transport layouts and city zoning laws, women are hindered from doing paid and unpaid labour. They are forced to take daily circuitous routes, because public transport and zoning laws are created without taking into account the lives of women; a lack of data is compiled to assess the needs of women. Whilst some may see gender specific data to be sexist, in fact the lack of it is sexist. In this instance, it means that half of the population is not considered when bus routes are planned. The white male perspective is taken to be the norm, and therefore the very idea of being a female is outside of the norm, unseen and unplanned for.
Perez references a study conducted by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, looking at how the US transit authorities addressed female safety needs due to the current data gap in the area. The predominately male dominated industry proved difficult for Loukaitou-Sideris at times, with one male chief operating officer saying to her ‘You’re assuming that the world is less safe for females’. This is the crux of the issue. Men often underestimate the very real danger women face on a daily basis. To be female is to be at risk- and nowhere is this more obvious than on public transport.
A 2016 study that found that 90% of French women had been victims of sexual harassment on public transport. Perez references this article, but does not elaborate on it. In the article, it is explained that 1 in 2 French women will chose trousers over skirts in an attempt to deter sexual harassment. Public transport is obviously not safe for women in France, and so women are changing their appearances, putting the pressure of changing what is happening onto themselves. It’s not victim blaming, but it certainly isn’t helping to solve this issue, which is of course men sexually harassing women. This aligns with my own experience living in Paris. Whilst I was lucky enough to never experience anything severe, a man asked a friend for her number, and then followed her home from the metro when she refused. She had to walk a long route home and wait for him to leave because she didn’t want him to know where she lived. On a train around France, another friend had to move carriages because the man sat opposite her put his hand on her thigh under the table.
The UN Women’s Safe and Friendly City and Public Spaces Programme has recognised this issue, and is attempting to rectify the situation. In the Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Minh the UN is working with officials to try and help women feel more comfortable using public transport. As with many cities, women here are subjected to harassment when they go outside their homes. The local government has realised that a budget needs to be set to address prevailing gender gaps. There are now public phone helplines for harassment victims, as well as information campaigns within schools, on buses and on social media. Bus drivers have even been trained on how to deal with sexual harassment. By recognising that there is a gender data gap, and taking the time to conduct their own research, the UN and the city of Ho Chi Minh are taking active steps to help women in the city.
Unfortunately, not every city is following the same example. Perez perfectly describes the fear many women face daily, one that does not affect men in the same way. According to the Office for National Statistics, not only are women more likely to be killer by a partner or ex-partner (44% of female victims compared to 7% of male victims), but women are also more likely to experience domestic abuse than men. So women have cause to be afraid, even if it’s only in the back of their mind. But the fear that comes with being a woman is subtler than that. Many women live in fear walking around at night, taking public transport home alone, or even taking the tube in rush hour. Groping, cat calling, suggestive comments; these are all things that women learn to live with, but shouldn’t have to. A 2016 study found that 64% of women have experienced sexual harassment on public transport, and 63% of women feel unsafe in public spaces, compared to 45% of men, with almost half doing ‘safety planning’ when they go out at night. We grip our keys a little bit tighter when walking in the dark and feel someone behind us; we look at surrounding doors to think who would be most likely to open up if we needed help. While not every man has attacked or harassed a woman, I’m sure that almost every woman has experienced the quick change of a man cat calling you beautiful, to him suddenly turning on you and calling you a bitch because you didn’t reply. Experiences like that make you wary.
Some people might argue against Perez’s premise of a gender data gap on the basis that I have managed to find statistics. However, these are mainly statistics from targeted campaigning groups like the Everyday Sexism Project or Stop Street Harassment. These groups have been set up precisely because of the lack of official documentation, in an effort to raise awareness and change the system. Awareness is vital to make people aware of this gender data gap, and therefore change their planning or design to accommodate the entire population.
Perez’s findings and conclusions are not revolutionary, although I fear some will see them as so. For most women, her book will merely confirm what they know, or suspect, from the realities of their own lives. Perez simply gives a name and a voice to it, and supports it with evidence. Although Perez does not specifically discuss the complexities of race and ethnicity within her book, she does look at issues globally, and the results are often the same around the world. The reality is that unfortunately, being a woman often renders your very existence invisible, where data is concerned. Where no data exists, no progress will be made to include you in the fabric of our world.
Go follow Caroline Ciado Perez on twitter to see her brilliance in action, and then get your Christmas shopping done early by going to your local bookshop and buying this book for everyone you know. It’s the most important gift you can give them.
Title image sourced here.