Episode 62

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed For Men

Published on: 23rd November, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I remember several years ago one of my friends pointed out the fact that women had to bring jackets to church in the middle of the summer because it was always so freezing. I had grown up my whole life with my teeth chattering in church buildings, but had never thought about it. My friend said, “well, of course. Men wear suits - pants, long sleeves, jackets, socks and shoes to church. And the church leaders (always exclusively men) are the ones who show up to their meetings at the church in the mornings and set the thermostats. They’re not being mean; they just don’t realize that half the people in here have to wear dresses.” I thought of that conversation when I read the preface to Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed For Men, which we’ll be discussing today. She says that the gender data gap is composed of missing information, or “silences,” in all kinds of scenarios: 

“These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact women’s lives every day. The impact can be relatively minor. Shivering in offices set to a male temperature norm, for example, or struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm. Irritating, certainly. Unjust, undoubtedly. But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety measures don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like having your heart attack go undiagnosed because your symptoms are deemed ‘atypical’ For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.” 

She goes on to say that this is not malicious or deliberate on the part of men, but is an understandable blind spot. However, this “non-thinking” about women has a serious impact just the same, and this modus operandi must change… but before I get ahead of myself I want to welcome my reading partner to the program, Barbie Hada Harper. Hi, Barbie!

Barbie: Hi Amy! So great to be here with you.

Amy: (Tell how we know each other, invite you to share your bio)


  • born and raised by my parents in Mission Viejo, CA - only girl w/3 brothers
  • dad is Japanese-American, born as his parents migrated back to their CA home after being imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps of WWII / mom is Caucasian; being bi-racial has informed my life experience 
  • raised a member of Church of JC of LDS –– great values and examples but church itself is highly patriarchal - this aspect has been challenging for me at times
  • As a child, by default socialized more as a boy in some ways with 3 brothers –– confident achiever––student body president, valedictorian, voted “most likely to succeed.” Even then I planned on being a stay-at-home mom. In my teens, I began to sense that my ambition made some men uncomfortable: 1) Remember a boy I dated said he was concerned about how I’d do as a mom since I was so ambitious. 2) I once shared with a man at church (a doctor) that I was interested in medical school; he counseled me to not go to medical school b/c it callouses women’s nurturing qualities. 
  • Fast forward––undergrad at BYU in Fitness and Wellness Management, served 18-mo. volunteer mission. When I met my husband (Idaho farm boy), I cancelled all plans to pursue masters. Felt it was more noble and practical to support his education and career over any dreams of mine. 
  • We have 4 children, ages 7-15. I’ve stayed at home most of the time, doing some freelance editing and PR on the side, and I’m currently studying holistic health, nutrition, and detoxification with the goal to become a practitioner. Also love art and design. 
  • Motherhood IS noble, but I also believe in the importance of fatherhood, and my husband has felt an increasing amount of grief over the heavy burden that it’s been for him to be the sole provider. When I heard stat that Iceland men and women equally contribute to home incomes, and concurrently, Iceland has the lowest suicide rate for adult males, this hit home for me!
  • If we did it over again, my husband and I would allow ourselves to creatively explore a more egalitarian balance within our marriage while still prioritizing the raising of our children in love.  

Amy: And what interested you in the project?

Barbie: (1.5 min)

  • Ever since known, respected depth of intellect and heart. “Dear Mormon Man” piece resonated with me deeply. So I dove into this podcast. I believe this work is part of an ongoing awakening. It’s a privilege to take a small part in this conversation. 
  • I believe life gives us all trauma (some are micro traumas that we might not even recognize as trauma) and one of our tasks in life is to identify that trauma and do the inner work needed to heal. Takes time, searching, vulnerability - part of my healing has come through the education and community this podcast has provided me! SO THANK YOU AMY.
  • Want to echo what you’ve said in past episodes, disclaimer that I have remarkably GOOD men in my life. Some of my favorite people on this earth happen to be men and boys. I don’t see myself as a victim of men––patriarchal system facilitates a sort of self deception for both women and men. 


Let’s get to know the author of the book we’re discussing today.

Caroline Criado Perez was born in Brazil in 1984, the daughter of an Argentinian-born businessman and an English registered nurse who worked with Doctors Without Borders. The family lived in several countries during her childhood, including Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, and the UK. She also attended boarding school in the Netherlands. 

Criado Perez studied History at a university in London, but then discontinued her studies. She loved opera and for a time, she wanted to become an opera singer, and she worked various jobs in order to pay for singing lessons.

Criado Perez worked in digital marketing for some years, then studied for an English Literature A-level, and gained a place to study English Language and Literature at Oxford University as a mature student. (That was inspiring for me.) She graduated from Oxford in 2012. She became a feminist through studying language and gender in a book by Deborah Cameron discussing gender's relationship to pronouns (and she mentions this in her book).  

She also studied Gender Studies at the London School of Economics, and some of her notable campaigns include getting a female historical figure on Bank of England banknotes; getting Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button on tweets; and getting the first statue of a woman (Millicent Fawcett) in Parliament Square.​ So she’s an impressive activist as well!

Her first book, Do it Like a Woman, was published by Portobello in 2015. Her #1 Sunday Times best-selling second book, INVISIBLE WOMEN: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, was published in March 2019.

So let’s dig in.

Amy: Introduction: The Default Male

For me, as a “word” person, one really interesting part was this:

Anthropologist [Sally] Slocum pointed out that gender bias appeared ‘not only in the ways in which the scanty data are interpreted, but in the very language used.’ The word ‘man,’ she wrote, ‘is used in such an ambiguous fashion that it is impossible to decide whether it refers to males or to the human species in general.’ 

Numerous studies in a variety of languages over the past forty years have consistently found that what is called the ‘generic masculine’ (using words like ‘he’ in a gender-neutral way) is not in fact read generically. It is read overwhelmingly as male. 

When the generic masculine is used people are more likely to recall famous men than famous women; to estimate a profession as male-dominated; to suggest male candidates for jobs and political appointments. Women are also less likely to apply, and less likely to perform well in interviews, for jobs that are advertised using the generic masculine. 

...While the generic masculine only really clings on in the writings of pedants who still insist on using ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she,’ it has made something of a comeback in the informal usage of Americanisms such as ‘dude and ‘guys,’ and, in the UK, ‘lads’ as supposedly gender-neutral terms. (Our family is in trouble!! Erik is from SoCal and will say “dude” until the day he dies”; I say “guys” to my daughters all the time, and for some unknown reason, Sophie addresses her all-girl group of school friends as “lads”! Should we stop? Probably!)

So then she goes on to describe languages that, unlike English, gender everything. She says:

Try searching Google for ‘lawyer’ in German. It comes back “Anwalt”, which literally means male lawyer, but is also used generically as just ‘lawyer.” If you want to refer to a female lawyer specifically you would say “Anwaltin’ (incidentally, the way female terms are often, as here, modified male terms is another subtle way we position the female as a deviation from the male type -  de Beauvoir’s term, “the Other.”)

The generic masculine is also used when referring to groups of people: when the gender is unknown, or if it’s a mixed group the generic masculine is used. So a group of one hundred female teachers in Spanish would be referred to as ‘las profesoras’ - but as soon as you add a single male teacher, the group suddenly becomes ‘los profesores.’ Such is the power of the default male. (6-8)

Criado Perez describes how Viking skeletons with very obviously female pelvises were nevertheless described as men because they were buried with weapons and wealth… and it was only after DNA testing that they realized “oh wow, they really are women!!” Which reminded me of our very first episode on The Chalice and the Blade, where archaeologists studying Neolithic civilizations described carvings as spears that turned out to be plants, and the multitude of female sculptures as erotica, rather than goddess iconography. The “default male” is in all of our minds. 

Barbie: Chapter 1: Can Snow Clearing Be Sexist?

Stories of Brazilian government clearing the slums called favelas and displacing women who end up in updated complexes far from their jobs, without cars, without good public transportation, without childcare, without community they’d depended on, stuck in their homes taking care of their kids, and it was illegal to run an in-home business like a daycare to make money. Women that weren’t home with children had work commutes for 3-6 hours a day. This is planning gone wrong! These new facilities they built could have help these women feel a sense of dignity and lift these women out of poverty, if had planned for simple resources like public transit, nearby grocery stores and daycares; instead, the poor planning made a bad situation worse. What a missed opportunity.

One woman who was involved in city planning committee in Philadelphia had to keep telling the men to not put shared kitchens on the 3rd floor with no elevator. Explained to her male counterparts, “Would you want to carry all your groceries and your kids and a baby stroller up three flights of stairs?” “Ohhh.” Housing facilities obviously planned by a group of men with absolutely no understanding of women’s lives. (42-46) 

Example of solution here: cites Vienna’s public housing officials who built a new housing complex, and began by collecting sex-disaggregated data - Austria’s national statistics agency revealed that women spent double the time per day than men on unpaid work such as household chores and childcare. (44) Armed with this data, they identified that the people this housing was intended to serve was women. The planners solicited feedback from women, and they designed housing based on that feedback. 

Amy: Chapter 2: Gender Neutral With Urinals

She begins with the oh-so-relatable scenario of being at a theater with the line for the ladies’ room going out the door and all the way around the foyer, while there’s no line for the men’s room. And even reading just that, I thought YES!! That’s something that we all just live with without questioning why, or thinking that that problem could be solved.

On the face of it, it may seem fair and equitable to accord male and female public toilets the same amount of floor space - and historically, this is the way it has been done. 50/50 division of floor space has even been formalized in plumbing codes. However, if a male toilet has both cubicles and urinals, the number of people who can relieve themselves at once is far higher per square foot of floor space in the male bathroom than in the female bathroom. Suddenly equal floor space isn’t so equal.

But even if male and female toilets had an equal number of stalls, the issue would not be resolved, because women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet. Here, I thought she was going to say “because women have to take off their pants and sit down, etc….” but it’s even more than that! She says: Women make up the majority of the elderly and disabled, two groups that will tend to need more time in the toilet. Women are also more likely to be accompanied by children, as well as disabled and older people. Then there’s the 20-25% of women of childbearing age who may be on their period at any one time, and therefore needing to change a tampon or a sanitary pad. 

Women may also in any case require more trips to the bathroom than men: pregnancy significantly reduces bladder capacity, and women are eight times more likely to suffer from urinary tract infections than men which again increases the frequency with which a toilet visit is needed. (49)

If there were more women in those building planning meetings, there’s no way we would continue to have this problem. And again, it’s not that men are doing this on purpose; it’s just that most men never have to think about it. 

-A third of the world’s population lack adequate toilet provision at all. According to the UN, one in three women lack access to safe toilets. The next few pages talk about how women all over the world don’t have access to a safe, private space to relieve themselves, and they are thus vulnerable to sexual assault. (p. 49-52) This problem is worldwide - there’s been a trend of public toilet closures in US for over 50 years. The health problems that result from this are far worse for women. Local govts do this to cut cost, however Yale did a study suggesting that installing more toilets would actually reduce costs associated with these sexual assaults.

-Sexual assault of women on public transportation all over the world - highly underreported - women take longer routes or stop riding public transit alltogether due to these dangers 

-More discussion of public spaces, which are thought of as “gender neutral” and technically all genders have equal access, but they are so male-dominated that only very traditionally masculine men feel comfortable entering. One example: weight rooms in gyms.

(Amy:Just this past week Sophie told me how much she hates her weight training class at school because she feels so uncomfortable around the boys. She very much does not want me to email the school to share the research on this, but I want to, because we can solve that issue. It reminded me of one happy example from this section where Criado Perez shares a success story:

In the mid 1990’s, research by local officials in Vienna found that from the age of 10, girls’ presence in parks and public playgrounds ' decreased significantly.’ But rather than simply shrugging their shoulders and deciding that the girls just needed to toughen up, city officials wondered if there was something wrong with the design of parks. And so they planned some pilot projects, and they started to collect data.

...It turned out that single large open spaces were the problem, because these forced girls to compete with the boys for space. (and most girls don’t like to compete with boys for space - there are various explanations for that, but we’ll just leave it at that) Originally these spaces were encased by wire fencing on all sides, with only a single entrance area - around which groups of boys would congregate. And the girls, unwilling to run the gauntlet, simply weren’t going in. Enter, stage right, Vienna’s very own Leslie Knope, Claudia Prinz-Brandenburg, with a simple proposal: more and wider entrances. And they subdivided the sport courts and the grassy areas, so that they could be occupied by smaller groups that didn’t compete with each other. ...These were all subtle changes - but they worked. A year later, ... there were more girls in the park. ...And now all new parks in Vienna are designed along the same lines. (64)

Barbie: Chapter 4: The Myth of Meritocracy

In certain enlightened arenas such as in tech and academia, it’s a popular belief that individuals receive recognition based on their merit. But, this concept of meritocracy is sadly a myth. In academia, for example, students and academics who are female are significantly less likely to receive funding, be granted meetings with professors, be offered mentoring, or even to get the job. But universities operate as if males and females are on a level playing field. Multiple studies have shown that, when female authored papers are rated under double-blind review (meaning they aren’t gender-specified), they are accepted more often or rated higher. So, there is a gendered publishing gap. When female academics are published, several studies have shown that women are systematically cited less than men: a gendered citations gap. Both of these gaps lead to a vicious cycle where fewer women progress in their careers, and around again we go. (96)

Meanwhile, a study showed that women in academia (and many other workplaces) are asked to do more undervalued work than their male colleagues, like taking notes, getting coffee, and doing the clean-up. And they generally do it b/c they are penalized as being ‘unlikeable’ if they say no. This likeability factor, in turn, affects their ability to publish....

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.