Invisible women

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I was intrigued when Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, was published earlier this year.  It got a lot of exposure on radio (and no doubt in other media outlets too) – and deservedly so. Perez’s thesis is that it’s a man’s world: the world is unconsciously and often consciously designed and regulated by men for men and that women are too often seen as smaller and less powerful versions of men.  Even in countries and cultures in which men think they believe in equality in all spheres of life and that  systems are designed and shaped to ensure equality as far as is possible, there are often huge gaps and inequalities, completely unintended because nobody thought froma woman’s point-of-view.

One of the hooks which grabbed me, listening to the reports and the interviews, was the built-in gender bias of technology. For instance, when a gender-neutral language such as Turkish is fed into Google Translate, “o bir hemşire” translates as “she is a nurse” while  “o bir doktor” comes out as “he is a doctor.

(Recordings of many of the interviews and other items are available on the BBC website, though I fear that they may be restricted to listeners in the UK.  There is an account of her discussion at the Hay Festival which should be freely accessible, as of course are reviews and articles in the press.)

There were many such hooks, enough to send me to my local library to place a reservation for the book.  And a couple of months later, my name bobbled to the top of the list.

It’s an impressive read – and I mean that literally. The book really did make an impression on me, it has changed my mindset. I won’t go into detail here and it is not my intent to review the book (we’ll come to my current intent shortly), but the section which really shook me was her account of medical trials.

Perez demonstrates how women are often under-represented in and even excluded from tests of new drugs.  When volunteers are invited to participate in trials, there are often more men than women taking part – possibly (says Perez) because men have more free time than women, who often have invisible, uncounted caring work which needs to be done in their “free” time – “caring” including care for elderly or young relatives, including the shopping and cooking and house-care, and more.   It may even be that women are deliberately excluded from drug trials because they react less consistently than men,  their metabolisms are different, the stage of the menstrual cycle may affect their reactions. Pregnant women may be excluded for fear of damaging the foetus or the mother or because, again, the stage of the pregnancy may affect reactions. Women may just be too complicated to figure out – so rather than testing to discover if smaller (or larger) or even variable dosages might be helpful, it is easier to ignore women altogether and just let the world assume that the effects on women will be the same as on men.

Perez also suggests that medical research using animals is often conducted only on the male of whatever species, which could again skew results and conclusions. Women are under-considered, with potentially serious and maybe even fatal results.

The book is full of examples of women and data about women being unknown, unsought, ignored.  And examples too of the differences made when there is real equality, sometimes through forced positive gender discrimination, and women get fair representation in leadership, in research, in politics, in arts, in life, and when their voice is heard and their contributions valued.

It’s a powerful testimony and should be compulsory reading for decision makers, male and female, in all fields. (For those in IBDP and CP schools, I recomend this as a worthy purchase for the library, for TOK and for other courses too.)

The research is mind-boggling. This 432 page book includes more than 1330 superscript references and citations which take up 70 pages of endnotes.  I would love to see Perez at work, learn how she manages to keep track of the materials she has read and the information and quotations she might use in her text. A veritable work of scholarship – and all the more impressive because the book is so readable.

But I have reservations about her publishers (Chatto and Windus), on several grounds – mainly in connection with those endnotes (and here we come to the point of this post).

For starters, the endnotes are arranged in chapter number order – but there is no indication as to which chapter is which.  The running head on each page shows the title of the chapter, but when you follow up a superscript number (keeping one finger on the page you have left) to turn to the endnotes,  you don’t need the title of the chapter to see if you need to move forward or back in the endnote pages;  what you need is the number of the chapter. So back you go, one finger in the endnotes page you are leaving, one finger still in the chapter you are reading, and more fingers flicking through the pages looking for the start of the chapter you are on. Then back to the end of the book to find the set of endnotes for that chapter.

That’s one irritation.

Another is that those 70 pages of endnotes could have been many more, should have been many more.

While many materials are listed in full, author/s, title, title of publication, date of publication and other publishing details, page numbers and so on, many more are indicated only by their URL. We have no idea of those authorship and publication details which could add so much value to our understanding of the item cited.  When we know authors, we often have notions of their authority; when we know the publication date, we know how recent or ancient the article is.

Yes, even with news and magazine articles. They might be anecdotal rather than academic, but it could still be helpful to know the authors, to know the dates.  Are there many different authors responsible for the articles or just a few? Are the articles recent or further back in time?  How many articles are we talking about? It’s not always obvious, just from a URL.

Moreover, giving us just the URLs provides opportunities for mis-typing,  and some of those URLs are long, several lines long.  Again, it’s not helpful.

Then there are the plentiful uses of ibid. each pointing to the immediately previous reference where details are given in full, and that’s fine. Less fine is the use of author’s name only (as in footnote 43 in this illustration), to indicate a work which was referenced in full earlier – but we need to go hunting to find that earlier reference, somewhere in those 70 pages of endnotes.

One aim, arguably THE major aim, of endnotes and references is to help the reader, and in several different ways.  The elements of a reference each serve different purposes in this regard and it’s not all about “academic honesty.”  I think the publishers have done the readers of this book a disservice, and it may well detract from the value of the book.  Chatto and Windus are not alone in this type of practice; publishers often seem not to grasp the rationale of references.  They short-change their readers.

Perez is not presenting this as an academic text of course and this is not an IB Extended essay either; it is unfair to judge the Endnotes by academic standards.  For non-academic publishers, other considerations apply, including paper and printing costs and making the text accessible to a non-academic audience.

Some publishers provide a dedicated website for (some of) their books which include a full refernece list – with the advantage that these can include live hyperlinks. Is this the compromise I am looking for?

Don’t let this rant put you off. It’s a book well worth the reading.

1 thought on “Invisible women

  1. Another interesting post! I did wonder at first where it was taking us. You were obviously impressed with the book but how was that going to relate to academic honesty or referencing. I enjoyed the book ‘review’ and will buy it but I also appreciate the point about the URL not being enough. I see so many lists of URLs being passed off as work cited lists and accepted by teachers and wonder how they could accept just that. Now I have a better argument to use with them.

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