The proof we STILL live in a man’s world: Phones too big for our palms, chilly offices, cars designed for male drivers – a fascinating new book reveals the little ways life really is stacked against women
- Caroline Criado Perez explores how society overlooks women in a new book
- Many smartphones are designed so the average man can use it with one-hand
- In health research, female bodies are often excluded from clinical trials
- Only 10.8 per cent of pages in political science textbooks reference women
- Researchers claim female business owners receive less investment than men
- Caroline says the gender data gap is not generally malicious but can be deadly
Have you ever struggled to reach a high bookshelf? Shivered in a freezing office in July? Or tried — unsuccessfully — to use voice recognition technology?
All these daily irritations are examples of what happens when women have to use products, software and spaces that have been designed by men, for men. They fail to take into account women’s typically smaller size and different needs.
This gender data gap is not generally malicious or even deliberate. But it can be deadly — like crashing in a car whose safety measures don’t account for the height and weight of women’s bodies. This is what I mean when I say women are ‘invisible’. We are living in a world made for men, itself a product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia — and which is, therefore, a kind of not thinking.
It comes from assuming that a male viewpoint is the ‘default’, while women — half of the global population — are a niche interest.
Caroline Criado Perez explores how women are often overlooked in society in a fascinating new book, she revealed textbooks (pictured) at school feature far fewer images of girls
A few years ago, I fought, successfully, to stop the Bank of England removing the only woman (other than the Queen) from our banknotes.
The Bank said it was all for celebrating female achievement, it just couldn’t find a single woman who met its criteria, which included having ‘broad name recognition’ and not being ‘controversial’. And, as I discovered when researching my new book, this is sadly the case many times over . . .
IT STARTS WITH OUR SCHOOLBOOKS
A U.S. study of school history textbooks from 1960 to 1990 found only 9 per cent of names were female. A 2017 analysis of political science textbooks found only 10.8 per cent of pages referenced women. And in language example sentences, men outnumber women three to one, according to 30 years of Western studies.
The result of all these missing women? When girls start primary school aged five, they are as likely as boys to think that women can be ‘really, really smart’, research shows. But, within a year, something changes. If six-year-olds are told a game is for ‘children who are really, really smart’, girls are suddenly uninterested. They no longer see themselves that way.
Boys learn this, too. A 2016 study found male students consistently ranked fellow men as more intelligent than better-performing women.
ONE SIZE FITS ALL. . . MEN
Product designers leave women’s bodies out of the equation, too.
Take your smartphone. Its screen is probably around 5.5 in, so the average man can use it one-handed — but the average woman can’t. (This is despite the fact that women are more likely to buy an iPhone.)
My friend Liz recently told me she’d been ‘complaining to a friend about how difficult it was to zoom in on my phone camera. He said his was easy. Turns out we have the same phone’.
On the subject of smartphones, what’s the fastest-growing language? Not Spanish or Mandarin, but ‘emoji’ — those little pictures on your screen, now used by more than 90 per cent of the online population.
The average smartphone screen is around 5.5in which is ideal for using one-handed as a man however many women can’t use large smartphone screens onehanded
And they started out with a big problem with women.
The first emojis were designed to be gender-neutral, with names such as ‘runner’. But, almost universally, phone companies represented them all as men. When women pointed out that this didn’t make much sense, coders had to create two sets of emojis to even things out — so now we have ‘male runner’ and ‘female runner’.
Pianos, too, were made for male handspans: the octaves on a standard keyboard are 7.4 in wide — quite a stretch for women whose average fully extended handspan is 7.9 in, compared to men’s 8.9 in.
A study of 473 pianists found all 12 of the most renowned had handspans of 8.8 in or above, and only two were women.
Female pianists also have a 50 per cent higher risk of pain and injury than male pianists.
A smaller piano does exist, and numerous studies confirm it’s better for players’ health and musical ability. And yet, there remains a real reluctance in the music world to adapt.
WHOSE SAFETY COMES FIRST?
When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47 per cent more likely than a man to be seriously injured and 17 per cent more likely to die.
Why? Well, for starters, women tend to sit further forward when driving, as we’re usually shorter. This, car-makers say, increases the risk of internal injury, as it is not the ‘standard seating position’ — although it is the only way that we can reach the pedals and see out.
Crash test dummies based on the male physique can make cars more dangerous for women as they don’t take into account the average differences in height
The reason for this discrepancy is that crash test dummies are typically 1.77m tall and 76 kg, with male muscle mass and a male spinal column (women’s vertebrae are spaced differently, among other things).
There’s now a single European regulatory test that uses a ‘female’ dummy — but it’s only tested in the passenger seat and is really just a scaled-down male dummy.
RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
In a 2017 study of emergency workers, only 5 per cent of women said their protective gear, largely designed for men, never hampered their work.
This can prove fatal: in 1997, a British female police officer was stabbed and killed while using a hydraulic ram. She had removed her body armour because it was too difficult to use the ram while wearing it.
Another female officer revealed that she’d had breast reduction surgery because of her ill-fitting body armour — and, shortly afterwards, 700 more officers came forward to say their stab vests rode up over their breasts, leaving them unprotected.
But it’s not just women on the front line who face dangers at their jobs. While serious injuries at work have long been decreasing for men, there is evidence that they have been increasing among women — and our knowledge of why is limited.
A recent study revealed only 5 per cent of women who work within the emergency industry haven’t had their protective gear hamper their work (file image)
‘We know everything about dust disease in miners,’ says Rory O’Neill, a professor of occupational research at the University of Stirling. ‘You can’t say the same for exposures in “women’s” work.’
And yet toxins affect women differently to men: women tend to be smaller, with thinner skin, lowering the levels with which they can safely cope, and also have more body fat in which chemicals can accumulate.
In industries where men and women work together, Professor O’Neill adds, women were often left out of studies altogether as ‘confounding factors’ who might muddle the data.
Meanwhile, in most female-dominated industries — such as nail salons, where workers use a toxic cocktail of chemicals with known links to cancer, miscarriage and lung disease — an incredibly small number of studies have ever been done.
WHY THE DRUGS DON’T WORK
For millennia, medicine has assumed that male bodies are the default. The ancient Greeks started it, seeing the female as a ‘mutilated male’ (thanks, Aristotle). As a result, we have a huge data gap when it comes to women’s health. Female bodies are seen as too ‘complex’ and very often excluded from clinical trials; medical students learn about women’s bodies and health as an ‘extra’, not the norm.
And yet there are big differences between male and female physiology. Dr Tami Martino conducted a respected study that found having a heart attack during the day triggers a greater immune response, giving you a better chance of survival.
Then, in 2016, another study found daytime heart attacks triggered a greater immune response — but led to a worse chance of survival.
There is a huge gap in data for women’s health as female bodies have often been excluded from clinical trials and viewed as not the norm (file image)
Perplexed, Dr Martino eventually realised her study used male mice — ‘the norm’ — while the new paper used female mice. Different sex: opposite result.
Which is why, from blood pressure pills to aspirin, many drugs just don’t work as well for women. U.S. data on ‘adverse drug reactions’ from 2004 to 2013 shows women suffered 2 million bad reactions, compared to 1.3 million for men.
The second most common ‘adverse reaction’ for women, after nausea, was that the drug simply didn’t work at all.
In the UK, young women are almost twice as likely as men to die in hospital after a heart attack, found a 2016 study in the British Medical Journal. Although some groups of women are now more likely than men to have a heart attack, they often have different symptoms — only one in eight women experience chest pain, for example.
The ‘risk prediction strategies’ used in many hospitals are based on two-thirds male patients, found a 2016 U.S. report, meaning women’s ‘atypical’ heart attacks are often missed.
And, while we have around 50 drugs for heart failure, some just aren’t safe for half the population. One, used to break up blood clots, can cause ‘significant bleeding problems in women’.
Viagra may cure period pain — but there’s no funding for research, the drug was rushed to market after its uses for curing erectile dysfunction was discovered (file image)
Worse, we may be completely missing drugs that would work for them. Period pain affects up to 90 per cent of women, myself included, but there is precious little doctors can do.
So I was amazed by a 2013 study that appeared to have found a cure.
The study ran out of funding before it could prove its primary hypothesis, but it suggested that sildenafil citrate could give four hours of ‘total pain relief’ without apparent side-effects.
Nonetheless, no further funding has been forthcoming.
Yet sildenafil citrate is no new drug — it’s the medical name for Viagra. In the Nineties, it was tested as a heart medication. It didn’t work, but the all-male study participants reported an increase in erections, and so it was rushed to market for erectile dysfunction.
A happy ending for men, then. But what if that first trial included women? Might we have had an effective drug for period pain for decades?
STAYING (TOO) COOL IN THE OFFICE
Modern workplaces are riddled with gender design gaps, from doors that are too heavy for the average woman to open with ease, to glass stairs and lobby floors that mean anyone below can see up your skirt, and paving that’s exactly the right size to catch your high heels.
Granted, these are small, niggling issues that aren’t the end of the world, but they irritate nevertheless.
Standard office temperatures were determined in the Sixties according to the metabolic resting rate of the average 40-year-old man however the rate of a young adult female is significantly lower (file image)
Then there’s the standard office temperature. The formula to determine this was developed in the Sixties around the metabolic resting rate of the average 40-year-old, 70kg man.
But a recent study found that ‘the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower’ than men’s.
In fact, the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35 per cent, meaning current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women.
Which leads to the odd sight of female office workers wrapped up in blankets while male colleagues wander around in summer clothes.
FALLING ON DEAF EARS
You might hope that modern technology would be a little more egalitarian. But stories abound of products that forget about women, from virtual reality headsets that fall off the average woman’s head, to augmented reality glasses with lenses too far apart for a woman to focus on the image.
Even Apple’s much-hyped health tracker app failed to build in the most basic of female needs — a monthly period tracker.
Women’s hands struggle to reach across a full octave on a piano keyboard (file image)
Research last year by Boston Consulting Group found female business owners receive less than half the investment of their male counterparts, but generate twice as much revenue.
And this male-dominated world is where our future is being built.
Recently, I was with my mother in her Volvo, watching her try to use the built-in voice recognition system to call her sister. After five failed attempts, I suggested lowering her voice to sound more masculine. It worked first time.
Why? Because voice- recognition software is often hopelessly male-biased. One study found Google’s was 70 per cent more likely to recognise male speech. Some helpful experts have suggested women have ‘lengthy training’ to fix the ‘many issues’ with their voices.
But, of course, the problem isn’t with women’s voices. It’s with our old friend, the gender data gap. Speech-recognition technology is trained on large databases of voice recordings — which appear dominated by men (the data used is confidential, but the results speak for themselves).
It might sound like a small problem, but when women are under or misrepresented in data, it can play havoc with modern technology.
Voice recognition technology is 70 per cent more likely to recognise a man’s voice (file image)
In one 2017 study of image databases, pictures of cooking were 33 per cent more likely to involve women than men — not a massive difference, but significant. However, algorithms trained on this dataset amplified the link and connected pictures of kitchens with women 68 per cent of the time.
Over time, the algorithm became so convinced that only women cook that it labelled a photo of a portly, balding man standing by a stove as female.
James Zou, assistant professor of biomedical science at Stanford University in the U.S., explains why this matters.
He gives the example of someone searching for ‘computer programmer’ on a program trained to associate that term with a man.
The algorithm could deem a male programmer’s website more relevant than a female programmer’s. If a customer searched for a programmer to hire, the woman would never even get the chance to compete.
Adapted by Josephine Forster from Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men by Caroline Criado Perez, published by Chatto & Windus at £16.99. © Caroline Criado Perez 2019. To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid to March 21, 2019; P&P free on orders over £15), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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