A couple of days ago, I went to the Guilty Feminist International Women’s Day podcast recording at the Barbican Centre, an early birthday gift from my wonderful friend Milli. It was wonderful to be in a room with 2,000 other feminists listening to some fantastic speakers and stand-ups, but I really came away quite impressed with Caroline Criado-Perez. Okay, okay, I might be slightly biased – she came on stage with her dog Poppy and anyone who takes their adorable pet to an event has my attention.
She’s been in the news recently for a number of reasons, but it was when she was introduced that I realised that she was responsible for two of the biggest feminist campaigns in recent years; her lobbying efforts to both secure Jane Austen’s face on the £10 note and get the first statue of a woman erected in Parliament Square. And who better to celebrate with a permanent piece of art than Millicent Fawcett, a long-time campaigner of women’s rights in the early 20th century and the reason that I am university-educated and can practice safe sex, and the reason I wasn’t married off aged 11 to someone three times my age. Honestly, she’s awesome and if you want to read more about her and the hard graft of previous generations to fight for equality, I recommend two books: Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson and Votes for Women by the wonderful Jenni Murray.
Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, Ms Criado-Perez and her gorgeous dog. So not only is she a fearless campaigner for equality and change, she’s also a rather talented author and recently published a book all about data, titled Invisible Women. It dawned on me as she was talking that I recognised her name because only a few days ago I’d read an article she published on the Guardian website showing the awful inequalities in the way we design the world, demonstrating the consequences for women for creating a world for men to the exclusion of women. It’s kind of horrifying. I’ll let you read the article, but I’ll pull out a couple of things she mentions.
Ever wondered why you need to bring a spare cardi to the office and your male colleagues seem absolutely fine? Well, it turns out that the ideal temperature for offices was based on research in the 60s around the metabolic resting rate…of the average man. And it also turns out that women have far lower metabolic rates and as a result find offices on average five degrees too cold. Five degrees! And what happens when the office is too cool? It makes it more challenging to work productively.
She also talks about harnesses and safety equipment, and this really is scary stuff. We’ve all been in a car, right? And we know there are seatbelts and airbags installed to help keep us safe? Brilliant. Now, what if I told you that these safety features were only tested using male specifications? And crash test dummies with female anatomy have only been tested in the passenger seat, not the driving seat, despite the fact that women – because they have different shapes from men – sit in the driver’s seat in a different way, normally sitting closer to the wheel? Apparently when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% more likely to be moderately injured. And worse, 17% more likely to die. And that is thanks to cars being designed with men in mind. Terrifying, isn’t it?
We live in a world where the data we use is biased towards men. Imagine how many algorithms we’re using that are based on a biased dataset. Remember when Apple released their fancy Health app which was supposed to allow you to track all of the things – iron levels, exercise levels, macronutrients, copper and iodine and all those things that let’s be honest most of us don’t really think about? Well, there was quite a lot of backlash when they released this. Not because tracking your exercise isn’t useful – and it’s good to know how many steps I’m doing as an encouragement to keep moving – but because they forgot that over 50% of the world might want to track one very important thing. Periods. Most women have them, and it seems mad that they ‘forgot’ about it when they released an app that could track every other thing under the sun.
So if the data is neglecting women’s needs when we can see the evidence so obviously out in the open and comment on it, here’s a thought. How many secretive algorithms are biased in their data and how much can we trust that it’s going to account for women? And as these data algorithms are introduced into medicine and finance, are they going to think about us? And if they don’t, how are we even going to know about it?
The thing that really took the biscuit for me was her comment on viagra. Did you know that in trials on women recently it turns out that viagra can effectively eliminate period pains for 4 hours, with no side effects? I guess you probably didn’t. Because the trials ran out of funding and were unable to continue because apparently solving women’s period pains “isn’t a public health issue”. When Caroline said this, the whole room gasped. Yep.
But it’s okay – 75% of available funding is currently going towards solving erectile dysfunction because apparently the smaller percentage of men not being able to get it up is more important than a huge chunk of the population experiencing debilitating pain every single month.
Reading stats like this makes me feel so sick. I’m grateful to the women of the 20th century who have fought to give women a place at the table but hearing how we’re still living in a man’s world makes me so angry – we still have so horrifyingly far to go.
It’s great knowing that there are women out there pushing the cause and helping change the world we live in, and it is amazing to be able to attend events like the Guilty Feminist and hear these women share their stories. I can tell you I will be buying Caroline’s book and I’ll try really hard not to cry over the horrendous inequalities that exist today.
Right, I’m off to have a cup of tea and simmer in anger.
Further reading and related links:
Image by Milli Lo
More things from me:
If you want to read something more uplifting: