Check the Data: It’s a Man’s World (The Freakonomics Radio Book Club Ep. 10)

Do you think public bathrooms are too small, smartphones are too big, and public transit just wasn’t made for you? Then you’re probably a woman. In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez argues that products and processes — from medications to snowplow routes —  have historically been tailored for the “standard male.” Hosted by Maria Konnikova.

Listen and follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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 Here’s a question I never thought I’d ask: Can a piano be sexist?

CRIADO PEREZ: Obviously it’s not deliberately sexist, but it has been developed to suit a male handspan. 

Deliberate or not, that tiny fact has fairly major real-world consequences.

CRIADO PEREZ: There is some really fascinating research correlating handspan to professional success as a pianist. And essentially, the pianists that are successful have massive hands, so women are much less likely to reach those levels. 

But that doesn’t mean that no women play piano — or have big career aspirations. So what happens to them?

CRIADO PEREZ: Women and men with small hands are much more likely to suffer from injuries as a result. And therefore, their professional career will be ended because their hands are not really big enough for this keyboard.

Did someone purposefully size the keys to suit the male hand? Doubtful. But it’s just one small manifestation of a larger truth: Regardless of intent, our world was designed for men. Anywhere you look — urban planning, measurements of economic productivity, transportation, healthcare — the gender disparity looks back.

CRIADO PEREZ: I just felt like I had to write this book because I didn’t understand why this wasn’t something that was more widely-known. Particularly the health data, which was so shocking. 

Caroline Criado Perez is an author and “campaigner,” which is what the British call an activist. She was researching her first book, 2015’s Do It Like a Woman…and Change the World, when she started to find some troubling data — or lack thereof.

CRIADO PEREZ: The vast majority of information that we have collected globally and historically, and continue to collect, has been collected mainly in men. The result being that most things in the world, from the medical treatment you receive, to the car you drive, to the phone that you might be listening to this on have been designed to mainly work for men. And many things just don’t work as well for women. 

This gender data gap, and its many manifestations in our society, became the subject of Criado Perez’s 2019 book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. And, I have to say, the information she presents is pretty shocking. Even if you’re already familiar with concepts like the gender data gap and the generic male, I bet that, by the end of this episode, you will see at least a few things in your world in a totally new way. And, as you do, you might start to see this pattern everywhere. Here’s an excerpt from Invisible Women.

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The point of this book is not psychoanalysis. Private motivations are, to a certain extent, irrelevant. What matters is the pattern. What matters is whether, given the weight of the data I will present, it is reasonable to conclude that the gender data gap is all just one big coincidence. 

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As you might suspect from the titles of her books, Criado Perez is a feminist. But this wasn’t always the case.

CRIADO PEREZ: In the 90s in the U.K. there was this sense that feminism was finished. It was only for dowdy, boring women, and that women were equal now. And you know, that women were actually sort of boring and trivial and superficial and jealous, and I really bought into all of that. And I felt kind of embarrassed of being a girl.

So, throughout her teens and her early 20s, Criado Perez tried to put as much space between herself and the word “feminist” as possible. That all changed when she went to Oxford University to get her undergraduate degree.

CRIADO PEREZ:  I went to university as a mature student, when I was 25. And I, for the first time, had to actually read some feminist analysis rather than reading about how feminists were written about in newspapers, for example.

While attending Oxford, Criado Perez read a book that changed her life: Feminism and Linguistic Theory. 

CRIADO PEREZ: It’s not the most exciting title. It obviously, it’s quite academic. But it was really interesting. Particularly this section on the generic male, using “man” to mean “humankind,” “he” to mean, “he or she.” Obviously in other languages, it’s much more widespread. I had come across this idea, but I think like a lot of people, I had just rolled my eyes at it, and thought, “Come on. Everyone knows it means ‘he or she,’ give it a rest.” 

But then she discovered a phenomenon known as the default-male bias. It turns out, word choices hold far more power than we might suspect.

CRIADO PEREZ: But then I read the next line that when women hear or read these terms, they picture a man. And that was a huge shock to me. And that just started making me think about my attitudes to women growing up and names for professions like doctor, professor, writer, journalist, scientist. I was always picturing men. There’s that classic lateral thinking puzzle. You say to someone, “Oh, this person got into a crash with his son, and then the kid gets to the hospital and the doctor says, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.’” And people are like, “How can this be? Maybe they’re gay or maybe it’s like an adopted — I don’t know what it is.” And, actually, it’s that the doctor’s female, but we just don’t think of it. 

KONNIKOVA: I just anecdotally want to tell you that my sister is a doctor, and we gave this problem to her kids and they couldn’t solve it. 

CRIADO PEREZ: Oh, my God. That’s awful .

KONNIKOVA: So it is something that is a very real thing. But something that’s quite interesting that I saw in your book  — there’s a very young age where, if you ask a group of kindergarteners to draw a scientist, they’ll generally draw equal percentages of male and female scientists. But that roughly 50-50 balance will disappear at a much younger age than I thought. Around 8 years old, kids will start drawing more scientists as male. 

CRIADO PEREZ: Yeah.  

KONNIKOVA: I thought that that would disappear maybe in high school, but it ends up it disappears way earlier than that.  

CRIADO PEREZ: It starts disappearing as soon as they get to school, basically, it starts getting worse. They increasingly think of scientists as male. Boys generally think of a man when they draw a scientist. But I don’t think it’s that weird because that’s their sex. You’d be expected. It’s more weird when girls don’t do it, I think. That’s not to say I think that it’s okay if boys are drawing 100 percent male scientists. But if you were drawing, like, 70 percent male scientists that’s not necessarily just default male. That’s probably also just that you are a man. But when girls do it, it’s sort of indicative of something much more worrying, I think.  

Criado Perez graduated from Oxford in 2012. And then something happened that completed her transformation from avowed non-feminist to feminist activist.

CRIADO PEREZ: Bank of England banknotes have the Queen or, well, whoever the monarch happens to be on one side, and a selection of historical figures on the other side, who are meant to represent the best of British. And they were removing the only female historical figure out of the four banknotes, and replacing her with Winston Churchill, who happens to be a man. 

The replaced woman, by the way, was Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker philanthropist who successfully campaigned for prison reform and better conditions in mental asylums in 19th-century England. Criado Perez figured that if Fry was getting the boot, the Bank of England should at least pick another woman to replace her. And her campaign worked. Sure, Winston Churchill would still replace Elizabeth Fry on the five-pound note. But the Bank of England announced that author Jane Austen would eventually grace a banknote in 2017.

CRIADO PEREZ: She was going to be on the 10-pound notes, and they were going to revise their selection criteria to take into account the balance of people on the notes. So that was great. However, the next day, I got my first rape threat and following on from that, it was just a tidal wave of incredibly detailed and graphic rape and death threats. They found an address, which, thankfully, was not my home address, but that was being posted all over the internet. The police put a panic alarm in my house.  

KONNIKOVA: I’m so sorry. 

CRIADO PEREZ: I’ve thought about why there was this hysterical overreaction to what I was trying to do. And I actually put it down to default male bias, — I mean, obviously I would, because this is my tubthump. But I do really think that. And there was one message that I got that wasn’t abusive, but just really stuck with me as sort of an insight into what was going on in the heads of the men who were so affronted by this, and it was this guy who replied to tell me — I probably tweeted out the petition or something — and he replied on Twitter to say, “But women are everywhere now.” Which is clearly untrue, given I’m having to campaign for months to have one woman out of four bank notes. But he genuinely felt that there was just this incursion of women. And I think that is a result of the public sphere being so male-dominated. We think of men as gender-neutral and women as “the sex.”

Criado Perez’s life was never the same after the banknote campaign. At the time, she was studying at the London School of Economics. But the threats led her to drop out before finishing her degree. I should say, though, that, as horrible as it was, the experience also yielded some positive things. The tailwind from her success in taking on the Bank of England led to a career as a writer, and, eventually, to Invisible Women and all the strange and stealthy ways that the gender data gap shapes our world. Here are two excerpts from early in the book.

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One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite. It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking. 

Because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority. With a niche identity and a subjective point of view. In such a framing, women are set up to be forgettable. Ignorable. Dispensable — from culture, from history, from data. And so, women become invisible.

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Before we move on, I want to mention something. In our conversation today, you’ll often hear references to people in two binary categories: men and women. This is, in part, because so much of the research that we discuss only puts people into these two categories. But I want to make sure to acknowledge that biological sex and gender identity are far more complex — and that there is significant discrimination faced by people in our culture whose identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth. One thing remains clear: Whether in the past or today, large segments of the population remain largely invisible. And the world as we know it was largely designed with one type of consumer in mind: the male.

KONNIKOVA: I actually did a self experiment when you were writing about the iPhone size. And I tried to take single-handed photographs because, as you say, this was designed with the standard male in mind.   

CRIADO PEREZ: It has given me hand-health issues because it’s just too big. And I drop it much more than I would because it’s too big. But there are far more serious impacts of this. And one that I think has been particularly shocking is personal protective equipment. The vast majority of P.P.E. has not been designed for the female body. So that’s everything from hats to boots to clothes to stab vests.

Since guns are relatively rare in the U.K., police wear stab vests instead of bulletproof vests. They’re resistant to knife attacks — when they fit properly.

CRIADO PEREZ: The stab vest has not been designed to fit a typical female body. Women have wider hips and narrower shoulders, and also breasts. And, for example, if they haven’t been designed to accommodate breasts, women find that the stab vest rides up leaving the abdomen exposed, which negates the whole point, or, if they get a bigger size that does fit over their breasts, they’ll find it gapes over their shoulders, women’s shoulders being generally smaller, leaving your very important arteries exposed.

Not a good state of affairs. But one that’s unfortunately all too common — including in the kind of personal protective equipment that we’ve all become so aware of since last year.

CRIADO PEREZ: In this pandemic, right from the beginning, I had female medics telling me that they were struggling to find a mask that fits. And like the stab vest, this is not an issue of comfort. The problem is that they’re too big for women to get a good seal. There are some smaller sizes, but particularly with the supply issues that we had earlier on in the pandemic, those ones go very quickly. The global health workforce is about 70 percent female, much higher than that in the U.K., and the U.S. and also particularly for nurses, where it goes up to the 80s and 90s. I actually went and looked at a whole bunch of mask manufacturers to look at how their masks were designed. And most of them just say “standard size.” So you have this protective equipment designed mainly to fit men for a workforce that is mainly female. 

KONNIKOVA: And since you mentioned standard size here, let’s talk a little bit about what that means and what the “standard male” actually is. 

CRIADO PEREZ: So along with this misconception of a male as gender-neutral, we also think of a male as standard. The term that I use for this is “reference man.” I came across “reference man” when I was reading a paper on acceptable levels of radiation for humans. It turns out actually that safe levels of radiation for men and women are not the same. So “reference man” is not really an adequate representation. But I just found the term funny. It made him sound like this really rubbish superhero. Anyway, “reference man” is Caucasian. He is male. He is between 25 and 35 years old. He weighs around 70 kilograms, which I’m afraid I can’t parse into pounds, but maybe—.

KONNIKOVA: One hundred and fifty-four pounds.

CRIADO PEREZ: A hundred and fifty-four pounds? Okay. And he is meant to represent everyone across all sorts of fields. So, a classic and terrible one is car crash dummies. The standard dummy is based on an average male body, specifically actually American. And that is the test dummy that has been used for decades. And it is still the most commonly used. And the result is that women are 17 percent more likely to die and 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured than a man in the same crash.

KONNIKOVA: Do we have female crash test dummies that are actually representative of the female body?

CRIADO PEREZ: No, we do not. What we have is a very, very scaled-down version of the male dummy. It’s called the “fifth-percentile female.” It’s about the size of a 12 year old. They’re small, but it doesn’t represent any of the other anthropometric differences, which are very important: pelvic differences, spinal-column differences, muscle-mass-distribution differences.

KONNIKOVA: And just an addendum to that: What about pregnant women, which is kind of another complication that you talk about? 

CRIADO PEREZ: There was actually one developed in the ’90s, but it’s never been included in any regulatory tests. Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma, but we haven’t developed a seatbelt that works for pregnant women. And there’s no data on where a pregnant woman should place the seatbelt, above the bump, below the bump. We just are not there yet.

Here’s another excerpt from Invisible Women. And, if you’re a woman, listening to this as you’re driving, I apologize in advance

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Women tend to sit further forward than men when driving. This is because we are on average shorter. Our legs need to be closer to reach the pedals, and we need to sit more upright to see clearly over the dashboard. This is not, however, the “standard seating position.” Women are “out of position” drivers. And our willful deviation from the norm means that we are at greater risk of internal injury on frontal collisions. The angle of our knees and hips as our shorter legs reach for the pedals also makes our legs more vulnerable.  Essentially, we’re doing it all wrong. Women are also at higher risk in rear-end collisions. Women have less muscle on our necks and upper torso than men, which makes us more vulnerable to whiplash  (by up to three times), and car design has amplified this vulnerability. Swedish research has shown that modern seats are too firm to protect women against whiplash injuries: The seats throw women forward faster than men because the back of the seat doesn’t give way for women’s on-average lighter bodies. The reason this has been allowed to happen is very simple: cars have been designed using car-crash test dummies based on the “average’” male. 

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So, as you can already see, this book is filled with all kinds of examples of how the world has been designed for men. But some, I just never would have thought of.

CRIADO PEREZ: One of my favorites was the snow clearing.

KONNIKOVA: I went to the same place. Please tell us about the snow clearing. 

CRIADO PEREZ: So, men tend to have a much more simple travel pattern, which is the twice-daily commute. Women, however, because they are often combining their paid work with unpaid care-work responsibilities, have a much more complicated travel pattern, which is called trip-chaining. So, dropping the kids off at school before they go into work, that is hugely dominated by mothers over fathers in every country where the data exists; picking up the groceries on the way back, maybe dropping in on an elderly relative. And men are much more likely to drive, and women are much more likely to take public transport, which also means they’re more likely to be walking because you have to walk to the transit station. Also, if you are a household that has just one car, men tend to dominate access to the car in every country that I looked at that had that data. The way we have traditionally done the snow clearing is to clear the major road arteries, which are the ones that men are traveling on to get to work first, and then the local roads and pavements, which are the ones that women are using to get the kids to school. And so what they did in this town in Sweden was they decided to switch the order, because they figured it was probably easier to drive a car through three inches of snow than to walk or push a buggy. And what they found was that they massively save money on their healthcare bill.  

Those savings in Sweden came from a decrease in admissions to emergency rooms. According to a report published by the League of European Research Universities, three times more pedestrians than motorists get injured due to slippery and icy roads in winter. The majority of those? Women. And the cost of medical care and loss of work days was found to be about four times as high as the cost of keeping the roads free from ice and snow.

KONNIKOVA: In the book, when you’re talking about urban design and how, in a lot of slums in countries like India, a lot of really bad stuff ends up happening to women because of the way that bathrooms, busses, all of the urban infrastructure is designed.

CRIADO PEREZ: Yeah. There are problems with bathrooms for women everywhere. There just aren’t enough of them, which is why women are always queuing to use the toilet. And the reason is a false idea of what toilet equality looks like. So, equal floor space for men and women sounds great in theory, but in practice it means that men have more provision because you can fit more urinals into square footage than you can fit cubicles. 

“Cubicles,” of course, being the British word for “stalls.”

CRIADO PEREZ: And that’s before you factor in the fact that there is more demand on female toilets. Women tend to take longer, and that’s for all sorts of reasons, from just the mechanics of it: Walk up to a urinal, unzip, off you go. Using a cubicle, right, you’ve got to walk down a lot of cubicles, find one that’s free, go in, turn around, hang up your coat, probably wipe the seat because inevitably it’s disgusting, pull down your trousers, sit down and then reverse the process. That sounds silly. But when you’re talking about multiple people using a space, that’s the kind of thing you need to think about. But then women are also using the toilet more frequently. So, women who are pregnant need to use the toilet more frequently. Women are more likely to be accompanied by children or older people. A certain proportion of women are going to be menstruating. And so, they need to change their pad or their tampon or whatever. And women are eight times more likely to experience urinary tract infections, which, as anyone who has had the misfortune to suffer one knows, means that you are always visiting the toilet. So that’s where the queues come from. And I feel it’s very important to say that because people often think that women are just taking too long. You know, “What are they doing in there?” our male friends ask us. “We’re having pillow fights!” No, we’re just queuing up and being very bored. 

And that’s in the best-case scenario.

CRIADO PEREZ: Then there are places where they don’t have female toilets. You’ve got areas where there are loads of free urinals for men, but about five toilets for women in a slum of about 5,000 people. And on top of that, sometimes the cubicles aren’t free. So women who can’t necessarily afford to use the toilet or perhaps don’t actually want to walk to the toilet because it’s not well-lit, and it feels dangerous. And so they will go in fields out in the dark because they don’t want to be seen. And there are a lot of reports of women being badly assaulted just because they’re trying to go to the toilet because they don’t have somewhere safe to go.

Another important section of Criado Perez’s book is about social infrastructure, which in this context is a term for all the unpaid labor women do which is completely essential, but which isn’t factored in when calculating a country’s G.D.P.

CRIADO PEREZ: Social infrastructure is essentially things like child care and elder care, the caring that needs to be done for society to function, that is normally done by women, unpaid. 

In the mid ‘70s, thousands of women in Iceland came up with a plan to make their work a little less invisible. Here’s another excerpt from the book.

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By the end of the day, 24 October 1975 came to be known by Icelandic men as ‘the long Friday.’ Supermarkets sold out of sausages — the favorite ready meal of the time. Offices were suddenly flooded with children hopped up on the sweets they had been bribed with in an effort to make them behave. Schools, nurseries, fish factories all either shut down or ran at reduced capacity. And the women? Well, the women were having a Day Off. 1975 had been declared by the U.N. as a Women’s Year, and in Iceland, women were determined to make it count. A committee was set up with representatives from Iceland’s five biggest women’s organizations. After some discussion they came up with the idea of a strike. On the 24th of October, no woman in Iceland would do a lick of work. No paid work, but also no cooking, no cleaning, no child care. Let the men of Iceland see how they coped without the invisible work women did every day to keep the country moving. Ninety percent of Icelandic women took part in the strike. Twenty-five thousand women gathered for a rally (the largest of more than twenty to take place throughout the country) in Reykjavík’s Downtown Square — a staggering figure in a country of then only 220,000 people. A year later, in 1976, Iceland passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed sex discrimination in workplaces and schools.

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I’m Maria Konnikova and this is the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. Today we’re speaking with Caroline Criado Perez about her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Though Criado Perez begins the book with the example of implicit gender bias in snow shoveling, that’s not what first gave her the inspiration to write.

CRIADO PEREZ: I came across this research that women don’t necessarily experience the same heart attack symptoms that are sort of the classic, what are called Hollywood heart attack symptoms: Pain in the left chest, pain down the left arm, you’re having a heart attack, go to A&E, which I think is called E.R. in America. It turns out that actually a lot of women don’t experience these symptoms, and therefore they don’t realize they are having heart attack, which was very shocking to me. You know, I thought, why haven’t I ever been told this? Why have I never been told that these symptoms are not gender-neutral? But even more shocking was that a lot of doctors were not trained to recognize specific female heart attack symptoms. And so, even if women did end up going to hospital, their heart attack was much more likely to go undiagnosed, and women were dying as a result.

A little public service announcement: Some common symptoms of a female heart attack are stomach pain, breathlessness, fatigue and nausea.

CRIADO PEREZ: So women are being sent home, told that they have indigestion, take an antacid. And then they’ve gone on to die. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in Europe and the U.S. We think of heart disease as a male disease, but actually it is the No. 1 killer of women as well.

But it’s not just the diagnostics. Criado Perez was also concerned about the data behind medical testing.

CRIADO PEREZ: I discovered a paper looking at how researchers are overwhelmingly using male mice as opposed to female mice, because female mice are considered too hormonal to include in the studies, which is actually an excuse you still hear about excluding human females from studies, that the menstrual cycle will interfere with the results. Well, yeah, it will. And that’s why you need to include women in the research. I think it was since 2000, eight out of the 10 drugs that had been removed from the U.S. market because of unacceptable side effects had been because of unacceptable side effects in women that hadn’t been picked up during the clinical trial stage, because of not having adequately tested on women.

By the way, we double-checked the scope of that report that Criado Perez just mentioned “on the fly” in this conversation. It’s a Government Accountability Office report from 2001, that looked back to 1997, not to 2000. But indeed, during that window, the G.A.O. found that 10 prescription drugs had been withdrawn from the U.S. market, eight of them because they posed greater health risks for women than for men.

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Sex differences in animals have been consistently reported for nearly 50 years, and yet a 2007 paper found that 90 percent of pharmacological articles described male-only studies. In 2014 another paper found that 22 percent of animal studies did not specify sex, and of those that did, 80 percent included only males. Perhaps most galling from a gender-data-gap perspective was the finding that females aren’t even included in animal studies on female-prevalent diseases. Women are 70 percent more likely to suffer depression than men, for instance, but animal studies on brain disorders are five times as likely to be done on male animals.

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KONNIKOVA: It seems like a combination of the status quo bias, but also the difficulty that, yes, women and men are different. And yes, hormonally and in all of these ways, it makes your life harder as someone running the studies, you have to be more careful if you are including women. You have to account for a lot more.

CRIADO PEREZ: Absolutely. The menstrual cycle does complicate things because it does interact with the results. And so, women tend to be only tested during the follicular phase of their cycle when their hormone levels are lowest. So, when women are superficially, I guess, most like men, but what you should really be doing is testing at different times of the menstrual cycle, because actually they have found all sorts of interactions with drugs. There are certain points during a woman’s menstrual cycle where anti-depressants may be too low at their normal dose, and that at another point, they might be too high. Women are more likely to experience drug-induced heart-rhythm abnormalities, that can be fatal. And that is also affected by the menstrual cycle.

KONNIKOVA: So, let me throw out a word that’s just controversial by the very virtue of existing. And that word is quotas.

CRIADO PEREZ: But they work. They weed out incompetent men. Underqualified men are currently being promoted in this “meritocracy” that we think we live in. And what quotas do is level the playing field. And the problem is that we think the playing field is already level, and therefore quotas are unfair. But, actually, what we have at the moment is a hidden quota in favor of, and specifically, white men.  

KONNIKOVA: You do show a few examples of quotas actually making meaningful differences. I mean, you talk about politics and having all female candidate lists, which I found really interesting, because I’m not from the U.K., I had never actually come across this. 

CRIADO PEREZ: In the U.K., the Labour Party, which is the main left-wing party, introduced in the ’90s all-women shortlists. For certain constituencies, only women were allowed to stand to be chosen as the candidate for that party, and then, of course, they go up against the other candidates from the other parties who weren’t using all-women shortlists. But there were a lot of men who took great exception to that, and they actually mounted a court case against it, and won because they said it was against the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, which says you can’t treat the sexes differently. And so Labour then passed legislation making an exception for all-women shortlists so that they could address the massive underrepresentation of women in Parliament.  

And the change that this produced went beyond simple optics.

CRIADO PEREZ: There is very strong evidence showing that as the percentage of female parliamentarians increases — and this is studies going back decades across the O.E.C.D., for example — that increasing the proportion of female members of Parliament changes where the money gets spent. So more money gets spent, for example, on education versus the military. More money gets spent on social care than, well, really, than the military.

Still, there is the question of the men who can no longer run in their districts.

CRIADO PEREZ: I can see why men would feel, “Well, that’s just not fair. You know, this is the constituency I live in. And you’re telling me, because I’m a man, I can’t stand to represent the party that I believe in.” So it makes sense on a macro scale, but on a micro scale, it does feel unfair.

Some organizations have found ways to try and eliminate gender bias, without using quotas. Here’s another excerpt from Invisible Women.

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For most of the 20th century, there were no female musicians in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There were a couple of blips in the 1950s and ’60s, when a woman or two was hired, but those aside, the proportion of women sat stubbornly at zero. But then all of a sudden, something changed: from the 1970s onwards, the numbers of female players started to go up. And up. Turnover in orchestras is extremely low. The composition of an orchestra is fairly static (at around one hundred players), and when you’re hired, it’s often for life; it’s rare that a musician is fired. So there was something remarkable going on when the proportion of women in this orchestra grew from a statistical 0 percent to 10 percent in a decade. That something was blind auditions. Instituted in the early 1970s following a lawsuit, blind auditions are what they sound like: the hiring committee can’t see who is playing in the audition, because there is a screen between them and the player. The screens had an immediate impact. By the early 1980s, women began to make up 50 percent of the share of new hires. Today, the proportion of female musicians in the New York Philharmonic stands at over 45 percent. 

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I think back to what that Twitter troll said, when Criado Perez posted her banknote petition.

CRIADO PEREZ: “But women are everywhere now.” 

That perception makes it even trickier for women to get equal representation,  since it seems to men, and to many women, that women’s issues and interests are being overrepresented, when really it’s the opposite.

KONNIKOVA: I thought it was really interesting that, in reviews of lectures and professors women would get consistently saying, “I didn’t know this was going to be about feminist literature.” And then objectively, they’d had one lecture or maybe one thing that had a female.

CRIADO PEREZ: So that actually happened to a friend of mine. She got student feedback that she had spoken too much about feminism in her political philosophy course. And yeah, she had spoken about feminism literally in one class out of 10. So it hadn’t been all about feminism, but that clearly was that student’s perception. If you speak to any woman who’s been writing about women in the past 100 years, she will have come across this argument that by writing about women, she is writing about a niche subject, whereas men writing about men are writing about universal ideas.  

And the resistance increases when times are tough.

CRIADO PEREZ: While in any time, you are likely to be told, “This is a distraction if you bring up gender,” that is particularly the case during a crisis. And, obviously, this pandemic has been a huge crisis. So, I suppose, we shouldn’t be that surprised that the economic recovery has been so skewed. But, given it has been so heavily dominated by female job losses, it’s staggering to me that we’re not gendering the recovery. 

Meaning, we aren’t looking at the difference in impact between men and women, and responding commensurately. For instance, let’s go back into the depths of the pandemic, to December 2020. In that month alone, 140,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. But it turns out that if you break that down by gender, women actually lost 156,000 jobs — while men gained 16,000. It’s not that no men lost jobs in that month, or that no women gained jobs. But more women lost jobs than gained them, and more men gained jobs than lost them. The result: an official number where the total jobs lost consists entirely of women.

CRIADO PEREZ: And that’s for various reasons, from women being more likely to hold service-sector jobs, which are obviously more impacted by the shutdowns, but also because of women’s unpaid care work responsibilities. In the U.K., the government was trying to get everyone back to the office in sort of summer and early autumn of 2020. But weren’t doing anything about the fact that all the nurseries were closed. And so there wasn’t thinking about how are women going to be able to go back to the office if you’re not doing anything about the nurseries being open? Like, it’s not actually possible. So, many of the issues that I raised in Invisible Women have been brought to the fore and really magnified by the pandemic. So it’s been heartening on one hand. I have never seen so many articles in the mainstream media about needing to include both men and women in clinical trials, needing to disaggregate the data, warnings about including pregnancy, doing trials for pregnancy in the clinical Covid trials, articles about the differential economic impact on men and women. But in terms of actual, tangible, on-the-ground, mostly it was just back to normal. No, we’re not going to sex-disaggregate the data. No, we’re not going to adequately represent women. No, we’re not going to think about differing impacts of various economic policies. 

So, whenever we “get back to normal,” —  whatever “normal” might be — hopefully we won’t completely fall back into our old habits, designing economic systems and transit routes and pianos just so they work for half the population. And speaking of those pianos:

CRIADO PEREZ: So there is this male pianist who happened to have small hands, more like your average female-sized hand, who developed this keyboard with narrower keys. Sounds exactly the same, works exactly the same, but just means that someone with smaller hands can suddenly do all these chords and progressions.

So, there’s progress on the piano front. Next up, let’s work on those bathrooms.

*      *      *

The Freakonomics Radio Book Club is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jacob Clemente, and Ryan Kelley. The excerpts you heard come courtesy of Blackstone Publishing. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; other music for this episode was composed by Luis Guerra, Michael Reola, and Stephen Ulrich. You can follow The Freakonomics Radio Book Club on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

RESOURCES

“Why Are There No Crash Test Dummies That Represent Average Women?” by Sophie Putka (Discover, 2021).
“Levelling up after Covid: the value of social infrastructure,” by Tom Kelsey (Bennett Institute for Public Policy, 2021).
“Domestic Violence Is a Pandemic Within the COVID-19 Pandemic,” by Jeffrey Kluge (TIME, 2021).
“A year ago, women outnumbered men in the U.S. workforce, now they account for 100% of jobs lost in December,” by Courtney Connley (CNBC, 2021).
“Lack of childcare found ‘destroying’ UK mothers’ careers amid COVID-19,” by Sonia Elks (Reuters, 2020).
“Home Secretary’s statement on domestic abuse and coronavirus (COVID-19): 11 April 2020,” by Home Secretary Priti Patel (2020).
“Domestic abuse and risks of harm within the home,” by 22 organizations working to address Violence against Women and Girls (2020).
“51% of Labour MPs are women. What now for all-women shortlists?” by Elliot Chappell (Labour List, 2019).
“Women Hold 76% of All Health Care Jobs, Gaining in Higher-Paying Occupations,” by Jennifer Cheeseman and Cheridan Christnacht (U.S. Census, 2019).
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“The role of women in the NHS in England,” by Emma Morriss (Pharma Field, 2019).
“Your Health Care is in Women’s Hands,” by Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Cheridan Christnacht (United States Census Bureau, 2019)
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Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez (2019).
“Estimating Global CivilianHELD Firearms Numbers,” by Aaron Karp (Small Arms Survey, 2018).
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“Pianist Hand Spans: Gender And Ethnic Differences And Implications For Piano Playing,” by Rhonda Boyle, Robin Boyle, and Erica Booker (Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, 2015).
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“Foreword: a historical overview of advocacy for research in sex-based biology,” by Sherry A. Marts and Sarah Keitt (Advances in Molecular and Cell Biology, 2004).
“Positive Action to Promote Women in Politics: Some European Comparisons,” by Meg Russell and Colm O’Cinneide (The International and Comparative Law, 2003).
“Anthropometrical analysis of the hand as a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) predictive method in pianists,” by J Farias, F J Ordóñez, M Rosety-Rodriguez, C Carrasco, A Ribelles, M Rosety, J M Rosety, and M Gomez del Valle (Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology, 2002).
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“Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians,” by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse (American Economic Association, 2000).
“Skeletal muscle mass and distribution in 468 men and women aged 18-88 yr,” by I Janssen, S B Heymsfield, Z M Wang, and R Ross (Journal of Applied Physiology, 2000).
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“Inclusive Crash Test Dummies: Rethinking Standards and Reference Models,” by Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment.
“Personal protective equipment and women,” by TUC.

EXTRAS