Close your eyes and picture a human being. Now picture a lawyer. Now a doctor. Now a scientist. Open your eyes and tell me honestly: were you picturing men or women?
It’s okay, I was picturing men, too. And I’m a feminist.
The male bias in our heads doesn’t surprise me anymore — although it was a shock when I first realized I was doing it.
Almost 10 years ago, I read a book pointing out that when women read “generic masculine” words such as “man” (for human) or “he” (in place of “he or she”), they picture . . . a man. I hadn’t noticed I was doing that — and the shock of this realization has since driven me to run campaigns (getting a female historical figure on English bank notes; getting the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square in London) that try to correct this bias in our public spaces. My new book, “Invisible Women,” is a natural extension of that work. Because having spent three years researching the gender data gap, I know that the vast majority of us default to male when we are supposedly talking in gender-neutral terms.
The result is that, from transportation to technology to medicine to the economy, the vast majority of the world has been designed for men.
This is not a grand conspiracy of men against women. It is simply a failure to remember that 51 percent of the population exists. But just because it isn’t deliberate doesn’t mean the gender data gap doesn’t have a serious impact on women’s lives: it does, and the effects for women living in a world designed for men range from inconvenient to fatal.
Let’s start with inconvenient. In the 1930s, influential Swiss architect Le Corbusier decided that architecture needed a revolution. Buildings should be designed to fit people, he declared. And so he set about designing his “human scale” to do just that. There was just one minor problem: Le Corbusier’s iconic “modulor man” was in fact, well, a man. To be precise, a six-foot-tall man. To be even more precise, a six-foot British detective (no, me neither) with his arm raised — to reach that top shelf I can’t even touch.
Then there’s the formula to determine standard office temperature. This was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average 40-year-old, 154-pound man. But a recent study found that the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35 percent, meaning that current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women. Which is why you see female office workers wrapped up in blankets while their male colleagues wander around in summer clothes.
But it gets a lot worse than shivering in a male-temperature-biased office or not being able to use any of the top shelves in your home.
When a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die than a man. This is because cars have been designed around the average male: the most commonly used car-crash dummy is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 176 pounds. Meanwhile, the average woman is regarded as an “out of position” driver: to reach the pedals and see over the dashboard, women sit too far forward. Some might quibble that it is, in fact, the pedals that are too far away.
Women’s bodies also seem to be at fault when it comes to medical research. Contrary to all evidence, you will still find plenty of researchers insisting that including female patients in clinical trials is a waste of time and money because their bodies are just too complicated, too variable, too hormonal to be a good research vessel.
The problem, to state the obvious, is that those complicated bodies are going to be taking the drugs anyway, so it would be good to have some data on how they interact, especially since the data we do have is so troubling. Menstrual-cycle impacts have so far been found for antipsychotics, antidepressants, antihistamines and antibiotic treatments as well as heart medication. Women are also more likely to experience drug-induced heart-rhythm abnormalities, and the risk is highest during the first half of a woman’s cycle. This can, of course, be fatal.
In the 1956 musical “My Fair Lady,” phonemicist Henry Higgins is baffled when, after enduring months of his hectoring put-downs, his protegee-cum-victim Eliza Doolittle finally bites back. “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” he grumbles.
This is a message woman around the world have internalized. Since the first extracts and reviews of “Invisible Women” have been published, I have been inundated with notes from women, and the overwhelming tone has been one of relief. So many women have been going about their lives thinking there was something wrong with them. And that is a travesty. Because there is nothing wrong with women. The problem lies squarely with a world in which women are forgotten, ignored and sidelined.
And so, Henry Higgins, the question isn’t, why can’t a woman be more like a man? The question is, why should she have to be?
Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” is a London-based writer, broadcaster and feminist activist, named Liberty Human Rights Campaigner of the Year and an officer of the Order of the British Empire by the queen.
By Caroline Criado Perez
Abrams Press. 272 pp. $27