Book review: Invisible Women

Caroline Criado-Perez 

First published March 2019

“It’ll change how you see the world” my friends told me. On social media, of course, because I first read “Invisible Women” in March 2020, a year after it was first published, and from that point onwards all our opportunities for social interaction were funnelled through the internet, the telephone and via online Zoom discussions.

I don’t think it did, but it was nevertheless informative, educational and helpful in cementing many of my previously held views about the position women find themselves in within our society.  It wasn’t so much about how I saw the world, but how the world sees women and how it documents their existence. There remains an enormous data gap between what we know about the default human being, a white 70kg man, and what we know about women.

Caroline Criado-Perez writes well and uses a mixture of anecdote to move hearts as well as data to convert minds. This makes the book very readable, with references for anyone who wants to take their curiosity to the next level.

In my case I “read” the book by listening to the author read it herself on “Audible”. Her passion is palpable, as she recounts numerous stories across a wide range of topics, each demonstrating how humankind has failed to make the most of its potential by side lining approximately half of the population.

I was aware of some of the stories already. As a pianist, I knew that men find it easier to stretch an octave than their female colleagues. I was aware that car seat belts were designed for the male body rather than a female one, and certainly not for a pregnant person. Hearing the safety data set out so starkly was however illuminating. There were other issues that I hadn’t considered, for example, how speech recognition technology works better for a male voice. Not because men are inherently better at dictating text, but because the system is designed to listen to them. Does it matter? It does if it then takes the woman longer to complete the same task as the man, day in, day out, as she makes the necessary corrections.

So, what’s the relevance to Medicine? In fact, health related issues feature several times in the book. Why is so much more money invested in researching erectile dysfunction than is spent on pre-menstrual symptoms? Why do we describe the “typical” symptoms of a myocardial infarction in women as being “atypical” because they are different from those experienced by the textbook man? Criado-Perez will fill in the gaps left by our one-sided medical education, and again there’s lots of further reading for those who wish it.

Would I recommend the book? My answer is a definite yes, though to be honest, by the later chapters, you can predict how each segment is going to end. There’s a data gap, a possible safety issue and a definite bias, that you may not have been aware of. For me though, listening to the whole book, it hammered home the enormity of the challenge. In every domain we have a problem, whether relating to transport, building design, personal safety, health or education. The mood though is upbeat, and by recognising the issues we can address them.

While it didn’t change my established views, I was certainly educated. I learned about cooking stoves in Bangladesh, pensions in Bolivia, maternity rights in the USA, politics in Scandinavia and scientific academia in Europe. With such a range of topics, my interest was maintained.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we need to reset many of our pre-existing assumptions about how the world works and how we all fit into it. Women are, we understand, disproportionately affected by the symptoms of “long Covid”. Now would be an excellent time to collect good data from both men and women so that, for this topic at least, we do not further exacerbate the gender data gap we know exists.

Dr Patricia Cantley

September 2021