Design is often an invisible force in our lives, shaping and etching our world; sidewalks determine walkability, paint color can soothe or repel, and classrooms and houses of worship can foster either connection or discord. Design is in the mundane–the length between the car pedal and the driver’s waist–and the not-so-mundane, like astronaut suits. The latter is at the heart of a disastrous NASA shakeup this year–having to do with biased design–when an all-female spacewalk was canceled because the astronaut suits were too large and hadn’t been fitted for their bodies. Luckily NASA got their act together and the first ever all-female spacewalk finally happened.
But the news points to a deeper issue–that is, those who hold power determine significant opportunities and life outcomes for others, and too often the needs of those who aren’t in power become invisible. This is the subject of a recent book by author Caroline Criado Perez titled Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Design is ultimately a social justice issue, which makes it a spiritual issue as well. In the interview below, we talk about gender bias in design, healthcare, community life, and more.
Jenara Nerenberg: I know that you’ve worked in this area for a long time. What was the deep, burning question you wanted to answer as you set out to write this book, or what you wanted the world to know and expose your readers to?
Caroline Criado Perez: It’s most basic and sort of two-fold. One was to open people’s eyes up to what I had had my own eyes opened to, which was how often–when we think we are speaking or acting or thinking gender-neutrally–we are actually speaking, thinking, and acting on the basis that we’re talking about men. I wanted people to become aware of that in the way that I had become aware of it. Secondly, I wanted people to realize the real-world, serious impact that this incredibly pervasive—so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’re doing it—way of thinking has on women.
I went to university as a mature student, when I was 25, and read this book called “Feminism & Linguistic Theory,”–there was this line in it about gendered language, and a section about the generic male in language. So things like “he” to mean he or she, and “man” to mean humankind. I had come across these complaints before, but only ever framed in the way of trivial complaints. Everyone knows that “he” means he or she, I thought.
But then it said that, actually, when women hear these words, they picture a man. It was just so shocking to me, not only to realize that I was picturing a man, but also to realize that I hadn’t realized. For 25 years, I’d be going around picturing men all the time, and not just when I heard words like “he” and “man,” but when I heard words like “doctor” and “lawyer” and “politician” and “journalist.” It was just really mind-blowing for me to realize that this had been going on all the time, and I had never, ever, ever noticed it. That was so shocking. And so that realization was so shocking that it changed my life and it made me do the work that I do. I wanted to give other people that moment, that penny-drop moment.
But the second part of the answer is that, because that was the way that I came into feminism, I think that has really colored my reaction to sexism, in that it is things where I can see the male default in action that really get me going, that sort of propel me into action.
I was sort of picking up these things as I went along, noticing the ways in which the world is designed for men. I later studied behavioral economics and feminist economics and that was when I discovered that the economy is designed around typical male life patterns, and we count men’s work, but not women’s unpaid work.
That obviously made me angry. I think that was the first time that I discovered a real-world implication for this male default, beyond the impact that it had on me. Whenever I pictured someone I admired, it was always a man, because we don’t represent women. So, if you’re always picturing anyone you admire as male, inevitably—well, maybe not inevitably, but for someone who is easily led, like I was, you just come to believe the cultural representation of women, which is quite negative.
Women are not represented as intellectual. We aren’t represented as leaders. We aren’t represented as scientific.
When I was researching my first book, I came across the medical gender-data gap. That was just another kind of mind-blowing moment. To think that this is happening in medicine, in science—and we’re taught that science is objective, and it’s just about facts, and you can’t argue with facts. Then, it turns out, yes, you can, because these facts are half-truths.
To discover that women were dying as a result of this, that doctors were missing women’s heart attacks because women weren’t presenting in the standard, male way, just enraged me.
Jenara Nerenberg: So you kept coming across these different aspects of invisible gender bias and how it informs our world and what I’m hearing is that the book really reveals some of your own life path and discoveries, and you wanted your audience to wake up to each of those elements. Is that right?
Caroline Criado Perez: Yes, because I was so angry about it and just couldn’t understand: Why is everyone not talking about this? This is outrageous. This is so shocking. This should be something that we are all talking about and trying to figure out how to fix. This a global—huge—problem.
Jenara Nerenberg: I think the impact of gender bias is slowly becoming known in individual fields. My world is medicine and psychology, and we’re starting to see some of that awareness there, and then certainly design more broadly. But I am excited and hopeful that that awareness will grow on a more macro scale.
And I wanted to ask you about that — from your research, what do you think are the best examples where gender has been taken into consideration, and where the design really reflects gender equality? In any of the fields that you’ve looked at, what comes to mind in terms of best examples? Are there particular examples where the female lens has really informed the design of something–whether it’s a public park or a uniform or a medical procedure–where has it been done well?
Caroline Criado Perez: Well, basically, in Sweden and Vienna. Vienna really is just leaps and bounds ahead of pretty much any other city that I came across. That is basically all due to one woman called Eva Kail, who has been, for decades now, turning Vienna into–as much as possible–a gender-equal city, a city that is literally designed to account for women as well as men. That is from housing complexes that she has designed to specifically cater to women’s unpaid care work. You sort of have to think about everything, all of these issues involved in the whole of women’s life experience.
When you’re building a house complex, you need to think about: Is it near schools? Is it near amenities? Is it near the doctor? Is it near public transport? That’s the location, which is quite difficult to find because of the way cities are designed with their zoning regulations.
And then, of course, the design of the house itself. What are the sight lines for being able to be in the kitchen, but also see your kids? What are the sight lines for being able to see your kids if they’re playing outside? Does it feel safe overall? Does it feel light and airy and not lots of dark corners in the stairwells and scary garages? Which are all sort of small things, but they add up to make this incredibly unpaid-care-work-friendly building complex.
Then the park design—again in Vienna—where they discovered that girls just suddenly stopped using the park between ages 9-12. At a certain age, the sexes sort of divide to a certain extent for a while. And the boys, because of the way boys are socialized to be more boisterous and the “boys will be boys” mentality, that’s sort of encouraged in them. And girls are not meant to be confrontational. They didn’t want to have to fight boys for the space, and so they just went away. They just didn’t use the space.
So in Vienna they just did this very simple thing of subdividing the park up into smaller spaces, so then everyone could have their space. The girls had their space and the boys had their space. It’s such a simple thing. Of course, I can sort of hear in my head people saying, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. They should all just play together.” But that’s just not the world that we live in. Yes, it would be great, eventually, if we get to a point where it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, but that is not the world we live in right now. The world we live in right now, from the moment they’re born, we are pushing them into separate categories. We’re saying, “You’re blue and you’re pink. You’re dinosaurs and you’re princesses.” And then we expect them at the age of seven to just be like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll just play together and I won’t notice that you’re female.” It’s not realistic.
That was something that they did and that was great. It had this effect and girls came back to the park. Of course, that has a huge impact on girls’ health and well-being, because we have a problem with girls not getting enough outdoor time and exercise because of barriers like this, and also things like not wanting to look sweaty, not necessarily liking the kind of sports that are provided, and that has implications for girls later on in life.
One study I thought was really interesting was in Gothenburg, where they looked at the state funding that various sports got, and they found that it was all going to organized team sports, which are much more popular with boys than girls. And it meant that, basically, all the funding was going towards boys. So, they changed that and tried to find out what girls wanted to do, and spread the funding more equitably.
And they looked at the impact that this had later on in women’s lives in terms of osteoporosis, because, actually, the exercise that you do during puberty as a woman seems to have an impact on how osteoporosis may affect you later in life. It just shows how important this is and also how much money it could save later down the line, in terms of women’s health, if we invested a little bit of money in getting girls active. It would reap rewards later.
Jenara Nerenberg: I’m wondering your thoughts on where the potential is for mindful design or for mindfulness to kind of inform some of these larger design processes? I’m just imagining people in more positions of power sitting down and having a deeper reflection process about the decisions they make, whether they’re designing a park or a product or a hospital layout or procedure.
Where do you see an opportunity there for people to have that pause, to more mindfully move forward as they make decisions that affect women and men? Have you seen that sort of a deeper process? Or what would you like to see?
Caroline Criado Perez: I struggle with questions like this, because I feel like I should be providing a really deep answer, but my answer is so simple: remember that women are half of humanity. That’s the problem that’s underneath all of this is that we forget this. We describe typical female heart attack symptoms as atypical. We describe women’s travel patterns as atypical. Anything to do with women is seen as sort of a niche minority. And, of course, it isn’t. It’s 50% of the population.
In fact, an expert I spoke to about women’s travel for unpaid care work said that the issue with the way the data is collected in transport infrastructure is that it seems like the main reason people travel is for work, because they collect “travel for work” in one big chunk, but they subdivide women’s unpaid care work travel into things like “pleasure” and “education” and “shopping.”
It comes to seem as all these small, little bits, but, when you put them together, it is the number one reason women travel, and it takes up as much travel as employment for men. Suddenly, that completely transforms how you might think about your transport infrastructure and what you’re trying to do and how people are trying to get about. Because, suddenly, actually, this unpaid care work isn’t all these small, little things that don’t happen very often. It’s this really big thing, as big as the reason we currently have in mind when we’re designing all transport infrastructure.
I suppose that is what I would like people to do is, the first thing they do when they sit down and they are designing a product or designing a system, to make sure that they have thought about who is going to be using it and have remembered that women exist.
Jenara Nerenberg: How do you think emotional labor will be valued in the future? With the rise of AI, a lot of people are speculating that emotional labor is the future of work, with everything else being automated. Do you have thoughts about that, or have you reflected on that?
Caroline Criado Perez: I just think it’s fascinating. I don’t know how we’re going to cope with it. The way the work is currently set up is so much the total opposite that care work is seen as unskilled, it’s undervalued, it’s mainly invisible, and it’s denigrated. We don’t see it as important. It’s the one type of work that you can’t replace with a robot. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer, other than I just think it’s fascinating, and I’m intrigued to know how it’s going to work out.
I think that probably how it will work out is it will be rebranded as some kind of brilliant male thing. The reason that I say that, I’m afraid, is that you only have to look at how previously feminized jobs have become masculinized. The most famous one, of course, being coding. The original computers were literally women, and it was seen as this menial secretarial job. And then when people realized, actually, this is quite complicated and complex, instead of thinking, “Oh, well, women must be capable of doing complicated, complex work,” they didn’t think that. They thought, “Well, we’ve made some kind of category error here.” They set out to create this idea of a coder that excluded women.
So, I’m afraid, looking back at history, I think that the most likely outcome is that women will be somehow seen as less good at it. I’m intrigued to know how they’re going to do it, though, because it’s just so integral to gender stereotypes that women are caring and men are not, that it’s going to be difficult. I dare them to pull it off.
Jenara Nerenberg: On that note, what was your reaction to the cancelation of the all-female spacewalk?
Caroline Criado Perez: Total lack of surprise. I thought it was such an interesting and typical example of the problem. The way that they had determined which spacesuits were gonna be space-ready just made it so clear that they saw average male as average human, in the way that, in pretty much everything else, we see average male as average human. From car crash test dummies to reference man for radiation, everything is based on the average male, and the average male is representing all of humanity.
When you look at that, you realize average man is seen as the average overall, and the female is treated as if it’s as much an outlier as a man who has to wear extra-large, which, of course, is not the case. Women are not an outlier; they’re 50% of the population.
I know that there are other issues with the spacesuits, and they need new spacesuits overall, anyway, and there’s been a lack of funding, etc. But, for me, that was the heart of the story, that they saw large as the average, when actually it’s the average for men.
Jenara Nerenberg: Is there anything else you’d want to share about how institutions and stakeholders can do better, whether it’s those in policy or schools, or just any other kind of recommendations?
Caroline Criado Perez: Just collect sex-disaggregated data. That is my one policy recommendation. It’s so simple. We just need to start doing it, and we could start doing it yesterday. That is what will fix all of this. It’s such an easy fix. It’s not a complicated ask. It’s just one thing that we should be doing anyway.
Jenara Nerenberg is the author of the forthcoming book, Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You, about gender bias in mental health and the trait of sensitivity. She produces three different author interview series for the Garrison Institute, UC Berkeley, and The Neurodiversity Project. She is a Harvard School of Public Health alum and Aspen Institute “Brave New Idea” speaker. You can pre-order her book here.