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Invisibility Despite Persistence

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), pianist and composer of numerous musical works for opera, ballet, and film such as West Side Story and On the Town, won 16 Grammys and two Tony Awards during his lifetime. The maestro was also musical director of the New York Philharmonic for 12 years. Nevertheless, after reading Caroline Criado Perez’ best-selling book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019), one wonders if Bernstein had an advantage as a male pianist. Perez, a journalist and activist, writes that “the average female handspan is between seven and eight inches, which makes the standard 48-inch keyboard something of a challenge.” A recent study which included 473 adult pianists found that “all 12 of the pianists considered to be of international renown had spans of 8.8 inches or above (Boyle, Boyle and Booker, 'Hand Size and the Piano Keyboard,' 2009; 'Piano Hand Spans,' 2015).” Perez notes that the two women who made it into this group had handspans of nine inches and 9.5 inches. A piano with a smaller keyboard constructed by craftsman Christopher Donison has yet to become an industry standard despite the fact data clearly shows the standard piano places female pianists at a disadvantage. It is one of many data biases that work against women.

The data bias that exists in today’s world hurts women financially, physically, and psychologically. This bias is apparent in acting where men are given more roles and get more lines. Doctor Who is one of the UK’s longest running television shows. Perez states, “It is about a shape-shifting alien who morphs into a new body. When for the first time the alien changed into a woman, upset men took to Twitter calling for a boycott of the show, condemning the decision as ‘PC’ and ‘liberal’ virtue-signaling.” If that weren’t enough, Perez’ research depicts that a paltry 24% of the news in newspapers, on television, or radio is about women. Furthermore, women appear on only 8% of banknotes worldwide (Banknote World, 7/2020). And, in school textbooks, mention of men far outnumbers women by a ratio of about 18 to 100. A 2017 study analysis of 10 introductory political-science textbooks found an average of only 10.8 % of pages referenced women (some texts were as low as 5.3%).

The Renaissance was supposed to be a rebirth of ideas during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, social psychologist Carol Tavris points out in The Mismeasure of Woman (1991), but “it wasn’t a renaissance for women, who were largely excluded from intellectual and artistic life. The period that followed is called ‘The Enlightenment’ and while it expanded the rights of men, it narrowed the rights of women who were denied control of their property and earnings and barred from higher education and professional training.” Tavris goes on to say that “we think of ancient Greece as the cradle of democracy although the female half of the population were explicitly excluded from voting.”

Some women are denied protection from health hazards. In agrarian communities, farming machinery is not designed for use by women even though men and women sometimes farm side-by-side. Perez notes that “upper-body mass is approximately 75% greater in men because women’s lean body mass tends to be less concentrated in their upper body and, as a result, men’s upper body strength is on average between 40-60% higher than women’s (compared to lower-body strength which in on average only 25% higher in men). Women also have on average a 41% lower grip strength than men.” The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) affirms that women have higher rates of sprains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men. Perez states that “the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, yields on their farms could increase by up to 30%. But they don’t.”

Women farmers attending a protest at Bahadurgar near the Haryana-Delhi border, India.

Transportation is another area of concern. Men are more likely to be involved in a car accident, Perez points out, “but when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man. She is also 17% more likely to die.” Why is this? “Women tend to sit farther forward than men when driving because on average they are shorter than men. Women are also at higher risk in rear-end collisions. Women have less muscles on their necks and upper torso than men, which makes them up to three times more vulnerable to whiplash. The reason is very simple: cars have been designed using car-crash test dummies based on the ‘average’ male. Or, the female test dummy sits in the passenger seat.”

Perez sheds light on the fact that women who do not own a car have to “walk further and for longer than men [in part because of their care-giving responsibilities or because they are poorer and] marginalization of non-motorized travel inevitably affects them more.” Their travel patterns tend to be more complicated. A typical female’s travel pattern may involve dropping off children at school, taking an elderly relative to the doctor, and going grocery shopping on the way home. Women are significantly less likely than men to be satisfied with the streets and pavements after journeying by foot. Rough, narrow and cracked pavements littered with encumbrances combined with narrow and steep steps (or, worse yet snow and ice) at numerous transit locations make traveling around a city with a stroller extremely difficult.

“Globally 75% of unpaid work is done by women who spend between three to six hours per day compared to men’s average of 30 minutes to two hours,” Perez writes. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), women do three times the amount of unpaid care work men do. McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm, estimates that women’s unpaid care work contributes $10 trillion to annual global GDP, but trips made for paid work are still valued more than trips made for unpaid care work. Perez found that when men do increase their unpaid work, it is not by doing the routine housework that forms the majority of the workload, instead they perform more enjoyable activities like watching children. Women are more than twice as likely to be providing intensive on-duty care for someone 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, men may enjoy leisure pursuits such as watching TV, playing sports or computer games, or chatting about manga online.

Iceland was named by The Economist as the best country to be a working woman. Perez notes this is something to celebrate, but there is also reason to take issue with The Economist’s phrasing. There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There are only women who aren’t paid for their work. And unlike many men, women don’t go home after work to rest. Some don’t rest after being hospitalized. Women go home to a second shift, where there is cooking, cleaning, and childcare. The unpaid work on top of their regular job negatively impacts women’s health. The dysphoria women experience leads to higher rates of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression.

Even the equipment that women use doing unpaid work can have a negative effect on their health. Perez’ research reveals that millions of women in developing countries cook in poorly ventilated rooms with biomass fuels have impaired immune systems which leaves them less able to fight off the bacteria. One result is that TB kills more women globally than any other single infectious disease. Unfortunately, TB is often considered a male disease and consequently women as less likely to be screened for it.

Pollutants from open fire stoves kill millions of women. Ami Vitale/Ripple Effect Images

When women apply for jobs, leads can be discouraging. Women are less likely to perform well in interviews for jobs that are advertised using the generic masculine. Perez explains how English is not a grammatically gendered language and the generic masculine is fairly restricted in modern usage. However, languages such as French, German, and Spanish are what is called ‘gender-inflicted’, and the concept of masculine and feminine is woven into the language itself. In gender-inflected languages, the generic masculine remains pervasive. Job vacancies are still often announced with masculine forms – particularly if they are for leadership roles.

The tech world presents new challenges and women have greater difficulty entering this arena. A substantial chunk of tech start-ups are backed by venture capitalists (VCs) because venture capitalists can take risks where banks can’t (, 2017/05). “The problem is that 93% of VCs are men, and men tend to back men,” states Debbie Woskow, co-founder of AllBright, a members’ club, academy, and fund that backs female-led businesses. Female business owners receive less than half the level of investment their male counterparts get.

If a woman secures a position with a major corporation, something as innocent as golf can get in her way. Business deals and alliances are often cemented on golf courses where women are regarded as somewhat of a nuisance due to their physiology. Clare Castillejo, a specialist in fragile states, writes, “Women may be present at formal talks, but this isn’t much good if men are forming backroom quid pro quo networks and going off to have the real discussions in informal spaces that women cannot access.”

Sometimes the drugs women take don’t work as well as they do for men. “Sex differences appear in our cells: in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins; in immune cells used to convey pain signals; and in how cells die following a stroke,” Perez states. “Sex differences are in the presentation and outcome of Parkinson’s disease, stroke and brain ischaemia (insufficient blood flow to the brain) have also been tracked all the way to our cells, and there is growing evidence of a sex difference in the ageing of the blood vessels, with inevitable implications for health problems, examination and treatment.” Male and female bodies differ down to the cellular level and many medical schools still don’t teach this.

The failure to include women in clinical trials also poses a problem. “Integrating gender into research is seen as burdensome,” Perez writes. “An easy out to address the problem of under-representation of women in medical trials is to claim that there is no problem at all and that it is all good. It does matter though. Some drugs that work for men, simply don’t work the same for women.” Perez’ research exposes that these drugs include anti-depressants and medications for heart disease, blood pressure, concussions, diabetes, liver failure, kidney meds migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome. “Clinical trials treat male bodies as the default and women’s bodies as a side-show,” Perez notes. “NIH has supposedly included women since 1993, but there is no readily accessible source of data on the demographics of NIH study populations, making it impossible to determine if NIH is enforcing its own recommendations.” It appears that women are penalized, sometimes tragically, for having a different set of chromosomes.

In times of war, ultimate gender biases are revealed via a breakdown of social order. Perez asserts that female refugees are vulnerable to rape, assault, and other violence due to a failure to provide separate bathrooms, shower facilities, or sleeping quarters. Domestic violence is high during these times with male violence often being the reason women are refugees in the first place. Women are also more likely to die than men. Here, in the United States, women are choosing to live out-of-doors rather than access shelters they perceive as dangerous.

Smartwatches too big for women’s wrists, artificial intelligence that uses male pronouns solely, and buildings' doors that only men can open easily are a scant few items that need modification. Shred the invisibility cloak that shrouds women’s rights and impedes their access to employment, good health, and financial freedom. Change -- as Perez puts it -- the “one-size-fits-man” mentality and we can change the world by becoming more sensitive to the needs of every individual, thereby resulting in a more inclusive, productive society.

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