(Chatto). Kindle edition downloaded 7 March 2019, £9.99
The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for March said:
‘The activist and journalist on the discriminatory consequences of men being treated as the default and women as atypical, in a book that casts new light on homes, workplaces and public buildings’.
Feminism and I unexpectedly tripped over each other in the early 1980’s and without getting into major biography, feminism changed every single element of my existence with enormous and enduring impact. Through the 80’s and 90’s I read every feminist book I could get hold of hitting strident radical outrage and non-violent direct action along the way. For the past 20 or so years, having bought the many and varied t-shirts (some of which have now become cleaning cloths – oh the irony) my interest in such books waned. I read the books I needed to read for my professional life dutifully, to ensure my power-points stayed relevant and current but I had mellowed beyond outrage and indeed, slogan t-shirts. I chose this book from the March ‘books to look forward to’ list because of the others in the non-fiction group it looked a) the least dull and b) my semi-un-conscious bias kicked in.
This assertion might be dismissed with a roll of an eye and a weary ‘of course you would say that’ but in fact, the opposite would be true. I am a well-read feminist and I have read some turkey’s, which frankly did the women’s movement(s) no favors, but this is very certainly not one of them. I have read enough to know the difference and I loved this book!
The book considers the absence of women in the data that defines and shapes the algorithms, policies, designs and laws in the world, our understanding of them across time. It considers our lives, opportunities and dangers inherent in it – and by ‘ours’ she means all humans. The ones most disadvantaged by the absence of women in data are of course women who have equipment which doesn’t fit or cannot be safely used because it is not made for their bodies, who cannot use public transport because the standard use which informs timetable planning is that of the male commuter and does not take account of carer responsibility and so very many other examples across the home, the workplace and in general public life. The book makes clear, however, that all of society are disadvantaged by the uni-focused narrative of male defined data sets.
The book has potential to be a preachy call to arms but it is not – Perez manages to make this eminently readable book engaging, humorous and informative. She takes us to the heart of how we understand our world and in doing so highlights false assumptions and the absence of other perspectives. At one point she asks (a little tongue in cheek) whether women are even human at all! Her question comes from analysis of data about the evolution of humankind being predicated on understanding of the centrality of ‘man the hunter’. What were women doing when humankind was being built, (allegedly), by hunters? Do we even fit into this narrative and if so, in what ways do we influence that prevailing story? She gives another example of a warrior skeleton being steadfastly identified and labeled as a male by museum curators, despite indisputable DNA bone analysis showing she was a female, simply on the grounds that she was found with weapons and high ranking afterlife kit. They apparently were unable to comprehend the notion of a high-ranking warrior woman and so refused to believe it. In doing so, the educative purpose of the museum is shamefully compromised and yet again, women are denied the opportunity to know our history. Perez, sadly gives example after example after example.
Fury – rightful as it may be – is not the most useful outcome of this work. It is a very well considered, well researched, evidence based discussion. I hope it can contribute now to a broader discussion which always, always, always considers ways in which data is defined only by a male view with female perspectives being either silenced or ‘othered’. If we want to understand and learn and plan in the most healthy and positive ways for humanity and our planet we need the best data and this means inclusive data that from which male bias is eradicated. I am taking a wild guess about which gender(s) are the most likely to take this opportunity on board…
- Personal anecdote: I once worked in a secure mental health environment. The women complained they wanted paper towels back because the newly installed, air-blow hand driers had been fitted by a six foot three maintenance man. When the women tried to use the too-high driers, it caused water from their hands to run down their arms and make their sleeves soggy. I have noticed ever since how stupid-high most air blowers are in women’s toilets.