Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
How men created gender gap (unintentionally in most cases) and women are suffering
Often we see protests from feminists on issues like “to increase reservation quota” or “bring equality by allowing them to visit places which were previously restricted” or “logos by MNCs are offensive". While these are some pressing issues, there’re many minor ignored/unknown issues that women face on a day-to-day basis. At every corner in the world, there’s one or the other form of gender bias.
Don’t believe me! Try to pose the following questions for yourself:
- Is your smartphone not fitting properly in your hand or pocket?
- Is your seat belt not proper (or) you can’t put your leg on ABC of car seamlessly?
- The drugs suggested by doctors aren’t working properly on you
- Spends most of the time in home (not only in 2020!!)
- Travels more in public transport compared to your opposite gender
- Gets diseases/body pains etc; at an early age
- Lives longer than your opposite gender but suffers a lot
- Has less access to education, technology, household assets, money and influence in making decisions
- Can’t lift objects with ease, though it’s marked as ‘Standards’
- Works a lot but couldn’t make income from that work
If the answer is YES for most of the questions, then probably you are a WOMAN.
But how did this happen? The answer in one quote is:
Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth — Simone de Beauvoir
I’ll include some excerpts from this book which answers few questions mentioned above. Do read the book if you want to understand more about the gender bias (it might be a bit difficult for men with fixed mindset to pick this book)
0. Transportation and Parking
While a typical man shuttles between office and home and most of them own a vehicle, a typical woman travels a lot (dropping and pickup of kids, groceries, visiting relatives etc; which is known as trip-chaining) with the help of public transport (comparatively, women own less vehicles than men).
In many countries, snow-clearing is a major concern during winters which if doesn’t dealt properly might result in traffic jams, accidents and injuries. Unfortunately, most of the officials in urban planning are men, so they prioritized (unknowingly) snow-clearing to those roads which are used by personal-vehicles (based on their opinion) rather than roads used by buses, which resulted in injuries to pedestrians (majority are women as they do trip-chaining and often walks a lot to shuffle buses). This indirectly increased burden on hospitals and insurance companies.
Also, over the years, budget allocation for public transportation was reduced (apparently, majority of the committee was men and they felt public transportation was less used) which indirectly increased the cost of tickets, ultimately affecting women.
In another famous example, when Sheryl Sandberg (present COO of Facebook) was pregnant and working in Google, she had a lot of difficulty to walk from her parking lot to office (Google’s offices are huge!!). When she asked Sergey Brin to allocate separate parking lots for pregnant women near the office entrance, he immediately agreed to it. Apparently, they felt embarrassed that an unknown gender gap existed for decades and they never thought about it.
1. The Plough Hypothesis
It states that “societies that historically used plough would be less gender equal than those that hadn’t.”
Because ploughs are heavy (and capital intensive) and are dealt by oxen/machines which needs a lot of control/energy, that was taken care by men. Until then, men and women used to contribute equally towards agriculture. Slowly, the ownership of men increased as he started to gain control over the production, revenue. Over the generations, men in these societies were considered as bread-earners and women became dependent on them for small needs thus increasing the gap further.
2. Story of stove
A woman cooking on a traditional stove in an unventilated room is exposed to the equivalent of more than a hundred cigarettes a day. This also adds to air pollution and deforestation (presumably the wood logs)
In early 1950s, companies started to make clean stoves in order to check deforestation and not to increase women’s quality of life because as soon as they realized that traditional stoves is not a major factor of deforestation, they stopped researching further on clean stoves. It took more than five decades to resolve this pressing issue (not completely though, but there’s a huge progress because I guess most of us who’s reading this might be using electric or gas stove)
3. CEOs, teachers and professors
When you hear the following words, whom do you imagine:
- Scientist, Professor, Police, CEO, Doctor
And what about the following:
- Nurse, Teacher, Receptionist, Caretaker, Beautician
For most cases, you might have imagined a male for 1st list and female for 2nd list.
Our brains are trained in such a way over the course of years (through several examples in books, movies and real life scenarios) but in reality, these are gender-neutral words.
One might think “So what!!”. Now remember, these are the same people who build systems across the world including Google, Siri and thus it becomes more important to avoid gender bias. In recent decades, researchers are striving hard to bridge the gap by bringing in more inclusivity while collecting data, training models and reviewing. So, from next time, try to be more vigilant while making inferences.
Fun exercise: You can do a Google search (or any web search) of those words (though results vary based on lots of factors)
When cellphone manufacturers were asked why the size of the phones was increased over decades despite women having difficulty carrying them, a common reply was “It’s to fit in purses”. But the irony is, women started using purses, because their outfits doesn’t have pockets, which is altogether a different problem.
5. Yentl Syndrome
Research says that “the time of the day you have a heart attack determines your chances of survival”. If you get a heart attack at morning, it triggers neutrophils which increases the chances of survival i.e
Day time heart attack → Increase in neutrophils → Increased chances of survival and researches believed this to be a thumb rule.
The twist is, this is true only for men. For women,
Day time heart attack → Increase in neutrophils → Decreased chances of survival.
Another example is with the usage of pacemakers. Researchers found that, if a heartbeat (the electric wave) takes more than 150 ms for a full cycle, an implant is necessary. Again, this ‘150 ms’ was derived using male candidates. For females, this number was 130 ms, (~15% difference which if included while designing pacemakers helps a lot of women)
These (and several other) examples corresponds to what’s called ‘Yentl Syndrome’ i.e “women are misdiagnosed and poorly treated unless their symptoms or diseases conform to that of men” and it proves the importance of including women for clinical trails (for drugs, vaccines etc;) because men and women react differently to drugs and biologically we are different.
Research/studies on various medical issues dealt by only women (pregnancy, PMS etc;) didn’t take place for eons. Societies dismissed it as either madness or ‘normal’. The bitter truth is, many fields are still under-studied (lack of researchers, funding).
6. Books and Quotes
Have you ever felt that while reading a book (or a quote), it’s not referring to you? It’s totally true because most of the books when writing in third person point of view use male relevant pronouns. Presumably, it’s your responsibility to infer that sentence is also valid to opposite gender.
Eg: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
But I do confess that books/quotes doesn’t bring gender gap deliberately (as they have a higher purpose). Also, replacing “he” with “he/she” doesn’t make it an attractive quote.
7. Unpaid labor
I don’t think this topic need any introduction or further discussion. We normally take household works such as cooking, cleaning, washing etc; as granted but it shouldn’t be the case (and I believe this situation is slowly changing).
There’s a ray of hope when Supreme Court Of India stated “The value of a woman’s work at home was no less than that of her office-going husband” (though the case for which this statement is made is on different issue) and are in plans to introduce (maybe unofficial, voluntary) house-income for housewives.
These example stress the importance of why women should be included in research, discussion, planning and their opinions matter.
I’ve to confess that though the bias is created by men over eons (unintentionally), both the men and women of current generation suffer from it. (Eg: on average, a women when hears the word ‘scientist’ imagines a typical male in a white coat).
Also, we hear slogans of sort “Men and Women are equal”. If we take the literal meaning of the slogan, it doesn’t make any sense, because the fight should be to provide additional benefits.
But yeah, we understand what those slogans means and the bitter truth is, it’s not at all possible because:
- The ratio of men and women is different
- The ability to take stress is different with women having higher thresholds
- The body composition, ability to withstand physical barriers, absorption of chemicals is different and so on…
Whatever the trait you consider, men and women differ and thus are not equal (it might be foolishness from God/nature’s end to create two different entities if what God/nature want is to create a single entity)
What I meant is, there’s a natural gap between men and women, which can’t be bridged. Actually these differences needs to be acknowledged and embraced. It doesn’t mean one is inferior to other. The artificial gap generated over eons (by technology, religion, traditions, superstitions and unintentionally in most cases) is gradually reducing and that is what matters.
Note: In case you need references for particular examples, please refer the book as there are myriads of them.