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Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
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- Contains 9 key ideas
In Invisible Women (2019), Caroline Criado Perez argues that there is a “gender data gap” – that the bulk of the world’s data is based on male bodies and male behaviors. The result is a world that not only caters to men but often actively disadvantages women. Perez shows how the data underpinning everything from medicine and AI to the size of our smartphones fails to account for women’s needs. She explores the myriad problems this data gap causes and suggests how it might best be addressed.
Key idea 1 of 9
We are conditioned to view the male gender as the default and ignore or erase female experience.
When archaeologists uncovered an armored Viking skeleton in Sweden in 1889, they assumed the bones belonged to a male warrior – despite the skeleton’s female pelvic bone. Worse, no one noticed the error for over 100 years! And the archaeologists’ assumption here wasn’t a one-off. Women are overlooked all the time because we’re conditioned to view male as the default gender.
Our tendency to center maleness goes back at least as far as the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In On the Generation of Animals (340 BC), he describes men as normal and women as aberrations. In anatomy, too, the male body was historically the default. The female body, when it was considered at all, was the exception. Some female organs, like the ovaries, weren’t even named until the seventeenth century.
But gender bias isn’t just a thing of the past. Even something as contemporary as emojis, the world’s newest language, still privileges masculinity. All emojis are assigned by a single consortium, called Unicode. But it’s up to each emoji-supporting platform to determine how they depict Unicode’s emojis. Before 2016, Unicode didn’t assign genders to emoji symbols; they simply stipulated that emoji symbols should include, for example, a runner or a police officer. The platforms chose to depict male runners and male police officers. It was only when Unicode began to assign gendered emoji symbols that women and men achieved “emoji parity.”
In many other aspects of contemporary life, though, representational parity is a long way off. From statues to banknotes to textbooks, representation skews male. In the UK, there are more statues of men named John than there are statues of all non-royal women put together! And when it comes to UK banknotes, there’s currently only one woman depicted – Jane Austen.
This skewed representation is reinforced in education. In 2014, a study found that in grammar and language textbooks, references to men outnumber references to women 3:1.
In fact, as we’ll see in the next blink, this bias affects every aspect of our lives, from the design of our cars and smartphones to local neighborhood authorities’ procedures for snow shoveling!