You are currently viewing Living in a Men’s World:  How Data Biasness Makes Women Invisible

Living in a Men’s World: How Data Biasness Makes Women Invisible

Have you ever felt your smartphones are uncomfortably larger than your hands? Or the seatbelt in your car does not fit you properly? Or have you always felt that you are the only one who always finds the office or classroom temperature to be too cold while your colleagues or peers roam around as if they are on a summer holiday? Well, if you are a woman, chances are you can relate to at least one of the events if not all. Why are women more susceptible to these situations? Let’s find out.

Firstly, let’s take our smartphones as an example. Most smartphones are built using male hand size as the default. The average circumference of a woman’s hand is about 1 to 2 inches smaller than that of an average man’s. It means for most women their phones are too big to navigate comfortably. It is not like companies do not produce smaller phones. But what usually happens is the features of the smaller phones are not as premium as the larger ones. For instance, iPhone 12 Mini lacks the premium features of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Now, you may think this is not a crucial detail; it is not life-threatening. And you are absolutely right. This may be irritating, but it is not life-threatening. But for some women, invisibility can be life-threatening. Research conducted on the incompatible functions of ballistic vests shows that a lot of female police face problems with the fit of the vest as they are mainly designed keeping male bodies in mind. Ill-fitted vests can lead to fatal accidents (Celeste E. Coltman, Brooke R. Brisbine, Julie R. Steele. 2021). Female workers whose professions can be dangerous and require personal protective equipment face the same challenge. However, most PPE is based on the average size and characteristics of the male population from Europe and America. A standard U.S. male face shape is also used to produce dust, hazard, and eye masks. For frontline workers, ill-fitted PPE not only restricts their movement and hampers productivity but, in some cases, can also result in death. In 1997 a British female police officer was stabbed to death as she had to remove her body armour because it was too difficult to use. Two years later, another female officer came forward and revealed that she had to go through breast reduction surgery because of the adverse health effect of wearing her body armour. Since then, regular complaints have been lodged, but no action has been taken, nor is there any proper data to evaluate the graveness of the situation. If you think only female frontline workers have life-threatening challenges while navigating through a world that is largely designed for men, then let me tell you another piece of information.

Caroline Criado Perez found while researching for her book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” that most cars do not keep women’s safety in mind while testing the safety measures. She explains, “This gender data gap is not generally malicious or even deliberate. But it can be deadly – like crashing in a car whose safety measures don’t account for the height and weight of women’s bodies. This is what I mean when I say women are ‘invisible’. We are living in a world made for men, itself a product and a way of thinking that has been around for millennia – and which is, therefore, a kind of not thinking.”

I believe these pieces of data are enough to convince you about the truthfulness of the above statement. However, the question remains – why are men the default and women are invisible? When explaining why minorities are overlooked in mainstream decision-making, it is offered as a somewhat justification that minorities are less in number, and in a democratic system majority gets the priority. But this explanation does not fit well when talking about gender biases because the male-female ratio is roughly equal, with a one percent difference only. So, why do we treat the cis-male gender as a majority or dominant population?

We may get a clue from how we analyse history and what divergence point in history we denote as the starting point of civilisation. In 1966, the University of Chicago held a symposium called “Man the Hunter.” The main theme of the symposium was to discuss primitive hunter-gatherer societies. Over 75 social anthropologists joined and came to the central conclusion, ‘The biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apes – all these we owe to the hunters of time past.’ From a theoretical point of view, it seems simple and convincing. But there is a crucial lacking; it ignores the significance of gatherers who were largely women, and as a result, intentionally or unintentionally, refutes women’s contribution to human civilisation. Still, evolutionary theory favours male contribution and affirms the notion that male contribution (hunting) is the foundation of human society.

Even something as universal and ubiquitous as language is not above the male-unless-otherwise approach. Our tendency to visualise anything ambiguous as generic masculine is a practice that has been existing for a long period of time and reflects in our language quite prominently. We use the word ‘man’ to explain both the male population as well as the whole of humanity.

History and grammar books have fewer female representations. A U.S. study of history textbooks from 1960 to 1990 revealed that only 9% of names mentioned in the books were female. While in 2017, an analysis of political science books found that only 10.8% of pages contained a reference to a woman. When separately seen, this issue may seem to be trivial, but they have huge implications. The previously mentioned studies show that as a result of men being mentioned more, a year into their education, primary school girls began to feel that boys were smarter than them. Now, some sceptics can offer a counter-argument by saying the reason there are fewer female representations is that there are fewer significant women contributors to talk about. This can be the case, but unfortunately, there are no data to back up this assumption. The problem can either be that there are fewer female historical figures; or that there are enough female contributors, but their works are not highlighted as much as their male counterparts. To know the exact reason, we need data, but the gender data gap has made it harder.

In a world where men are the default, women remain largely invisible, especially in terms of data. As a consequence of insufficient data, a lot of problems seem like they do not even exist. Therefore, expecting their formal solutions are as foolish as expecting the world to change overnight.

Invisible Women in Corporate World

, we lack the evidence to structure necessary evidence-based policies. If we take the corporate sector as our field of analysis, then these two problems become clearer as day.


The current global labour force participation rate for women is just under 47%. For men, it is 72%. That is a gap of 25%. In some specific regions, the difference can be up to 50%. In Bangladesh, the gender gap in the labour force is 43.9% (ILO). However, the models that calculate employment are unable to assess the situation properly because they do not elicit shadow wages or the opportunity costs of paid work outside the home for women. Women, in general, also have a harder time finding a job than men. In Bangladesh, the unemployment rate for women is 7.9%, whereas the same for men is 4.1%.

Health and Safety

2019 survey-based research shows many Bangladeshi female garment workers suffer from a series of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, gout, vision impairments, hypertension, insomnia, etc. Given the conditions of the factories and the characteristics of their work, vision problems and asthma was expected finding. But insomnia was something the researchers were not expecting to find through their studies. Even though this study is a start but it is not enough. A more precise and unbiased data set is needed for taking effective actions to improve the health conditions of female garment workers. Another piece of data that is often ignored as a trivial matter is the optimal office temperature. According to an article in the Guardian – the formula to determine standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. But a recent Dutch study found that the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower than the standard values for men doing the same activity. The formula overestimates the female metabolic rate by 35%. This leads to an uncomfortable as well as unproductive workplace for a majority of female employees. But the workplace data gap can lead to far worse than discomfort. For instance, there are not sufficient data on female migrant workers and the abuse they had to endure during their work overseas. What we get is some distorted stories of domestic worker abuse here and there, but without a concise data set, the gravity of the problem is overlooked in mainstream policy-making.

Leadership and Women

According to Deloitte Global’s Women in Boardroom report 2022, a global average of 19.7% of board seats are held by women. According to Catalyst, the percentage of women in senior management roles globally grew to 29% in 2019. However, this is the highest number ever recorded. Further, in 2020, only 17% of CMOs and 16% of COOs are women compared to 40% of human resources directors, which signifies that the higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer women. Now, these sets of data help us to understand the scenario, but they are still inadequate. Because they do not tell us why there are not many women in leadership positions. A data gap still persists. To increase the number of female leaders, we first and foremost need to know the reason behind the lack of it. It can be due to the fact that it is harder for women to climb the ladder because there are more societal and personal obstacles in their path than men. And the corporate culture finds it easier and cost-beneficial to just employ men than encourage women by structuring a support system and special framework such as day-care, maternal leave, making the office new-mother friendly where she can nurture her child as well as work on her career. However, without proper data, these are just assumptions.

Gender Relevant Data Initiatives on Economic Opportunities

Even though there are frequent gaps when it comes to collecting data that concern women’s employment or other economic activities, it will be too negative of me if I do not mention a few initiatives that can improve the situation. For instance, the EDGE project, the UN Statistical Division, and UN Women collaborate on developing methodological guidelines to collect data on physical and financial assets disaggregated by sex; the same exercise will be done for entrepreneurship. The project will then pilot-test gender data collection on assets and entrepreneurship in selected countries. USAID is developing the Core Agricultural and Rural Survey (CARDS) within the World Bank- and FAO-led Global Strategy to Improve Agriculture and Rural Statistics. CARDS will include farm and non-farm indicators for individual household members, disaggregated by sex, incorporating lessons learned from implementing the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, a recent initiative of USAID, IFPRI, and the Oxford Human Development and Poverty Initiative.

Author- Nayeema Nusrat Arora

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