BITE Focus

Policy and the gender data gap

Journalist, award-winning feminist campaigner and author Caroline Criado Perez explored the one size fits men approach to design on stage at #BITELIVE19 and the relevance this has to the creative industries.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE


Journalist, award-winning feminist campaigner and the author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez was on stage at #BITELIVE19 to lift the lid on the impact of gender data bias across the creative industries.

Criado Perez pointed out that, while women are 50% of the population, the world hasn’t been designed with them in mind. The world has in fact been designed with a one size fits men approach, something that has significant implications for the creative industries.

The fundamental problem, says Criado Perez, is that “The vast majority of information being collected globally both historically and the data that we continue to collect, everything from economic data to urban planning data to medical data, has been collected mainly on men.”

women are more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash
statues in the UK are women (excluding royals)
women in Britain are more likely to misdiagnosed following a heart attack

Reference Man

Criado Perez pointed to the toxic impact of ‘Reference Man’, the default data point she described as the “worst superhero ever.” He is the embodiment of the unconscious gender bias that goes back millennia and stretches his impact to the present day. She pointed to the example of 16th century medical illustrations that still reflect the world Aristotle philosophised about, that “the male body was an ideal that women fail to live up to.”

‘Reference Man’ is also prevalent in the architect Le Corbusier’s idea of the Modular Man around which he believed all buildings needed to be designed. Modular Man, said Le Corbusier, was, as a 6ft British police detective, the only size and shape architects should need to consider. It’s a bias Criado Perez noted has been seen most recently in Bic’s release of the For Her pens, identical to the designs already on sale, except they were pink. The range has now been discontinued.

The problem is, says Criado Perez, that people use a default excuse as to why ‘Reference Man’ is so much easier to use; that “women are just too complicated.” From our travel and work patterns to the way our bodies function, there is too much that would have to change to accommodate for a woman’s body. But, as Criado Perez explains, “it doesn’t make sense for 50% of the population to be too complicated to measure. That is just refusing to engage in reality.”

Men are not a standard women fail to live up to.

Caroline Criado Perez

Real world examples

Criado Perez highlighted some very real-world examples of where ‘Reference Man’ is causing real-world harm. The first, and most significant is within the medical world. When it comes to heart disease, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed if they have a heart attack than men; they are also more likely to die. When researchers looked at the Babylon Health app, they discovered that identical symptoms in woman were diagnosed as a panic attack; in men it was a heart attack.

Perhaps more headline grabbing was when Apple released their healthcare tracker app in 2014. You could track your copper intake, says Criado Perez, but you couldn’t track your period. As she pointed out: “Do you think Apple would have forgotten to include a period tracker if they had had enough women in their design team? Because I don’t think they would.”

Criado Perez also focused on the impact this bias can have on the technology itself. She highlighted the reality that, if the data we’re feeding AI systems is gender biased, then the outcome that intelligence delivers will be as well. Criado Perez went one step further: “Machine learning doesn’t just reflect our biases; it amplifies them, by a significant amount.” ‘Reference Man’, it seems, is benefitting from building, in effect, his very own algorithm.

Caroline Criado Perez’s Three Takeaways

  1. “Men are not a standard women fail to live up to.” This is vital to remember when it comes to the advertising industry, when it comes to how women are represented across communications.
  2. “Always be questioning whether you are treating male as a reference point, male as the standard.” We need to question what is considered as standard and stop assuming that the way men do things is the right way. This can be difficult as people often perpetuate the problem they’re trying to solve.
  3. “Remember diversity is not a tick box.” For Criado Perez, the secret to overcoming gender or any kind of bias is to look at who is in your team. Because “A homogenous team is going to have gaps in their knowledge, they’re going to make mistakes.

Photography © Steve Brown

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Design Inclusion