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People in each to equal pose

On this International Women’s Day, JFG Comms asks: Are Women Invisible?

By Becky Franklin

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #eachforequal

And the theme slogan is ‘an equal world is an enabled world.’ 

Yet, for many women around the world, we are ‘disenabled’ by data bias and cultural perceptions. 

In many ways, this is what Caroline Criado Perez suggests in her famed book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’. While it is not that we are literally invisible, it is more the point that because of a lack of thought for women, in a variety of spheres, our needs and differences have become invisible to society.

It is this apparent invisibility, that often makes us unequal.

However, if we collectively challenge these issues, and address when there is undue bias, then surely we can create a gender equal world?  

Invisible Women 

I was desperate to read ‘Invisible Women.’ Being a huge advocate for gender equality, I was intrigued to read what kind of data was lacking on women and how it was creating bias. While I wish I could say I was shocked, it seems there were very few circumstances where women’s differing biology and physiology had been considered. From building design and toilet arrangements to police vests and snow clearance, women just simply have not been thought about. 

Perez’s words stuck with me, for when at party conference this year, I was confronted with one of her revelations. I, like most women, was wearing a dress and heels. Running late to an event, I thought it would be quicker to take the stairs. I realised I was walking up a glass staircase, with large gaps between each step and plenty of people in the lobby beneath me. Had the designer of the building taken into consideration that women, just like me, would walk up these stairs? Unlikely! 

Similarly, Perez draws attention to the coldness of modern offices. In a study conducted in the Netherlands, the authors found the formula created in the 1960s to determine standard office temperature, had not been designed to take into account that the ‘metabolic rate of women was significantly lower than men.’ This has meant many offices are often 5 degrees too cold for women to work in. 

Perez argues ‘modern workplaces are riddled with these kinds of gaps in data’ and, while these issues are not the end of the world, they are irritating. Yet, if small changes were made to such preventable issues, it would help women live in an equal world. 

The Henry Higgins Effect

One particular chapter in Perez’s book really stood out to me - ‘The Henry Higgins Effect.’

In a line from the musical My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins says “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” (simple answer – because we can’t).  But what Perez is alluding to is the common complaint about women – we are the ones that need to be fixed. 

As Perez states ‘what is male is universal, what is female is atypical. But of course, there is nothing to fix, it is just simply that we are different. 

Our differences, as women, enable us to achieve and experience different things. And yet, having talked to many female colleagues in our sector, the idea that we are the problem is still sometimes perpetuated. 

If we consider personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, in a 2009 study conducted by the UK Women’s Engineering Society, it was found 74% of all PPE was designed for men. In a further study conducted by the UK’s Trade Union Congress in 2016, it was found that just 17% of women working in construction had access to appropriate PPE.  This is because PPE in Europe and the USA is solely based on the sizes and characteristics of men.

Not only is ill-fitting PPE uncomfortable, in many cases it is a safety risk. Perez gives the example of a woman working for a rail company having to use men’s size regular gloves, which meant it was dangerous for her to climb up tall trains due to an inability to grip. When numerous women have raised similar issues as a concern, Perez says it has taken a tough and drawn-out fight to get the right equipment. 

While the sector has made great strides in improving women's PPE in recent years, especially among the bigger companies, we know the issue still arises.

How can women become enabled?

This is only a handful of examples from ‘Invisible Women’. But just from these statistics it is clear how the world around usprevents us from truly being equal.  

As we often hear, we live in a world designed by men, for men. 

In order for women to be fully enabled in society, it is important that women’s needs are taken into account; therefore, we need to be both listened to and be asked what would improve the working lives of women. 

Whether that’s because our office is too cold, our uniform too uncomfortable or because the workplace has not considered our differing characteristics. To achieve complete equality, the factors that make us women must be given consideration. 

So, on this International Women’s Day, let’s join together to create an equal, unbiased world that works for everyone in it and celebrate what equality can achieve.

And, if you haven’t read ‘Invisible Women’ yet, I urge you to.