England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Communities and society, Welfare and equalities

Excuse me… why is it women are not seen?

“It is perhaps beside the point to remark that bowling alleys and supermarkets have nursery facilities, while schools and colleges and scientific laboratories and government offices do not.” 
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Times have changed since Betty Frieden wrote her seminal book, but not fast enough. After reading Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men, for LGIU’s upcoming book club event (now full), I spoke with a few senior women in the public sector about the book. They quipped, “it’s got better at least – I now don’t get asked to make the coffee/fetch the lunch or tidy up after meetings”.  After some reflection they all started talking about the gender pay gap that still exists and as one friend said, “I wonder when men will stop interrupting me in meetings on topics I know more about than them.”

Any woman who has ever been told, “smile love it will never happen” needs to read this book. I personally have read so-called feminist literature since my teens, raised by an independent working mother, so I count myself lucky. Mind you, my father was often heard to say, “I wish your brother had half your ambition”. Families – got to love them. I have often joked I got my first job because in the 1970s, when I became the first female graduate trainee my company had ever taken on, that it was because they were expecting the scientist Mr Kim Fellows, and that gender-fluid first name got me an interview. Over 40 years later I am beginning to think that there is a ring of truth in that jest.

This book covers topics ranging from how society is failing to take account of – in part because of lack of data – gender impacts on a number of public services from road building, park designs, location of childcare services and support for carer responsibilities.

It is a book whose time has come, I hope, because as we all know we need to build back better, support a new normal after Covid-19, build a green economy; all the subjects we are talking about now. However, have you considered how women can be better involved in building a female-friendly new normal?  A new normal that could see women design the parks, roads, walking, science parks, hospitals and building sites that help the people who every day have to juggle work, shopping, caring, housework, and and and… to balance the demands of friends, family, work and care.

Living with Covid-19 and other “things that go wrong” I ask, will PPE be designed for women’s bodies and faces? Will medical equipment be designed for and by women who understand women’s bodies?  For example, if men had breasts then mammograms would likely be a lot more comfortable than having a sensitive part of your anatomy jammed between two glass plates while you “hold still”. Who designed the cervical smear? I don’t think it was a woman. While you might scoff, the evidence is clear women’s symptoms of heart attacks are different to men & often neglected and misdiagnosed.

I was pleased to have my view confirmed that Alexa doesn’t like me, or rather Alexa doesn’t hear me – that female voices are not included when programming devices. That’s important if AI is going to play more of a role in our lives, women and women’s needs should be recognised and incorporated at the design stage and beyond. I wonder if robot surgeons are trained to understand women’s bodies?

Finally, because I don’t wish to tell all the good stories, about the role of women in political and public spheres that are included in the book. Here is a topical one: Biden’s new running mate, Kamala Harris, was once admonished for her style of questioning of a recalcitrant witness by John McCain. That reminded me a lot of a recent incident in Westminster when a female MP was told to mind her tone.

In conclusion, the book asks, as we should all ask: What is going to change? Are women going to buckle up and push on, or do we agree to collect the information that we help us all, regardless of gender, and make the right decision for everyone? Interventions might include electoral reform, reform of paternity leave, maternity leave, redesigning early years support services, measuring GDP so “women’s work” is included… and so much more.

In the meantime, please if you want to know what women and girls think, just ask and listen to the reply, without interruption.

Our first bookclub is now full, but we’ll be sharing key discussion points. Make sure you are registered on our website and receiving our weekly updates to be kept in the loop about future events. 

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