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

Invisible Men: Notes from the local government book club

Alice Buszard reflects on the ideas raised at LGIU’s first-ever local government book club meeting, where participants discussed “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez and considered how the information set out in the book could shape local government policymaking.

On Thursday, LGIU hosted its inaugural book club meeting, reading Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez. Interestingly – or should I say, unsurprisingly, no men attended the meeting to discuss the data gaps – which affect all number of policies – raised in the book. This in itself reflects the core argument made by Criado Perez: women are routinely ignored in policymaking, a fact often not realised by men. As one book club attendee succinctly stated, “[Men] may not be aware of bias, so cannot remove it!”

Instead, a group of women working within local government met to talk about the very real (and shocking) data gaps that result in higher rates of crime, longer diagnosis wait times, and pay inequalities that disproportionately affect women. One particularly upsetting chapter looked at the failure to include women in drug-testing, leading to the marketing of drugs that are ineffective or have negative side effects on women, as medications can interact differently with male and female bodies. Not only are women provided with ineffective or dangerous medication, but they are also often misdiagnosed. Heart attack symptoms appear differently in the female body, while many women wait, on average, 8 years for a diagnose of endometriosis, a debilitating disease that is specific to the female sex.

Attendees considered the ramifications of this book on local government strategies, especially around urban planning for women. A participant highlighted how the planning side of local government is usually male-dominated and recounted occasions where she found herself to be the only woman in the room, an experience that several women on the call were familiar with. Criado Perez provides examples of urban planning that has taken the needs of women into account – such as the Viennese parks – as well as those that don’t. For example, new urban developments in Rio de Janeiro have led to longer work commutes for women, cutting into their unpaid labour time (a key theme throughout the book). This failure to accommodate for women’s needs was exacerbated by the limited number of female voices in the decision-making process, a situation that attendees agreed needs to be rectified in local government more generally – both on a professional and community level. The ignorance around women’s transport habits was also underlined in the book and at the meeting, with women being more likely to ‘trip-chain’, spending a higher proportion of their income on travel (up to $150 a month more than men in New York City). It is hoped that these issues around transport and housing will lessen as more ‘hopper fares’ are introduced and the world turns to remote working post-pandemic, thus reducing the amount of money and time women spend on transport.

Councils, fortunately, do have a certain amount of power around lobbying relevant research groups to ensure that the data is as representative as possible and that the sector is aware of the full impact of policies. To rectify the problems that arise because of the lack of data around women (and other non-white, non-cis people), one attendee proposed collecting more information at a local level, ensuring that more audiences are consulted and not discounted because they are “hard to reach”. An officer in Scotland referenced a successful council strategy that involved inviting a democratically representative group to consult on which of five projects they would like to have funded and suggested using similar methods to glean more information about what less-statistically-understood communities require.

Though the book was generally hailed as informative (albeit depressing), readers acknowledged that some of the points raised could have been viewed through a broader intersectional lens, especially as many data gaps are wider for individuals who fall into more than one category (e.g. a Black woman or Asian man). This problem prevails partly as drives for diversity do not remain top of the agenda, and, as one attendee stated, “Equality Impact Assessments can often become a tick box exercise”, particularly as councils’ capacities are stretched so thin. Consequently, attendees proposed ensuring that the impact of policies on women and BAME people are analysed more regularly in LGIU’s work, in order to provide authorities with a clearer picture of a policy’s benefits or pitfalls.

A key issue discussed was that of devolution and women’s roles. As referenced in Invisible Women, a 2017 report conducted by LGIU and the Fawcett Society found that women are massively underrepresented in local government due to problems around scheduling, childcare and insufficient remuneration. The representation issue has not been resolved by the introduction of combined authorities and metro mayors which again saw white men elected to office. This discrimination looks set to continue with the upcoming publication of the Devolution White Paper in the autumn, which is expected to mostly focus on the economic implications of devolution. Off the back of this discussion, LGIU is hoping to release a report that fully assesses the impact of devolution on gender.

The first meeting of the local government book club was informative, both to LGIU’s future work and as a way of understanding how these data gaps can have devastating repercussions for women, from excess bone fractures due to less funding for sports to algorithm biases, and from access to public toilets to policing women’s tone. The lessons learned from the book are useful when considering recovery and LGIU looks forward to supplementing these ideas in our future work.

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2 thoughts on “Invisible Men: Notes from the local government book club

  1. I’ve ordered a copy of the book just based on this blog. Many of the issues around male-centred design I did know about, but it sounds as if there is lots more that may be new to me, and that I can try to take into account in local government work (housing and regeneration).

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