Photo of a large protest of women in the streets, many holding protest signs.
Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

Books for Product Managers #2 — Invisible Women

Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Saeed Khan
6 min readSep 12

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NOTE: This is Book #2 in my list of recommended books for Product Managers. Book #1 is Moneyball by Michael Lewis. You can read my post on that book here.

The second book on my list of recommended books for Product Managers is one that is not usually mentioned in lists of books to read for PMs, but should be essential reading for anyone working in tech, not just Product Managers.

Not only is each chapter full of data and insights, but the back stories help elucidate the world we live in, in ways that we don’t see or hear about. Overall, highly recommended.

book jacked of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. Jacked show repeated black icon of men interleaved with very faint light grew icon of women. This cleverly, symbolically represents the theme and title of the book incredibly well.
Invisible Women book jacket

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

I first heard about Invisible Women during an interview Criado Perez gave on the radio. As a husband and father of daughters, I was well aware of, and sensitive to, the many biases they faced in society.

But, as a product person and data geek, the subtitle of the book — Data Bias in a World Designed for Men — further caught my attention. I ordered it that day.

Criado Perez is an award winning author, journalist and activist in the UK. The book builds on her work as an advocate for women and making their lives and struggles visible to the greater society, especially to those who hold the reins of power, who are usually men.

The book is written in 6 sections with 16 separate chapters, each detailing different examples of bias against women in society.

The sections of the book are:

  • Daily Life
  • The Workplace
  • Design
  • Going to the Doctor
  • Public Life
  • When it Goes Wrong

Anyone interested in a book circle?

NOTE: I would love to run a book circle with this book. i.e. get a small group of people, read one chapter every week or two, and then meet online to discuss what was learned, share insights etc. that could be applied to Product activities. I think it would be really educational. If you’re interested, hit me up on Linkedin and let’s put something together.

Photo by Torbjørn Helgesen on Unsplash

Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist? Hint: Yes

For example, the very first chapter in Daily Life, entitled “Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist?” details how the town of Karlsloga Sweden, identified that their snow clearing policy of starting with main roads first and then working their way to smaller residential roads had a specifically negative impact on women and caused them injuries at a greater rate than men.

Why?

Because, even in Sweden, a very progressive nation, many more women stay at home to raise children than men, drop them off at school before going to work, go shopping or help family members, particularly the elderly with chores or going to the doctor etc.

While the men commute to work on cleared roads, the women have to move about on unplowed sidewalks, accessing transit etc, often causing them to slip and get injured.

In fact, what the hospital admission data in northern Sweden showed — they’d been collecting it since 1985 — was that pedestrians were injured THREE TIMES more often than motorists on slippery or icy conditions; and the majority of those pedestrians were women!

And when the Karlsloga city council addressed this by clearing residential streets first, reasoning that it’s easier for cars to move through snow than pedestrians or people on bikes or wheelchairs, injuries to pedestrians dropped significantly, thus REDUCING costs at hospitals to treat them.

This was true, not only in Karlsloga, but in other Swedish towns and regions as well.

This is but one of many stories recounted in the book, all of which are eye opening and instructive.

Photo by Michael Jin on Unsplash

Crash Test Dummies Can Kill

In another chapter, entitled A Sea of Dudes, Criado Perez digs into how auto makers have traditionally tested cars for safety and injury prevention during crashes. She starts though by citing statistics that show that women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to be killed in automobile accidents. And this is when researchers account for differences in height, weight, seat-belt usage and crash intensity.

Conventional thinking might be that this is because men are stronger or bigger and can sustain greater impacts than women, or conversely, women are more frail than men.

That conventional thinking would be wrong. The reality is that the problem is one of design and assumptions made during design, development and testing.

As you probably are aware, there are a lot of safety standards in cars and certainly cars are much safer today than in previous decades due to various safety systems such as airbags, seats that brace the driver and passengers during impact etc.

Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CEP1710-58.jpg

But, there are details that must be understood. In most safety tests, crash test dummies are used, and until very recently, those dummies were exclusively designed to mimic the MALE body. And the safety systems in the car are designed based on the data collected from tests using those dummies.

See the problem? In short, the testing didn’t account for the physiological differences of men and women, and thus the car interiors — seating position, steering wheel height, design of safety systems etc — were designed to keep men safe. The systems weren’t designed specifically to keep women safe, thus the higher injury and death rate of women vs. men.

What does this teach us about Product Management?

Just think about the crash test dummy story. No one tried to harm women. In fact, car companies and the designers and engineers earnestly test the vehicles to ensure they meet or exceed safety standards. But in some cases, the safety standards themselves don’t differentiate between women and men. So we have bad assumption compounding bad assumption all the way down the line, and no one realizes the problems — the VERY REAL problems — that this caused.

The same was true in the snow clearing in Sweden. No one set out to harm women. It seemed “logical” to start with the main roads and then move to the smaller roads and sidewalks. But again, bad assumption, without looking at the data, led to increased injuries AND costs.

Women are not a minority

Given that women represent 1/2 (or more) of the total population, the fact that so many aspects of our lives are skewed against them should be a cause of concern and reflection.

And this bias against women is so widespread in our societies, then what about biases against other smaller, but equally important populations, such as the disabled (e.g visually impaired) or those with other health issues or limitations that make using your product difficult. Are you being inclusive in your research and design processes?

Takeaways

Here are a few things to take away from this.

  1. Map the assumptions you’re making explicitly and be both diligent and dutiful (I don’t use that word lightly) in understanding how those assumptions can impact the people using your products
  2. Dig deeper into the data you have, or collect data explicitly to see and understand the gaps or biases you have in your research and design.
  3. Ask what harms can come based on assumptions/decisions you are making and to whom, and work to minimize them.
  4. Collect data AFTER your product goes to market to understand which groups (segments, markets, demographic groups etc.) are benefiting and which are not from the use of your products and work to understand why?
  5. Are you seeing any unintentional harms or impediments in certain segments of your customers. Work to understand why and remedy where needed.
  6. When designing, ensure you have an explicit focus on diverse user segments. Don’t just think about “the user”. There’s no such thing. Users are people, and there are many types of people.
  7. Build a culture of inclusion in your companies to ensure that your products always have the widest applicability to the people using your products.

A little feedback please

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d like some feedback on the article to make it better. It should take just 1 minute, but will really be valuable to me. Thanks in advance.

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Saeed Khan

Product Consultant. Contact me for help in building great products, processes and people. http://www.transformationlabs.io