Are We Doing This to Ourselves?

In the seventh chapter of Do Nothing called “Do We Live to Work?”, Celeste Headlee says that, “The question for me was not whether people enjoyed their work, but whether they needed it.” She then explores the idea from western culture that work is its own reward and that more is better, making people happier. She reviews history and research. Her conclusion?

It’s not the emphasis on hard work that’s toxic, but the obsession with it. We now live in a culture in which we are not happy being and only satisfied when we’re doing.

Chapter 7, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One study she cited was of how some companies are seeing more productivity when they reduce hours. She tested this for herself. For a full month, she worked only when she felt most energetic and productive, stopping when her focus dropped or she became restless. During this time she kept close track of how many hours she worked and how much she accomplished. She found that she only worked about four hours a day while achieving more than she had in the previous month. “The bottom line is that work is not always good and healthy.”

Toward the end of the chapter, she declares that, “One of the tragic consequences of rising smartphone usage is the death of boredom.” With less leisure, we have less time to daydream and ponder. We truly don’t have room for this with the constant entertainment available to us in our pockets. And research has shown that, like sleep, we also need space in our waking hours to reflect on and review our lives. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this increases our productivity.

Next up in chapter eight “Universal Human Nature”, the author explores what is common to all humans. What about life is common to all of us, and how does this inform her exploration of work and leisure? “[W]hat is a natural environment for humankind? How much productivity is healthy, and at what point does the pursuit of productivity become toxic?”

Language turns out to be one of these core traits of humankind. All humans speak. And all humans are social, living in community with each other. Its how we survived and have thrived as a species. And speech is part of what connects us. In fact our brainwaves sync up with those of someone speaking to us, even when that speech is recorded. So, how much are we losing of our humanity when we move so much of our interactions from speech to text?

I’d imagine that part of the reason we are wasting our time at work and putting in long, unnecessary hours is that we are neglecting to use our voices. In replacing phone calls with email and texts, we are not taking advantage of our own evolutionary inheritance….

You receive information from the sound of a voice that cannot be transmitted in an email attachment. The email may feel more efficient and easier because you don’t have to deal with the other person when you’re writing it, but the efficiency is mostly an illusion.

Chapter 8, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

At the end of the chapter, she summarizes the inherent human needs that seem “to be consistent across all cultures and all generations.” These are:

  • social skills and language
  • a need to belong that fosters empathy
  • rule-making
  • music
  • play

And we can literally make ourselves sick by ignoring these needs with the increased isolation from our obsession with work and our digital existence. Perhaps this is what we are seeing today with increased cases of anxiety and depression.

So, “Is Tech to Blame?” asks Headlee in chapter 9. But technology isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom. The author herself tried three weeks of analog life to find more time for leisure and a break from feeling overwhelmed. It didn’t work. Her addiction to work was still there. Instead, we need to learn to manage our technology rather than let it rule us.

This is incredibly challenging. In part, this is because the technologists are using psychology against us. They make these tools as addictive and exciting as they can. In fact, they purposefully mine the same features that keep people coming back to slot machines in Vegas. And all that interruption isn’t good for our brains and productivity, as we learned before. Feeling uncertain about all this? Consider the fact that many of the leaders of the companies making these tools won’t let their own kids use them. “Would you eat a meal that the chef wouldn’t serve to his own family?”

As she winds down this final chapter describing the problem, the author points not to the technology of today as the ultimate culprit but to history.

But none of this—the addictive apps and the fear of missing out—would be quite as successful were it not for the existing emphasis on productivity and efficiency that started dominating lives in the nineteenth century….

When you’re looking for something to blame for our current state of stress and anxiety and social isolation, you can start with tech, but you have to end in the workplace. The office is where the dysfunction began, not the internet.

Chapter 9, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

The rest of the book covers some of the authors prescriptions on how to overcome this dysfunction. I’ll pick up there in my next post.

You Can’t Be Efficient with People

In Celeste Headlee’s new book Do Nothing, chapter 4, Time Becomes Money she writes:

In the end, it all comes down to time: our relationship with it, our understanding of it, the value we put on it. Before the industrial age, time was measured in days or seasons. However, when workers began punching in and out of work, our understanding of time changed, as did our enjoyment of our time off.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

As time has become viewed as a commodity to use efficiently, we’ve become more and more impatient and busier and busier. Why should I just sit here? I could be earning more money. But that begs the questions, To what end? Yes, more money is needed when we are struggling to provide for the necessities of life. But once we are comfortable and can provide for ourselves and our loved ones, why do we keep trading our time for more money? The truth is that we aren’t, working more hours, that is.

Because we value time more, we tend to think if it as scarce even when it is not. Most workers are clocking fewer hours than they did ten to twenty years ago. But we feel like we are working more because of the increased value on time. And the challenging part of all this is that despite not working more hours, the stress we feel as a result is very real and affecting our health. “Regardless of how much people are actually working, the stress these people feel is very real and should be taken seriously.”

Because of the stress and the blurring of lines between work and personal life, we have begun to experience “polluted time”. “This is a phenomenon caused by having to handle work duties during off-hours, being on call, or even having to think carefully about work issues or problem-solving while technically not on the job.”

This is in part due to the rise of flex work, where workers often don’t know what their schedule will be for the week until just before it begins. And sometimes their work hours are cut short and they are sent home because of slow business. And other workers are expected to be essentially “on call” ready to respond at a moment to emails and texts from their boss. This pollutes their time, and they never have any real time “off”. “With work intruding on our home life and home life encroaching on work hours, many people now never have a sense of being completely separate from their jobs.”

Despite the growing prevalence of unlimited vacation time, most Americans don’t even take two weeks of vacation in a year. They feel like they can’t or they will fall behind, becoming less productive.

Here’s the irony: Staying on the job may well be impeding your career advancement. It accomplishes the opposite of what’s intended. Even though Americans say they’re afraid to take time off because they may be punished, research shows that people who take at least eleven days of vacation are more likely to get a raise than people who take ten days or less.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Another big reason for not taking a break is the American myth that “hard work, on its own, is the key to success.” Also contributing to this blurring of the lines between work and the personal is the furnishings of our offices. We make them feel like living spaces with fully appointed kitchens and lounges. “While it’s important to create an environment that’s safe, comfortable, and supportive of creative thinking, it’s also crucial that there be a clear distinction between being on the clock and off.”

Chapter 5, Work Comes Home, starts with a discussion of “quality time” and the phenomenon of “latchkey kids” in the 1980s. Due to both parents working and the kids being home alone, it was thought at the time that this could be overcome by spending “quality time” with the children. While nothing beats quantity when it comes to time with children, quality time was an especially challenging concept because we ended up treating it like we did work. Turns out children don’t respond particularly well to being managed in a time efficient way. Go figure.

She then goes on to show that even when we try to apply efficiency in what seems a logical way, it doesn’t all work out the way it was intended. One example of this is the rise of students taking notes on their laptops. Sure, this means that students can essentially take down every word the teacher says. But are they learning? Studies show that taking notes by hand, where the student must summarize points, leads to better retention. “We strive to achieve peak productivity but forget that it’s taking us further from our ultimate goal—learning.”

And we are beating this “time efficiency” into our children at younger and younger ages. Many parents cram their schedule so full of activities for their children that the children sometimes ask to just stay home. This doesn’t always go over so well with the parents. Many children today have never played a pick up basketball game or played an unorganized (by adults) game of baseball with their friends. And the parents don’t fare much better. They have less time for hobbies. Or worse, these activities are seen as a waste of time.

Speed and efficiency are, by their nature, antithetical to introspection and intimacy.

Chapter 5, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One of the most valued skills today seems to multitasking. This is despite the fact that there is no such thing, at least for human beings. It can more accurately be called task-switching, and it has a high cost.

Neuroscience has taught us that not only is multitasking not efficient, it is bad for us. The more we try to do it, the poorer at it we actually get.

And here’s the worst news of all: “Heavy multitaskers” have the same trouble sorting through information and organizing their thoughts even when they aren’t multitasking.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Headlee points out that we often think women are good multitaskers, but they aren’t. They’re just better at it than men, but only at cognitively simple tasks. For complex tasks, it just doesn’t work.

… when it comes to more complex tasks, including most of the things we do while on the job, there’s no evidence that women are better at multitasking, and there’s plenty of evidence that trying to do it is really terrible for your brain.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Multitasking causes stress because it is bad for us. And women tend to do more of than men, and not just because they are “better” at it. They have more to manage. Despite the many changes in men and women sharing work at home, women still do the majority of the work around the house. “Research shows that when men watch their children, they often end up doing the more enjoyable activities, like taking kids to soccer games, while mothers tend to do more of the cleaning, cooking, and logistical management.”

Another byproduct of bringing efficiency to child raising was the greater involvement of parents, sometimes called helicopter parenting. Spending more time with your kids is better if you want to make sure they become healthy and successful adults, right? It turns out that when you do too much for your kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. This may be what has led to unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression among to today’s youth. “Overparenting may feel like a good use of time, but it does not ensure success for your child. Most of the time, it does the opposite.”

And the situation gets worse for mothers. Mothers are less likely to get hired than fathers or childless women. They also make less money. The real kick in the teeth is that fathers are seen as more competent than mothers. So mothers are doing more work and being paid less and being seen as less capable while the exact opposite may be true.

One reaction to all the busyness is to avoid the self-care we all need. After all, we simply don’t have time for it. So instead of socializing, we tend to scroll through social media for a quick break. Turns out this is not refreshing. “Going to the coffee shop and chatting with friends for a couple hours will leave you feeling refreshed and upbeat; the time you spend surfing the web will exhaust your brain and deplete your resources.” Paradoxically, we need to take time out to refresh in order to be our most productive.

More to come in my next post.

Uncovering the Cult of Busy

The longer I’ve worked, the more I have noticed that my greatest productivity comes from the spaces between my busy times. Those times when my mind is free to consider other ideas or none at all. Sometimes inspiration on a problem hits when I least expect it, and so now I have come to expect it. The best of example of this in my experience comes from when I was programming for a living.

During those years, it was not unusual for me to find myself stuck on how to accomplish a particular task when I was programming. I would try different ways to tackle it. I researched on the internet to see what others in similar situation had done. Still, sometimes I stayed stuck. But I would not give up. I stuck with it, missing dinner with my family before reluctantly giving up and going to bed.

The next morning while I was showering or shaving, I almost always had some sort of inspiration, something to try or a new direction. Slowly, I started to recognize this and stopped spending so long down those blind alleys. I’d move along to some other task, leaving that stuck one unresolved, confident that a new idea would present itself. And it always has.

Ever since then, I’ve been interested in this idea. I look for it in articles and books. One book I started reading recently goes in depth into this idea. It is called Doing Nothing by Celeste Headlee. This is a well-researched book about the benefits of leisure and idleness as well as the history of how we got to the current cult of busyness.

In the Introduction she explains a bit about how she thinks about leisure and idleness and their effects.

I’d like to inspire a new consideration of leisure and a new appreciation for idleness. Idleness in this sense does not mean inactivity, but instead nonproductive activity. “Leisureliness,” says Daniel Dustin of the University of Utah, “refers to a pace of life that is not governed by the clock. It tends to run counter to the notions of economic efficiency, economies of scale, mass production, etc. Yet leisureliness to me suggests slowing down and milking life for all it is worth.” That’s the kind of leisure I hope we can all make time for. It’s what humans were meant to enjoy and what we need in order to function at our highest levels.

Introduction, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In the first chapter, Mind the Gap, the author describes a train ride she took around the country. It was a disconnected, slow journey, one she found difficult and challenging at first. But by the end, she came to appreciate the benefits she experienced. “The idea is not that everything should be slower, but that not everything needs to be fast.”

The sense that something could go wrong at any time, or that something urgent would arise that might require my immediate attention, was gone. I was no longer in fight-or-flight mode. Breaking away from the relentless pace of connected life felt uncomfortable at first, but as I ended my trip, I dreaded joining that joyless parade again.

Chapter 1, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Interestingly, until about 250 years ago, we didn’t have this hurried sense and need to be always on and always doing. In the author’s words, “Everything we think we know about work and efficiency and leisure is relatively recent and very possibly wrong.”

In chapter two, It Starts with a Steam Engine, the author shows that prior to the Industrial Revolution humans just didn’t work that many hours. Without electricity, the day only lasted as long as the sun was up. Most workers owned their tools and were paid by the project. They worked as much as you could physically and enough to support your needs. Beyond this, there wasn’t much point. “Before the nineteenth century, people worked an average of six to eight hours a day and enjoyed dozens of days off throughout the year.”

But with the rise of factories, people began to move to cities where they were no longer in control of their tools. These were provided by the employer, and one employee could replace nearly any other. Work became priced by the hour and the world of busyness began. “Quite suddenly, people were expected to work punishing hours with no time off.”

Interestingly, all these extra hours turn out not to be all that productive.

Yet we’ve known for more than a hundred years that long hours of toil don’t actually increase productivity. We have data on this going back to the 1800s—at the time when unions forced employers to cut hours, factory owners were surprised to find that productivity increased while accidents decreased. Overwork was counterproductive in the days of the sweatshop, and research shows it still is, even in the age of the knowledge worker.

Chapter 2, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In chapter three, Work Ethic, the author shows that the work ethic we have today is due to both a religious and an economic myth.

This belief in hard work as a virtue and a life philosophy started on the door of a church in Germany. Over the course of a couple hundred years, the religious notion that working long and hard makes you deserving while taking time off makes you lazy was adopted as an economic policy, a way to motivate employees and get the most out of them.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

We stopped taking the time to enjoy pastimes and hobbies. These were a waste of time. We no longer pass time, we spend it. And we need to be careful how we spend it lest we be seen as lazy.

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 people would only work fifteen hours a week. That would be enough to support all. We would have unprecedented time for leisure. The problem would be what to do with all that extra time. But that hasn’t happened. Why?

CEO pay has grown out of all relation to that of workers, showing that the benefits of the increased efficiency that Keynes rightly predicted have not been evenly distributed. “The profits that Keynes thought would fund a more leisurely lifestyle for all have mostly gone to a tiny percentage of the population.”

We marvel at the luxury enjoyed by English dukes and German barons of bygone eras, but the top earners now live more lavishly than the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. The only difference is the income gap is wider today between CEOs and their workers than it was between the fictional Earl of Grantham and his valet.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I’ll continue my review in my next post.

Kindness Matters

I watched the first season of Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix when it came out. There was a lot of controversy when the show was first released. I recently noticed that it is in its fourth season and re-watched the first. Lot’s of people were unhappy about the way it portrayed suicide and how graphic it was. I became curious about the book it is based on. When I looked it up on Goodreads, I found similar expressions of outrage and concern. Naturally, I decided to read the book for myself.

Both the book and the show are about a teenage girl who kills herself. Before she does, she leaves a set of cassette tapes explaining the thirteen reasons why she did it. Each of these reasons corresponds to a person, and she describes how each of them contributed to her feeling of hopelessness and that life was pointless.

I found two main criticisms of this book, and while they are legitimate, they are not enough to overcome the importance and power of the underlying theme of the story. The first is that the main character Hannah is simply not sympathetic. She is a whiny, self-absorbed teen that as a reader it is hard to root for. While I can understand this criticism, I don’t completely agree with it. Most of us were at least a little self-absorbed as teenagers while we attempted to figure out ourselves and our place in the world. That still doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the story or the message underlying it.

The second criticism is that it glorifies suicide by giving such a strong and sympathetic voice to someone who killed themselves. This has some basis in fact. We get to know Hannah and see how she suffers. And she gets to have her story told. She gets heard, and the way she gets heard is by killing herself.

Most suicides don’t leave any kind of note let alone a set of tapes. But the author uses the tapes to show how every little touch point in Hannah’s life was an opportunity for someone to see her as an individual and connect. Anyone at one of those touch points could have made the difference and gotten Hannah the help she needed. The tapes are a literary tool to explore each of these interactions, small to horrifying, that give the reader a chance to see that.

Talking about suicide is essential to addressing it. It’s important for everyone to realize how they touch the lives of others everyday, how we each have an opportunity to notice others and be a bright spot in their day. If this book causes people to ask questions and become more alert to how they treat those around them, so much the better.

Seeing the “Other”

As soon as I finished Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, I went to my library’s web site to borrow and start reading the sequel Starsight immediately. It does not disappoint. And where the first book was kind of like Top Gun in space, this followup is more of a spy thriller in space. Warning: casual spoilers ahead. I will end up revealing things you won’t know if you haven’t read both books, but nothing that I think will completely ruin your experience should you decide to read them.

For me, the beauty of this book can be summed up in the pseudo word “sonder”. It is defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The main character, Spensa, goes on a mission as an undercover spy to discover a way to save her people. In the process, she interacts with a number of different races of aliens who are part of the intergalactic society known as the Superiority. As humans have been kept captive on her world for centuries, she sees all these races as her enemies to be overcome and defeated. But in the process of her spy work, she engages closely with a number of them, even becoming friendly with some. She starts to experience a form of sonder realizing that not all of these people are her enemies, not even all in the Superiority government.

Oh, Saints and stars. I couldn’t keep up the warrior act any longer. These weren’t my enemies. Some parts of the Superiority were, of course, but these people…they were just people. Mrs. Chamwit probably wasn’t a spy, but was instead really just a kindly housekeeper who wanted to see me fed. And Morriumur…they just wanted to be a pilot.

Chapter 28, Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

This is what I love about science fiction. In the midst of a page-turning story, I found an exploration of the very same challenges we find in our daily lives. And these experiences sometimes help me to see and have experiences wholly different from mine. A whole different perspective opens up.

This feels particularly important to me in our current polarized times. It is easy to see others who don’t think like me, as enemies or “others”. But they are all the main characters in their own lives with their own struggles and triumphs. And I believe that remembering this on a regular basis will help bring the world closer together. We won’t all agree, but I hope that by seeing the “other” as someone just like us trying to figure it all out, we can have some compassion and patience. And with that, we may even find ourselves not so far apart as we initially thought.

An End to Invisible Women

The last part of Invisible Women (Part VI, When It Goes Wrong), starts with chapter 15, Who Will Rebuild. It focuses on what happens after natural disasters and wars. Mostly, women are excluded from these efforts as those charged with recovery are almost exclusively men. These men come up with a range of excuses for delaying or ignoring women’s concerns, such as a need to rebuild the economy or focus on saving lives.

But the truth is, these excuses won’t wash. The real reason we exclude women is because we see the rights of 50% of the population as a minority interest.

Chapter 15, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

But these excuses are nonsense anyway. The author shows how involving women actually creates better outcomes for men and women. Once again, the main obstacle is the gender data gap and “closing the gender data gap is better for everyone.”

The final chapter of the book is It’s Not the Disaster that Kills You. When things go wrong, it’s women who are disproportionately affected. Because the world is designed for men, steps taken to mitigate disasters often don’t work for women. Oftentimes culture is a further barrier.

When women do manage to escape violence and disaster, things don’t get better for them as refugees. Once again, the human default is male. One stark example is the fact that free condoms are made available in UK homeless shelters but the same is not true of menstrual products. This is often true for global refugees despite the fact that women make be up to 70% of such populations. Here is a basic human need being ignored that can lead to disease such as urinary tract infections from the use of unhygienic products. As the author states, “getting to grips with the reality that gender-neutral does not automatically mean gender-equal would be an important start.”

My favorite chapter of this book is the Afterword. The author summarize succinctly much of what she has described throughout the book, focusing on the need to close the gender data gap.

… the case for closing the gender data gap extends beyond women’s rights. Closing the data gap, as we’ve seen from the impact women have in politics, in peace talks, in design and urban planning, is good for everyone….

When we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge we lose out on potentially transformative insights.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

She covers three themes throughout the book and summarizes them as:

  • The female body and its invisibility
  • Male sexual violence against women, “how we don’t measure it, don’t design our world to account for it, and in so doing, allow it to limit women’s liberty.”
  • Unpaid care work , “… perhaps the most significant in terms of its impact on women’s lives worldwide”

And the beginning of solving these issues is to measure them by collecting the data to close the gender data gap.

Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this discrimination. Or really, we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on. It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

And there are excuses galore. But how can any of them legitimate the exclusion and ignoring of half the world’s population? It is unconscionable. And with the fact that more and more of our world is controlled and governed by algorithms and the data fed to them, the need for accurate data that includes women is even more urgent.

… when you’re missing out half the global population in the numbers you feed your statistical algorithms, what you’re actually creating is just a big mess.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

I’ll conclude with the author’s call for better inclusion of women. As I said in an earlier post, these are our mothers, sisters, and wives. It’s time we stopped ignoring them, excluding them, and oppressing them.

There is a better way. And it’s a pretty simple one: we must increase female representation in all spheres of life…..

The solution to the sex and gender data gap is clear: we have to close the female representation gap.

Afterword, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Women in Public Life

Part V of Invisible Women is titled “Public Life”, and chapter 12, A Costless Resource covers the genesis of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as well as how and why women were largely left out of its calculation. Plainly put, “GDP has a woman problem.”

To begin with, GDP is not a very precise figure. It is a combination of a lot of other measures that are themselves largely imprecise. The author quotes Diane Coyle, a professor of economics at Manchester University, when she writes

When you see headlines proclaiming that ‘GDP went up 0.3% this quarter’, she cautions, you should remember that that 0.3% ‘is dwarfed by the amount of uncertainty in the figures’.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

World War II solidified the definition of GDP around the capacity of the economy to wage war. The calculation of unpaid housework was purposely left out as it did not directly affect war fighting efforts. On top of this was the difficulty in measuring it. So it was decided to leave it out.

Like so many of the decisions to exclude women in the interests of simplicity, from architecture to medical research, this conclusion could only be reached in a culture that conceives of men as the default human and women as a niche aberration. To distort a reality you are supposedly trying to measure makes sense only if you don’t see women as essential. It makes sense only if you see women as an added extra, a complicating factor. It doesn’t make sense if you’re talking about half of the human race. It doesn’t make sense if you care about accurate data.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Then after the war, there was a tremendous boom in productivity. Or was there? Since women working at home did not count toward GDP, when they started to do so after the war, their new work showed up as an increase in productivity. But instead of an increase in productivity, it simply started counting women’s previously uncounted contributions since they moved their efforts into industries that were counted toward GDP. As the author puts it, “The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender data gap of all.”

With the advent of the internet and digital collaboration in projects like the Linux operating system and Wikipedia, economists started to rethink their position on including unpaid work in GDP. Why? What changed?

And what’s the difference between cooking a meal in the home and producing software in the home? The former has largely been done by women, and the latter is largely done by men.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Perez spends the latter portion of the chapter discussing what is called “social infrastructure”. She explains

The term infrastructure is generally understood to mean the physical structures that underpin the functioning of a modern society: roads, railways, water pipes, power supplies. It doesn’t tend to include the public services that similarly underpin the functioning of a modern society like child and elder care.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Those public services are social infrastructure. These are things like early childhood education, child care, and elder care. Two studies the author cites “concluded that investing in [early childhood education] had a greater positive impact on long-term economic growth than business subsidies”. But then men aren’t as involved with early childhood education as they are in business, right? But this exclusion isn’t simply ingrained misogyny. Much of it is due to the gender data gap. Without enough data to show the benefits of changes in policy like these, how are we supposed to justify and implement them?

We just need the will to start collecting the data, and then designing our economy around reality rather than a male-biased confection.

Chapter 12, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Chapter 13 is called From Purse to Wallet and covers how public policy often moves money from the hands of women to those of men. The main example of this is jointly filed tax returns. Because of the way most income tax is calculated and the fact that women often make less than their husbands, their smaller income is taxed at a much higher rate. Lack of data is again the main reason for this.

There’s a fairly simple reason why so many tax systems discriminate against women, and that is that we don’t systematically collect data on how tax systems affect them. In other words, it’s because of the gender data gap.

Chapter 13, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

When austerity measures are taken in countries, women are more often the ones to take the hit in income. Theirs is generally lower, so they become the ones to have to take up the unpaid care work that the couple can no longer afford. And this further contributes to the gender pay gap. Perhaps without meaning to, men continue to perpetuate inequality for women simply by being ignorant of the problem. This can be resolved by closing the gender data gap by talking to women and separating study data by sex. Then the issues can become visible.

The final chapter in this part is Women’s Rights are Human Rights. In addition to failing to collect data, the gender data gap is also responsible for “the male dominance of governments around the world.” When women are in government, they have a voice that brings women’s issues to the attention of the public and government in a way that just doesn’t happen in male-dominated legislative bodies.

One of the biggest obstacles to women in government is that many women who aspire to positions in government are simply seen as too ambitious. This is despite the fact that men in similar positions do not face this criticism. Many leveled this criticism toward Hilary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016.

Being the first woman to occupy the most powerful role in the world does take an extraordinary level of ambition. But you could also argue that it’s fairly ambitious for a failed businessman and TV celebrity who has no prior political experience to run for the top political job in the world – and yet ambition is not a dirty word when it comes to Trump.

Chapter 14, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Because she was a woman forging her way into traditionally male territory, it was seen as a norm violation. Such violations turn people off. “There’s a very simple reason that a powerful woman is experienced as a norm violation: it’s because of the gender data gap.”

Because there are no or few women in government, we don’t expect them there. This creates a very challenging bind for women. Some are going to need to brave the name-calling and negative attention it will take to get more women into government. Only then will it start to feel more normal to have women there, only then will it no longer seem a norm violation. An ambitious woman will then be acceptable and perhaps even common.

What seems a little crazy is how a male-dominated world can feel normal, even to women, making male-default thinking the “norm” while ignoring half the population. When those making the rules are all men, maleness is the norm.

If the majority of people in power are men – and they are – the majority of people in power just don’t see it. Male bias just looks like common sense to them. But ‘common sense’ is in fact a product of the gender data gap….

Like a male-dominated product-development team, a male-dominated legislature will … suffer from a gender data gap that will lead it to serve its female citizens inadequately. And most of the world’s governments are male-dominated.

Chapter 14, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Much of this chapter outlines some practical ways to address this imbalance alongside how these methods have been and are being applied in countries around the world. There are ways to level the playing field to get the level of representation of women in government closer to that of the population as a whole.

One challenge once women are part of legislatures and governments is that they are treated differently, by men and women. The best example of this may be that women are interrupted far more than men. The biggest issue here is that women are penalized if they interrupt while for men this behavior is perceived as normal and acceptable. Many governmental bodies have addressed this by allocating time for everyone to speak and not allowing any interruptions. The example from the book of where this was used is in the writers room of the FX TV drama The Shield where it made the entire team more effective.

Simply put, government is not setup to serve men and women equally. As the author says toward the end of this chapter, “We have to stop wilfully closing our eyes to the positive discrimination that currently works in favour of men.”

How Can Women Be So Invisible?

As I continue to read Invisible Women, I find myself more and more upset, just as the author is very upset by what she is revealing. And I also find myself more and more drawn in; the writing seems better and the statistics are becoming part of what makes the book so good. I fear that my own male prejudice was showing in my previous post about this book. And that is kind of the point of this book.

The author’s hypothesis (already proven beyond the shadow of a doubt after the first two chapters) is that the world and nearly everything in it suffers from a male-centered bias. The standard human anything is considered male. One example from the book — anatomy and female anatomy. When one studies anatomy, the vast majority of the images are of male bodies, even when the presence of a penis is not required to illustrate that particular part of the anatomy. Female is treated as an afterthought, if it is considered at all. One might be tempted to think this is no big deal; the differences are minor or a matter of scale. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. And this book shows over and over again just how much this is so.

There is a myth in the United States that life, and business in particular, is a meritocracy. That this is simply not so, is clear by how disproportionate representation is across a great many sectors of society. For example, if life were a meritocracy, for the most part, the percentages of women in orchestras would be close to matching that of the population in general. And until blind auditions were instituted in 1970s, there were close to zero women in orchestras. In chapter 4, The Myth of Meritocracy, the author shows that about a decade after this simple change, women filled approximately half of the chairs in the New York Philharmonic. Not a meritocracy after all.

This myth is most obvious in the tech world. And the author here asks the very important question, Are women really less capable or are they taught to see themselves as less capable? After all, until age five, boys and girls

draw roughly equal percentages of male and female scientists, averaged out across boys and girls. By the time children are seven or eight, male scientists significantly outnumber female scientists. By the age of fourteen, children are drawing four times as many male scientists as female scientists.

Chapter 4, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

It seems that girls are taught subtly that they are not what scientists and computer programmers look like. We need to do something about this.

In Chapter 5, The Henry Higgins Effect (Why can’t a woman be more like a man?), the author revisits much of what Sheryl Sandberg brought out in her bestseller Lean In about the gender inequity in business. Much of this is simply because men do not have the same experiences as women, so it never even enters the thought of (male) leadership that there should be pregnancy parking, for instance. Additionally, we have different expectations of men and women, so while a man showing conviction and confidence is perceived as a leader, a woman expressing those same qualities is labeled bossy, or worse, a bitch. And if women fit the stereotype of nurturing and supportive, they are overlooked. The playing field is far from even. Pretending it is a meritocracy when there isn’t even a common scoresheet to measure that merit, is proof that isn’t a meritocracy.

In chapter 6, Being Worth Less Than a Shoe, the author explores poorly regulated industries that pose undue dangers to and unfair treatment of the disproportionate number of women who work in them.

In 2015 the New York Times reported the story of manicurist Qing Lin, forty-seven, who splashed some nail-polish remover on a customer’s patent Prada sandals. ‘When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay’, and Lin was fired. ‘I am worth less than a shoe,’ she said. Lin’s story appeared in a New York Times investigation of nail salons which revealed ‘all manner of humiliation’ suffered by workers, including constant video monitoring by owners, verbal, and even physical abuse. Lawsuits filed in New York courts include allegations of sixty-six-hour weeks at $1.50 an hour and no pay at all on slow days in a salon that charged manicurists for drinking the water.

Chapter 6, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

And because women do the majority of the unpaid care work around the world, many of these women find part-time work, which often is in these precarious situations with little to no protection. It’s time we learn to value the contributions of women in the same way we do those of men.

A recurring theme throughout the book is what the author calls “the gender data gap”. Most studies conducted focus exclusively or primarily on men. Those that include a significant number of women often don’t disaggregate the data by sex. So we often have little to no data on how these studies affect men and women differently. And there is often a great deal of difference, when the data is disaggregated. This fact is front and center when the author covers women in agriculture in chapter 7, The Plough Hypothesis.

In this chapter she covers in great depth the disaster of design and distribution that surrounds the history of “clean” stoves in the developing world.

The trouble with traditional stoves is that they give off extremely toxic fumes. A woman cooking on a traditional stove in an unventilated room is exposed to the equivalent of more than a hundred cigarettes a day.

Chapter 7, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

The clean stove was developed to solve this problem at a low cost. The fact that they weren’t universally accepted and adopted was blamed on the ignorance of women, saying that they needed to be “educated” in proper stove usage. But the real issues included:

  • the stoves increased cooking time and required more attending
  • the stoves required more maintenance
  • women’s lack of purchasing authority

Simply talking to the women before designing the stove would have prevented many of the problems. Indeed, one manufacturer did survey women and the results were very different.

Based on their findings they set about fixing the stove technology to fit the women. Realising that ‘a single HEC stove cannot possibly replace all of these traditional stoves’, the researchers concluded that ‘significant fuelwood reductions can only be achieved with locally customizable solutions in different parts of the world’. The result of their data-led design was the mewar angithi (MA), a simple metal device that ‘was engineered to be placed in a traditional chulha in order to provide the same airflow mechanism in the traditional chulha as occurs in the HEC stoves’.

Chapter 7, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

The author covers another design issue in chapter 8, One-Size-Fits-Men. This is the idea that gender neutral products work equally well for men and women. Too often, that is simply not the case.

The standard width of the keyboard keys on a piano seems to be gender neutral. But because men have larger average hand size than women, there is a disproportionate number of male virtuoso piano players. Despite the creation of a piano keyboard with narrower keys, most manufacturers don’t offer it for sale. The adherence to the standard design is hard to overturn, even though it would benefit both women and men with smaller hands. And the chapter goes on to show similar situations with other product designs, such as smartphones, voice-recognition software, and artificial intelligence.

In chapter 9, A Sea of Dudes, Perez addresses the male bias in technology and venture capital. Women are half of the world’s population. Yet when product ideas that serve women (breast pumps and menstrual tracking apps, for instance) are presented for funding, the male-dominated VC firms nearly universally pass. The only hope these women often have is of finding a woman on these boards.

Women struggle to be taken seriously in the tech world because they don’t fit the sterotype.

It all feels rather catch-22ish. In a field where women are at a disadvantage specifically because they are women (and therefore can’t hope to fit a stereotypically male ‘pattern’), data will be particularly crucial for female entrepreneurs. And yet it’s the female entrepreneurs who are less likely to have it, because they are more likely to be trying to make products for women. For whom we lack data.

Chapter 9, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Once again, the gender data gap rears its ugly head. And this leads to situations like this, when Apple completely forgot about at least 50% of their users.

When Apple launched their AI, Siri, she (ironically) could find prostitutes and Viagra suppliers, but not abortion providers.17 Siri could help you if you’d had a heart attack, but if you told her you’d been raped, she replied ‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.’18 These are basic errors that surely would have been caught by a team with enough women on it – that is, by a team without a gender data gap.

Chapter 9, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Perhaps the most maddening section for me thus far was Part IV: Going to the Doctor. The first chapter in this part (chapter 10, The Drugs Don’t Work), covers how women’s biology differs from men and, because of this, drugs don’t work for women the same way they do for men.

Drug trials don’t often account for the differences between women and men, so the dosage and effects of drugs are often based on a 70kg man, not particularly accurate for all men, but potentially fatal for women. And there doesn’t seem to be much happening to address this. Many countries require drug trials to include women and even disaggregate the data when they fund these trials. Despite these mandates, they are not always followed. As I said in my title to this post, How can women (half the world’s population) be so invisible? It’s simply maddening!

I most recently finished reading chapter 11, Yentl Syndrome. This chapter focuses on how medicine and medical research treats men and women the same despite their differing biologies. The most extreme example of this is the fact that even though the typical image of a person having a heart attack is a middle aged man clutching his chest or left arm, women have more heart attacks than men. And that isn’t even the worst part. Their symptoms of heart attack are completely different from men’s!

Women (particularly young women) may in fact present without any chest pain at all, but rather with stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea and fatigue.

Chapter 11, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

As with drug treatments in general, the treatments for cardiovascular disease are male-biased as “sex differences have not generally been integrated either into ‘received medical wisdom’ or even clinical guidelines.” Similar issues arise with the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis, ADHD, and Asperger’s. This leaves women undiagnosed, suffering, and in danger for their lives. Why is this okay?

As I said at the beginning of this longer than usual post, I have come to share the author’s concern and sharp attitude about the nonchalance surrounding how half of the world’s population is being poorly served or ignored. Surely our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters deserve better than this. I look forward to learning more about how we can address these issues as I continue to read.

A Fantastic Read

Recently I was texting with my son. We were sharing what we like to read. He asked me if I was familiar with Brandon Sanderson. I told him the name sounded familiar but that I had never read anything by him. For the most part, he is an author of fantasy. Until recently, I haven’t cared much for fantasy. My son knows that, so he mentioned there is a logic to the magic in his books. But more than anything, he writes good characters. I was sold. For me, great characters almost make the story. It is hard to write people the reader cares about without putting them in a good story.

So I asked my son to recommend a good starting place to read some Brandon Sanderson. He recommended a fantasy story but then remembered a science fiction novel that he had written, the first of a series. I am a big sci fi fan, not mindless pulp, but the kind that explores ideas and people struggling with those ideas. My son recommended Skyward. I looked it up on Goodreads, read the description, and immediately got the ebook from my library and started reading. I just finished it. Wow!

When I started reading it, I texted by son to say that it felt like Top Gun in space. The story is about a young girl who wants to be a pilot but has all sorts of obstacles in her way. And the characters! I loved them. Even the ones I didn’t like were real enough that I cared about them. I wanted to know more about these people. Like all great fiction, I felt like I had found new friends. And for a week, I kept coming back to those friends as much as I could.

Whenever I am reading a book, I often find areas that fall flat to me, places where I need to reread a passage to understand what it said. That never happened in this book. In fact, I couldn’t find anything that I didn’t like about this book. And now that I have finished it, I can’t wait to start reading the sequel — Starsight. In fact, I think I’ll go start now. Happy reading!

An Abundance of Stats

When I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, I was excited. It was named the best business book of 2020 by McKinsey & Company. As I read the introduction, I became even more interested to learn what I wasn’t seeing about how women are being discriminated against in the name of neutral gender policies. And the book does not disappoint on the facts and illustrations. Unfortunately for me, the book bogs down a bit with the statistics, so it is taking me longer to read than I anticipated. I’ve read three chapters so far, and it has felt like a long sheet of statistics with prose holding them together. That makes it sound like I don’t like the book. I do. However, it could be written in a more engaging manner. Regardless, the knowledge it shares and the awakening it is stirring within me is worth the time invested so far.

Chapter 1 is entitled Can Snow-Clearing Be Sexist? It shows how prioritizing the largest roads is implicitly male biased. Most women drive less than men, take more public transportation, and walk much more. In one country (I don’t recall which), when they prioritized the smaller roads and sidewalks, municipal costs actually went down. Many more accidents happen on the smaller roads and sidewalks when they are not cleared. This illustrates how a more holistic view of resources not only is more women-friendly — it also saves money.

Chapter 2 is called Gender Neutral with Urinals. This centers around the idea of how simply making all restrooms in a building “gender neutral” works against women. Men end up using all the bathrooms while women tend to use exclusively the previously ladies-only restrooms. This is because the men’s rooms lack the female friendly features they need, such as a place to dispose of feminine hygiene products. Also, bathrooms are traditionally allocated the same square footage to men’s and women’s rooms. However, due to the smaller footprint of urinals, more men can be served by the same sized bathroom than women. In order to serve men and women equally, women’s rooms need to be allocated more space. I never knew or even considered this. Very informative and enlightening!

Chapter 3 is The Long Friday and highlights the differences in men’s and women’s responsibilities in caring for others and how this affects women’s careers negatively. This one came as no surprise, but the detailed statistics from around the world are eye-opening. There are some places making progress but many more that aren’t. There is a much room for the world to get better at this.

While I might like the book to be a bit more narrative, the content is fascinating and informative. I can see already how it is changing my view of the world and the problems in it. I expect I will learn even more as I continue to read and bring this knowledge to my personal and work lives.