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Book review – Invisible Women

Blind to our blindness

Aled Smith
Aled Smith
Deputy CIO

Why are women in the United Kingdom 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack?  Or 47% more likely to be seriously injured in road traffic accidents?1

By answering these questions, Caroline Criado-Perez reveals we live in a world designed for men – where data bias is the blueprint.

Criado-Perez urges us to consider how data is used or ignored and raises questions about the ubiquity of confirmation bias. For investors, understanding confirmation bias is especially important.

Confirmation bias can be broken down into six forms:

Search to only search for confirming evidence
Preference to prefer evidence that supports our beliefs
Interpretation to interpret evidence in a way that supports our beliefs
Framing to use mistaken beliefs to misunderstand what is happening in a situation
Testing  to ignore opportunities to test our beliefs
Discarding to explain away data that doesn't fit with our beliefs
EVER SINCE THE GREEKS

There is no accusation of conspiracy. Rather, this is an account of embedded thinking. The author references Aristotle, to illustrate that it has always been this way. Aristotle’s approach to ethics was observational, and the world around him was one of manual labour and subjugation of women. Hysteria is from the Greek root hystera, meaning uterus, and only women could become hysterical. This book is not a recycled or superficial condemnation of etymology; it sets out to foster an appreciation of how easily bias slips into our thoughts and assumptions.

Objective reasoning is challenged by unconscious and subjective perceptions. Problem solving for new products, therefore, can often overlook women. Many of the examples in the book are down to people simply not having thought of something.

We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness. Daniel Kahneman

Pause for thought

There are three core themes: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden and the terrifying topic of male violence against women. The book is divided into six main situations: daily life, the workplace, design, medical care, public life and how these issues are magnified during war and natural disasters. The pandemic helps focus the mind.

The reader is challenged to think about the consequences of failing to collect data about women and, indeed, failing to aggregate the data we already have by gender. Conclusions are not thrust upon us – we are instead invited to stop and think about what else might be going on. This pause for thought is an essential modus operandi for investors. 

Even the enlightened can fail to see. Council officials from Karlskoga in Sweden were asked to conduct a comprehensive assessment of gender equality across their duties. One official joked that snow-clearing practices were at least one area the ‘gender people’ would keep their noses out of.

Not so. The audit of road clearing revealed a major flaw. It was based on the use of a car for commuting and thereby excluded data on women who walked to public transport. 
By changing the council’s approach to account for this, the number of women admitted to hospital decreased significantly. The ‘gender people’ were right to put their noses in, after all.

The danger of Data-led decisions

Invisible Women was published in 2019 and was followed by Alex Cobham’s The Uncounted, which argued that even when data exists, it is often unreliable. 

Exposing poor data quality is harder than exposing missing data. And algorithms tend to perpetuate the status quo. As companies increasingly use data to make evidence-based decisions, we must think carefully about the integrity of the data itself. Criado-Perez argues that having women present at the problem identification and design stages of decision-making ensures better questions are asked. 

So why, with all this data, has more not been done to fix the problem?

Several components are required to bring about meaningful change: we need pressure to change, a shared vision, a realistic plan of action and the means to measure it. But ultimately the engine of change is knowledge and willingness. After reading Criado-Perez you will have more knowledge of invisible women. The willingness to eradicate bias, however, depends on us.

Ruffer Review 2022
Download our 2022 edition of the Ruffer Review. We explore how turbulence lies ahead for investors as inflation volatility sets up to be the biggest challenge for investors in a generation. We also discuss risk and its repercussions, shifts in global politics and Great Power relations, a warming planet and shifting energy mix as well as financial disruption and regime changes.
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1 The misdiagnosis of heart attacks is partly due to a bias in the symptoms medical professionals look for. Diagnoses often rely on the identification of pain in the chest and left arm. These are common in men and older women, whereas younger women will more often have breathlessness or stomach pains. These symptoms are considered atypical, which leads to under-appreciation of the risk. Crash test dummies are based on the fiftieth percentile male, meaning car safety measures are frequently ineffective in protecting women.

This article was first published in The Ruffer Review 2022.

The views expressed in this article are not intended as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any investment or financial instrument, including interests in any of Ruffer’s funds. The information contained in the article is fact based and does not constitute investment research, investment advice or a personal recommendation, and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. References to specific securities are included for the purposes of illustration only and should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell these securities. This document does not take account of any potential investor’s investment objectives, particular needs or financial situation. This document reflects Ruffer’s opinions at the date of publication only, the opinions are subject to change without notice and Ruffer shall bear no responsibility for the opinions offered. Read the full disclaimer.

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