Literary Review, March 2019
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
By Caroline Criado Perez
(Chatto & Windus 411pp £16.99)
If I want to walk along the river near where I live, I have to cross one of the busiest roads in west London. The only access is via an underpass, an enclosed tunnel where a female friend of mine was once sexually assaulted. Every time I use it, gritting my teeth and checking whether anyone is approaching from the other side, I think about how much of the urban environment is designed without a thought for the safety of women.
Caroline Criado Perez gives many examples of this in her book Invisible Women, showing how women approach everyday experiences – using a multistorey car park or waiting at a lonely bus stop – with a very different attitude from men. If you are a woman, checking for danger becomes second nature: walking home at night, I’m always aware of who is using the same street and, if it is a man, whether I need to pause under a street lamp until he passes.
Some men are sensitive to women’s apprehensions, making sure not to walk too close or making a point of crossing to the other side to signal they are not a threat. But our use of public space still feels conditional, a point brought home every time the police warn women not to go out after dark following a particularly egregious murder. I’ve never heard a senior police officer ask men to stay at home at night. Criado Perez’s book is a reminder of how much the status quo stealthily favours the male half of the population.
For that reason, I suspect what she has to say here will seem, to some readers at least, more controversial than it really is. Most people think that the world they grow up in is both normal and fair, unless they happen to be blatantly disadvantaged by it. Women still don’t have equal pay in this country, we don’t make up half the legislature or senior judiciary, and the government’s austerity policy has been much tougher on women than men. Yet I still hear people, usually on the right of the political spectrum, complaining that the drive for equality has gone too far, leaving men as the disadvantaged sex.
This book, which demonstrates the bias men enjoy in both familiar (to me at least) and less predictable scenarios, sets the record straight. I knew, for instance, that women fare worse after heart attacks because they present with different symptoms from men; Criado Perez cites research showing that women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed because they tend not to have the classic ‘Hollywood heart attack’, which begins with chest and left-arm pains. But I didn’t realise that women are also more likely to suffer serious injuries in a car crash because crash test dummies have traditionally been designed to reflect the ‘average’ male body. So have cars, as it happens, which means that women have to sit further forward – and are at greater risk in a frontal collision – when they are driving.
Even as mundane an activity as snow-clearing in Sweden turns out to have carried an inherent male bias. It came to light in 2011 when council officials in the town of Karlskoga were required to assess how far their practices promoted gender equality, prompting one of them to joke that snow-clearingwas at least one activity that the ‘gender people’ would keep their noses out of. He was wrong, as it happens. What the equality audit revealed was that the council’s policy of clearing roads first favoured men, who used cars in greater numbers, over women, who tended to walk or use public transportmore than men. When councillors in Karlskoga switched priorities, they actually saved public money because the number of women admitted to hospital after falling on snowy surfaces decreased dramatically.
If women in prosperous modern democracies are affected by unrecognised sex discrimination, it is much worse for women in conflict zones. In a chapter entitled ‘It’s Not the Disaster That Kills You’, Criado Perez describes how going to the toilet has become a high-risk activity in refugee camps, where some women have resorted to wearing adult nappies for fear of being raped. For years, NGOs have been calling for contraception and obstetric care to be provided for female refugees, yet such essentials remain low on the list of priorities.
The cumulative effect of all these statistics is devastating, even if they confirm what most women already know. Invisible Women arrives at a moment when our rights are under attack, not least in the USA, where the arrival of the Trump administration has given fresh wind to attempts to restrict abortion. Anyone who doubts that we live in a world designed by and for men needs to read this book, with its implicit message that even what we’ve won so far can never be taken for granted.
I’m delighted that my new book Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists will be published by riverrun on 16 May:
‘The first victim of a terrorist is the woman in his own home.’ So many recent terrorist attacks have been carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. My new book #HomeGrown from @riverrunbooks explores this shocking link. https://amzn.to/2UnPSS7
Sunday Times, 10 March 2019
A haunting tale of abductions in the remote north of Sweden opens our round-up
Northern Sweden is a wilderness. No one knows that better than Lelle Gustafsson, a middle-aged teacher who spends each night searching for his missing teenage daughter in Stina Jackson’s haunting debut The Silver Road, translated by Susan Beard (Corvus £12.99). Named best Swedish crime novel in 2018, it is an unforgettable portrait of a father’s grief. Lina vanished from a bus stop three years ago on her way to school, and everyone who knows Lelle thinks his quest is hopeless.
Then the arrival of a teenager, who comes to live in the town with her alcoholic mother, triggers events that suggest some of their neighbours might pose a danger to women. Lelle’s trips in the harsh glare of the midnight sun proceed slowly at first, but the pace picks up when a second girl is abducted, turning the novel into an unflinching examination of the kind of men who prey on vulnerable young women.
The Boy in the Headlights, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday £14.99), is the third novel in Samuel Bjork’s bestselling series set in a dysfunctional Norwegian murder squad. Bjork is the pen name of the playwright and singer/songwriter Frode Sander Oien, and the new novel is as clever and twisty as his hugely successful debut, I’m Travelling Alone. His detectives, temporarily dispersed to other units in the Oslo police force, are brought back together by a series of staged murders, beginning with a ballet dancer’s body found in a lake. The next victim is a jazz musician with no obvious connection to the dancer, suggesting that the killer picks victims at random.
Bjork’s novels are full of such theatrical touches, creating a world that bears little affinity to the mundane activities of a real-life murder investigation. His detectives, Holger Munch and his protégée Mia Kruger, are intuitive and infuriating, struggling with demons that threaten to derail the inquiry. But Bjork’s novels are saved by his generous view of human nature, which roots the horrors he describes in the traumas suffered by his characters when they were children.
She Lies In Wait (M Joseph £12.99) is the first adult novel by the children’s author Gytha Lodge. In 1983, seven friends spent a night camping in woods and woke to find that the youngest member of the party had disappeared without trace. When skeletal remains turn up 30 years later, suspicion naturally falls on the remaining six. Lodge tells the story in parallel narratives, placing the events of 1983 alongside the modern investigation in an engaging (if slightly predictable) tale of lust, rivalry and murder.
Unto Us A Son Is Given (Heinemann £20) is the 28th book featuring Donna Leon’s Venetian policeman Commissario Brunetti, who could not be further removed from the troubled detectives of Nordic noir. When his aristocratic father-in-law asks his advice about an elderly friend, a gay art dealer intent on adopting a much younger man, Brunetti’s instinct is not to get involved. A few weeks later, the dealer dies of natural causes and his friends start arriving in Venice for a memorial service. Within hours, one of them is strangled in her hotel, and Brunetti faces an investigation that forces him to re-evaluate the art dealer and his circle. Leon’s novels are unshowy and imbued with the humanist outlook that makes Brunetti such an appealing character
The Guardian, Tuesday 5 March 2019
The airline has finally relaxed its makeup rules for female staff. But in paying women far less than men, it shows its true colours
Obviously I didn’t think they were all virgins, just because they worked for a company with the V-word in the title. That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? But then I never imagined it was compulsory for female cabin crew at Virgin Atlantic to wear makeup and tight skirts when they were serving meals, dealing with sick children or – in the worst possible scenario – guiding terrified passengers through emergency exits on to inflatable slides.
On Monday, in a sudden lurch into the 21st century, the company relaxed its strict dress rules, announcing that female cabin crew would no longer be obliged to work wearing full slap. It also decreed that trousers would be available as a standard item in the Virgin Atlantic uniform, instead of female flight attendants having to make a special request. I mean, how modern is that?
Women who choose to wear makeup while they are working on board will still be expected to abide by the “palette” set out in company guidelines, however. Red and white, like the logo? Whatever progressive message the company was intending to send out was immediately contradicted by a boastful tweet showing Virgin Atlantic’s newest cabin crew apprentices: 18 women, identically dressed in tight, above-the-knee skirts and red lipstick – and just three men.
Until now, I had no idea that such discriminatory dress codes still existed, let alone that they complied with the law. I had a vague memory of a woman being sent home from a new job two or three years ago for refusing to wear high heels, but assumed that such sexist requirements had long since been outlawed. How wrong can you be?
There was indeed an outcry after Nicola Thorp was sent home in 2016 from her job as a temporary receptionist at PwC’s outsourced reception firm Portico because she was wearing flat shoes. There was even a petition with more than 150,000 signatures, calling for a ban on the practice, which I’m pretty sure I signed. But Theresa May’s government, with its instinctive dislike of regulating just about anything, argued that existing legislation was “adequate” to prevent gender-based discrimination.
Hence the perfectly legal nonsense of women who work for airlines being told they have to wear eyeshadow and lipstick in shades approved by the company as a condition of the job, unless and until management graciously consents to emerge – with lingering backward glances, no doubt – from the 1950s.
Three years ago, cabin staff at British Airways successfully challenged a requirement that new female recruits had to wear skirts unless they were exempt on – wait for it – medical or religious grounds. Budget airlines such as easyJet are more relaxed about female employees wearing trousers, but Ryanair only stopped publishing a calendar featuring female cabin crew in bikinis in 2015.
All of this is risible, especially in an industry that relies on some of the world’s most advanced engineering technology. But women who work on board complain that having to wear a stereotypically feminine uniform sends subliminal messages to passengers, encouraging them to treat female cabin staff as little more than handmaidens.
It also appears to send a negative message to their employers when it comes to setting salary levels. Virgin Atlantic has a significant gender pay gap, according to figures published last year. Its median hourly rate for women is 30% below that of men, something that means – as the government’s gender pay gap report painfully spells out – that women earn 70p for every £1 that men earn. (The gender pay gap at British Airways, by contrast, was 10% in 2017.)
Clearly, this habit of sex discrimination is very hard to break. It starts with dress codes and ends with salaries (or doesn’t – let’s see what this year’s report on the Virgin Atlantic pay gap has to say). One minute you’re telling women what colour lipstick to wear, the next you’re paying them less as well. How on earth does that happen?
Perhaps, and I’m just making a wild guess here, viewing male and female staff through a different lens isn’t a minor matter after all. Female cabin crew have proper jobs, which might one day include having to perform CPR on a desperately ill passenger, and they don’t need to do it in tight skirts and perfectly applied lippy.
But then maybe I’m expecting too much from a business empire whose origins can be traced back to the 1970s, when it was still considered daring to name a mail-order record business after a stock figure from male fantasy.
Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 6 February 2019
Liam Neeson’s revelation that he wanted to kill a black man after a ‘dear friend’ was raped has caused a storm, although the attack happened around forty years ago.
It was even considered worthy of a discussion on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme where three men (of course) discussed racism, revenge and how men deal with their feelings.
Someone is very obviously missing from all this. It is indeed curious how quickly this story has gone from a story about rape to a story about race. Neeson has said that the woman has since died but that won’t stop speculation about her identity. The pool of potential victims is probably quite small and she may have friends who are now having to cope with Neeson’s headline-grabbing revelation, which was made during an interview to publicise his new film.
Equally, many may be wondering if it really was a friend who was involved in the attack – or someone else entirely. As you may have noticed, I have used the word ‘attack’ without an ‘alleged’ anywhere to be seen. For this is that vanishingly rare event, a rape which has barely been questioned, solely because it has been vouched for by a well- known man.
Let me tell you just how unusual that is. Most rapes aren’t even reported to the police because the victims are traumatised – and fear they won’t be believed. We don’t know whether Neeson’s friend reported the attack, whether anyone was charged or what the outcome was.
What we do know is that the number of contemporary rapes that result in charges are at a ten-year low, even though more incidents are being reported to the police. There was a drop of 23.1 per cent in cases that led to charges last year, suggesting it’s getting harder to get cases to court. When men aged between 18 and 24 are charged, fewer than a third are found guilty, according to figures published last year.
Women who have suffered brutal sexual attacks, and not been believed, must be ruing the fact that they didn’t have a famous male friend on hand to validate their accounts. And that’s another reason why Neeson’s admission and the response to it are so infuriating.
Unsurprisingly, he has faced a barrage of criticism, both for the way he appears to have held all black men responsible for the rape and for his admission that he acquired and carried a cosh afterwards – classic vigilante behaviour, for which he has rightly expressed regret. What hasn’t attracted anything like as much opprobrium is the way Neeson has put himself at the heart of the story, making a woman’s horrible experience all about him. Playing up to the old fashioned view that when a woman is attacked, it is the man in her life who is hurt more and therefore must avenge the act.
If Neeson wanted to do something constructive about sexual violence, instead of making himself sound like the protagonist of one of his action-man films, he could have talked more about how devastating rape is for the victim. He could have used his influence to say that women shouldn’t have to go through a second ordeal of not being believed – and called on other men to share his anger towards rapists.
Because we need men to condemn sexual predators – men like the comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women for years. And men like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of using his powerful position in the film industry to assault dozens of women. Weinstein is currently facing trial in New York, while police in Los Angeles and London have also opened investigations. (Weinstein denies all the allegations.)
All of these men will be remembered long after their alleged victims – his actual victim, in the case of Cosby, who was convicted of three counts of indecent assault last year. Many victims rightly value the lifelong anonymity granted to them in UK courts but where sexual predators are concerned, there’s a fine line between fame and notoriety. Women are already denied a voice in public discussions of rape, cast as helpless victims or, far more often, liars and fantasists.
Neeson’s friend has been slotted into the first category, thanks to his celebrity and she has been all but written out of the ensuing furore. Instead we have had two days of men talking about rape in the most self-absorbed way it’s possible to imagine. It hasn’t challenged any of the nonsense that’s talked about sexual violence or helped women one jot. Because when famous men think they’re talking about rape, the conversation is actually all about themselves.