You Don’t Have to be Nice with Caroline Criado Perez
Did you know that women are 17 percent more likely to die in a car crash than men—and 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured? That’s because cars are designed for the average male, not the average human. This week’s guest is Caroline Criado Perez, and she’s on a mission to change that.
Caroline Criado Perez is a journalist, a feminist campaigner, and the author of a new book called Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. It’s an in-depth look at the ways everything from heart-attack symptoms to snow-clearing routes put men first—and what needs to happen to change that. Caroline is also a fierce campaigner for women’s rights, and has a certain knack for making her feminist campaigns go viral. As you might guess, we absolutely love her.
You don’t have to be nice all the time. Women are always taught we have to be nice and everyone has to love us. And actually, if you’re trying to make change, that is impossible and you have to be okay with that.
—Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Caroline chats with us about:
- Gender bias and how it’s dangerous for women, even (and especially!) in medical situations.
- The invisibility of women in data, including in medical tests and medication, unpaid labor, disaster relief, car designs, and more.
- How a gender audit of policies in Sweden led to a change in how they clear the snow to best allow citizens to go about their day, instead of continuing to automatically favor men to the detriment of women.
- Why having women in the room when designing things for massive public use—like Twitter—is essential if you’re aiming to create something that will work for more people, not just white men.
- Caroline on Twitter
- Caroline’s website with tour dates, writing, and her current campaign
- Book: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
- #YouKnowMe, Shout Your Abortion, and why women seem to always have to share their most personal stories just to be seen as human.
- FY to seven girls at Bronx Prep Middle School who created a podcast about periods—called Sssh! Periods—and won the grand prize for middle school in NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge.
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Katel LeDû And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today we are talking with someone whose work is really powerful—Caroline Criado-Perez. A few years ago, she led a campaign to get a woman on a banknote in the UK and now she’s got a new book out that is making lots of waves. It’s called Invisible Women:Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.
SWB Ugh, this conversation with Caroline is so good and also so, so necessary. One of the things that really struck me talking with her is just how often our medical system totally and completely fails women. In the interview you’re going to hear her talk about things like women being more likely to die from heart attacks because their symptoms typically don’t present in the same way that men’s symptoms do. And guess what? Men’s symptoms are the only symptoms that medical professionals are trained on or that the wider population is trained on. And so, that’s what she means by women being invisible and there being this data bias that people don’t realize what women’s needs are because nobody’s paying any attention to it! So, after talking with Caroline, I started thinking about the dismissal of women’s medical symptoms more broadly and what that’s meant for women’s health and women’s lives. Do you remember that essay I sent you a little while ago? It was from Tressie McMillan Cottom.
KL Oh my gosh, yeah. That piece is really, really powerful!
SWB Yeah. It’s this essay that was published in TIME and it’s also in her book “Thick,” which is a book of essays, which I strongly recommend everyone pick up. But the basic story is that Tressie was pregnant, and she talks about how she started bleeding, and then she was having a lot of pain in her butt. So, she’s goes to the doctor, of course, and over and over again, they keep telling her the same things like, “oh, you probably just need to lose weight,” or “oh, you’re just constipated, you should try going to the bathroom.” And it goes on and on and on and it keeps getting worse and worse and worse and it turns out none of those things were the problem. The problem was that she actually had tumors in her uterus and she had gone into preterm labor. [KL sighs] So, eventually, they realize that she had been in labor for three days already.
KL Oh my god.
SWB And nobody had done anything!
SWB And even worse than that, not only were they sending her home, not only were they dismissing her pain, they also were actually scolding her about, “why didn’t you say something sooner?” And she was like, “I did! I did! I’ve been coming to the doctor for days trying to get help and you all have been telling me that I’m imagining things or I’m just wrong and incompetent.” And she talked about the way that particularly because she was a black woman—a pregnant, black woman showing up at a doctor’s office is immediately seen as being incompetent.
KL Oh my god. That part of it—the lens of being seen as incompetent because of the body you’re in and the space you occupy is gutting.
SWB It is! And I think about that essay all the time. You shouldn’t have to be quote unquote “competent”—whatever that means—in order to get medical care. You shouldn’t have to have a college degree to get good medical care.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB All of us are competent in our own bodies. But I also think a lot about that story and all of the stories that are coming out now about the maternal death rate for black women. It’s just astronomical. There was a new report out from the CDC earlier this month—so here in May—just a new one came out that said that black women are 3.3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
KL [sighs] Fuck. I mean…
SWB Right. And then native women are also 2.5 times more likely than white women to die. So, this is unacceptable, and it’s just so telling of not only do we minimize women’s needs, but then particularly women who aren’t white. It’s so much worse.
KL This is such a huge crisis and it absolutely is connected to what Caroline talks about, which is how we don’t see women as basically quote unquote “average humans” or “competent people” who deserve to be listened to and studied like men. And in the US, it’s just so much worse for black women. One thing I am happy about though is that Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have started talking about this as a real campaign issue—because it absolutely should be. And they’re starting to talk about actual policy ideas, not just giving super broad rhetoric that says, “sure we’re going to deal with this—gestures widely—women’s issues.” [both laugh]
SWB Right. Yeah, I’ve been really appreciative of that and I think it definitely speaks to how important it is that we have women at every level of government. But the other thing it always makes me think about is just how terrible so many men’s knowledge is of women’s health. [KL laughs] It should not be acceptable that our male politicians don’t also know about those numbers and aren’t also willing to talk about it. That should not be acceptable.
SWB And again, I think it comes back to who is perceived as being normal. You can go your whole life as a man and never really have to learn about women’s health. It’s just totally optional knowledge. And so, in the same way that Caroline talks about, there’s health, and then women’s health as sort of over there, something special.
SWB And… did you know that there are men out there who believe that women can actually hold in their period blood like pee? [KL laughs]
KL I mean, that just seems like that can not be a real thing people think. [laughs]
SWB But that’s a real thing that a substantial number of men think! [KL sighs] That we’re all just lazily spraying that blood around [KL laughs] because we don’t feel like holding it in…but we could.
KL Would that we could! [both laugh]
SWB [laughing] Yeah, we really got you there! [both laugh]
SWB Ohhhh it’s so wild to me that that could be true. But I said that recently to a man and he was like, “oh yeah, a lot of men think that.”
KL I mean—
KL —that is just wild. And that makes me think about all the news the past couple weeks about abortion restrictions and bans, which is so upsetting.
SWB [sighing loudly] Yes.
KL We’re recording this right after Alabama state legislation passed a near-total abortion ban, complete with no exceptions for rape or incest. And it’s totally fucked and it’s absolutely sickening. Alabama isn’t the only state rushing to put abortion bans into play and it’s probably not surprising that the states really pushing for this are states where this would largely and most directly impact black and brown women. I think it’s also really important to say out loud that white women with financial capacity to acquire an abortion will probably always be able to get one.
SWB Right. Like if you’re the girlfriend of a married republican maybe, for example?
KL Sure. Exactly.
SWB But also if you’re me! That’s something that I realized—you might have an abortion restriction in a state that I live in, but my ability to get an abortion would probably still be really high because of financial ability, because of ability to travel, because of having contacts and resources.
SWB And that’s just not true for so many people. And you mentioned Alabama, but, of course, it’s not just in Alabama. One of the other states that has been pushing lots of abortion legislation is Georgia. And there, it’s one of those heartbeat bills. So, the idea being that they want to ban abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. And a lot of people will be like, “oh yeah, well you should have made your choice sooner then.” [KL laughs] The thing that people don’t quite understand—[laughs] once again—is how conception works and how they look at how pregnant somebody is. So, those bans would be around six weeks pregnant, typically. But six weeks pregnant is not six weeks after you had sex or six weeks after you missed a period, it’s six weeks from the previous period.
SWB But people don’t know how conception works apparently—
SWB —because just to walk that back, that means your period starts, you have your period for a few days, then about half way through your cycle or so you ovulate, somewhere in there, but that’s kind of fluctuating, you’re fertile for some window of time. And then, let’s say you have an irregular period, so maybe it’s been forty days since your last period and that’s not that abnormal for you, so that’s when you first start going, “oh, wait a second, my period’s late.” Well, low and behold, forty days is two days shy of six weeks. So, at that point, where you’re only a week late on your period, suddenly you may not be able to get an abortion.
SWB You have two days to figure it out—make a decision, figure out how you’re going to do it, get to a place where you can do it, get money together. All of those things are just designed to make it functionally impossible for a huge percentage of women to get a procedure that frankly, that early in a pregnancy is such a small thing and we should have no questions about whatsoever.
KL It totally is, I know. I also love that all of this math is based on periods being extremely regimented and on time and like clockwork. [both laugh] Which is laughable! [laughs]
SWB I mean, mine was when I was on the pill! [laughs]
KL Well, right! [both laughing]
SWB But that’s kind of part of the whole problem.
SWB So, I don’t think that the core problem here is just conservative lawmakers don’t understand women’s health. I mean, they don’t, but I don’t think that’s really the core problem. I think the core problem here is about control. This is about people wanting to control women and part of the way you control women is controlling their bodies. But I will say that I think our society or culture’s lack of interest in women’s health, lack of knowledge about women’s health—what it does do is it really leads us to be so easily misinformed and misled about these issues. And it makes the conversation so much more complicated, so much harder than it needs to be because we have to spend all this time doing all of this one on one education to even get to a place where we can talk about the issue. And I find that so frustrating!
KL It’s so frustrating. And the other thing that I’ve been seeing over the past week or so is this huge number of women feeling like they have to tell their personal abortion stories over and over again to make it more human. This reminds me of something Caroline said where she said she tries to be pragmatic and work to get men to imagine the women they know experiencing a medical crisis because their health isn’t taken seriously. And I think that can be so powerful, but it’s also really frustrating to feel like we have to do this over and over again—this work to humanize ourselves—to bring out these stories in hopes that somehow people will see women as humans if we just share more of our pain and more of our private lives. It’s just…it’s not sustainable.
SWB Right. Like last week, Busy Phillips started this hashtag—you know me—where she says that you might not think you know someone who’s had an abortion, but one in four women will have one, including her! She’s had one. So, she’s encouraging women who’ve had them to say that too. Like, “You think you don’t know someone who’s had an abortion? You think that you don’t spend time with the kind of woman who has had an abortion? Well, guess what? You know me.” And I do think that that is really powerful and it’s gotten a lot of traction, but I also feel like we just shouldn’t have to do that over and over to be treated like people. And I think it’s fine to make the choice to do it—to say, “this is important to me and I want to be able to share this.” And also, by all means, you should be allowed to talk about it whenever you want.
SWB But I also think that we rely on women doing that labor over and over again. I think about that whenever there’s some new sexual assault thing in the news because I will end up trotting out my experience with child sexual abuse. And I don’t mind doing it necessarily in that I’m okay telling my story. I am comfortable enough telling my story to do that, but I don’t think I should have to for people to believe that it’s real, and for people to believe that it’s bad, and for people to believe that it’s incredibly widespread, and for people to believe that we should be treating that issue really differently. I guess I’m tired of feeling like my story and my body and my trauma has to be used as a tool to educate others, as opposed to simply being mine.
KL Right. And the thing is, at this point we’ve been doing that for years. It was like five years ago when Lindy West started the “shout your abortion” movement. We’ve been shouting our abortions! I only just started shouting mine very recently, so this all feels like it’s new, but I also still very much feel the same way you do when this stuff happens. And so what I want to know is what are men willing to do to educate themselves and to speak up on this issue? It’s not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue, and we need them to be way more involved!
SWB Yes! And I want to hear way more men stand up to this and say that this is something that matters to them, and this is something that they are willing to make a primary issue for them. Right? This isn’t just something that we should be thinking about as we go into presidential election season, I want this to be on everybody’s mind. So, as you can tell, I’m pretty riled up about all this—I think you are riled up too?
KL Yes! [both laugh]
SWB Well, everybody listening, if you’re getting a little riled up, take a deep breath [KL sighs] because next up, we are going to talk with Caroline and I think you’re going to hear even more reasons to keep on fighting back about all the bullshit we face. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Caroline Criado Perez
SWB Caroline Criado Perez is a journalist, a feminist campaigner, and the author of a new book called Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. It’s a deep dive into something I have long been interested in—addressing the way that society treats men as “default” humans, and how much that ends up harming women. So, Caroline, I am really excited to talk with you about this book and about your career. Welcome to Strong Feelings!
Caroline Criado Perez Thank you very much.
SWB So, first up, what led you to write this book? Was there a moment that made you stop and think, “wait. This is a big thing.”
CCP The long answer is that I feel that it’s a book that I was kind of always going to potentially end up writing because of the way that I came into feminism, which was via discovering male default in my own head and discovering that whenever I pictured a person, I was picturing a man. And we can go into that later if you’d like, but the sort of immediate trigger was discovering that the heart attack symptoms that I had always been taught are just heart attack symptoms—pain in the chest and down the left arm—are, in fact, typical male heart attack symptoms and that women often don’t experience this. They often experience breathlessness, fatigue, nausea, what feels like indigestion, and, in fact, only one in eight women will experience chest pain. And as a result, women don’t realize they’re having a heart attack because public health information is all sort of catered around what a heart attack looks like for men. And doctors are also not recognizing it, so women are being misdiagnosed. In the UK, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed with a heart attack. And even for those women who do present with the typical for men chest pain, because female heart attacks don’t necessarily progress mechanically the same as male heart attacks, the diagnostic tests we’ve developed—the main one is looking for blockages and it turns out that female heart attacks may not present with blockages in the same way. So, you have women being sent home with undiagnosed chest pain. And the result of all of this together is women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men, and that’s been going on for decades. So, I discovered this and then around about the same time—because I discovered it when I was writing my first book—in 2013, the FDA had to tell women to cut their dose of Ambien in half because it turned out women were metabolizing the active ingredient twice as slowly as men. So, basically we’re taking a double dosage and we’re driving to work the next day still under the influence and we’re crashing their cars. And both those things together were just so shocking, for a start. Obviously, I mean, it’s incredibly shocking. [laughs] This is science, this is a medicine, this is a thing that we’re taught is objective, and rational, and fact based. And to discover that actually there was this huge male bias, which I knew was going on in our culture. I think we’re so used to talking about the way this manifests in politics, and in the media, and in films, but to discover it was actually happening in this supposedly rational, objective field was just enraging.
SWB Yeah. I love the way that you kind of pull together all these examples—many of them from medicine but also from all other aspects of life—and you really tell this story about how this ends up making women invisible. And I’m wondering if we can talk about that a little bit. So, something you say early on in the book is that the truth is that white and male is just as much of an identity as black and female. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. Can you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that? What does it mean to have our identities not be said at all and how does that end up with invisibility?
CCP In pretty much every aspect of life you care to think of, we sort of forget that women exist—hugely as a result of the way that when we talk about human beings, what we actually mean is men. So, as a result, we just don’t really notice that we’re forgetting women and so women become invisible. Women exist, obviously, but we’re not visible in all sorts of ways in which we are collecting data. We’re not visible, for example, in culture. We’re not visible in politics, we’re not visible in films, and we’re not visible in the media. But then actually, we’re also not visible in numbers either. Our unpaid work is not visible when we’re counting the economy. Our bodies are invisible when we’re designing medication because we don’t test on women. In disaster relief, women are invisible. So, basically, it’s just that although women patently exist, [laughs] we aren’t spoken about, we aren’t thought about, we aren’t counted, we aren’t measured. So, when we come to designing things, nothing really fits very well.
SWB One of the things I really notice about that is there’s a cyclicality to it where it’s like if you’re not represented in that data, you’re not designed for. When you’re not designed for, then you’re even more invisible because you’re not centered in the thing that’s been designed. And then it reinforces that there’s no data about you and it seems like a way that a lot of these biases are just perpetuated over and over again.
CCP Like the idea that women don’t drive high end, technological purchases, which is why they’re designed for men. And nobody thinking to flip that round and thinking, “maybe women don’t drive them because they’re designed for men.” Or, similarly, one of the most enraging excuses that will be given for why medical researchers don’t test on females—and I specify females because it’s not just humans, it’s also female cells and female animals—is that, “well, we’ve not tested on them in the past, so we don’t have any comparable data.” So, that’s really cyclical! It’s basically, “we’ve been oppressing you forever, so we can’t start now, [laughs] it’s too late! It’s too late, ladies, sorry.” [laughs]
SWB Oh my gosh.
CCP I mean, it is laughable, but also women are dying. We’re actually dying as a result of this. And no one wants to go back and spend the money on testing in women. We could easily just stop this today and start collecting data on women, it’s that simple.
SWB But you’d have to be able to say that women’s lives are more important than—I don’t know—the integrity of the [laughs] historical data you collected. [KL laughs] For example. [laughs]
CCP Yes! And how radical would that be?
SWB [laughing] Right!
CCP Saving women’s lives is more important than saving money—that’s actually what’s at the heart of this. Yes, it would actually cost more, but do you care more about saving money or do you care more about saving women’s lives? That’s the question that we need to be asking because they need to be held accountable for what they’re actually saying! Because they don’t say it like that. They say, “oh, well the menstrual cycle might impact on the study results and female bodies are just too unharmonious.” I mean, [laughs] that was something that was actually said. It was, to be fair, in the 1930s, but still! So, Le Corbusier, who was this really influential Swiss architect who came up with the human scale. And the idea was that buildings should be designed around humans. Of course, what he meant by human was a man. And actually, he specified really weirdly a “six foot British police detective,” which is apparently the best humanity can get is a six foot British police detective. And that became “modular man.” And they’d considered making modular woman, but decided that the female body was too unharmonious. Those excuses still get used today, they’re just made slightly differently. So, the same thing happened when they were discussing GDP and how they were going to measure the economy. And again, they considered including women’s unpaid care work, but decided that it was too difficult to measure. Women are too complicated, too messy, too unharmonious. And the same thing happens today when we’re talking about not testing in women. It is basically making this choice that saving women’s lives isn’t important enough. That’s what you have to keep coming back to because that is the ultimate endpoint of this. Obviously, not every data gap ends up with a dead woman, but enough do that that is the choice that we’re making.
KL That is so stark to think about and it’s so important that you wrote this book. Who did you write this book most for?
CPP Everyone! [laughs & SWB laughs] Obviously, everyone writes for everyone, but I just think that this is something that affects—or should affect—everyone. Everyone should care about this. I wrote it for women because I wanted women to be aware that this was happening, particularly for things like medical stuff where women are often told that it’s in their head, and they’re crazy, and they’re making it up. And that’s just this really damaging trope that women can’t be trusted to talk about our own bodies and this trope of women being hysterical. But also the daily things! So many women have got in touch with me since writing the book to say how relieved they feel because they’d been going around the world just with things not really working for them and thinking, “oh, I’m really weak” or “oh, I’m too short, I’m too small, I’m really clumsy. I can’t open this thing because I’m inept.” And actually it’s just no, it wasn’t designed for your body. It wasn’t designed for someone of your height, of your weight, of your hand size, of your grip strength. So, that’s a really important part of it. But I also want anyone who is ever going to be designing anything [laughs]—from a workplace to a building to a car. One of the really shocking examples is that women are 17% more likely to die in a car crash and 47% more likely to be seriously injured because we have designed cars around the idea that the average male is the average human. And that just needs to stop. We need to stop thinking of the average male as the average human. Because he isn’t! He’s the average male. So, when I say I wrote the book for everyone, it’s that I think it’s a societal sea change in mentality that needs to take place. Because we all do it! We all think of women as atypical. I mean, atypical is literally the term that is used to describe women’s heart attack symptoms. They aren’t atypical for women, by any means. They’re atypical for men, sure, [laughs] but they’re very typical for women.
SWB Yeah. So, this really reminds me of a concept that has bothered me for a very long time in the tech industry where I’ve worked where people talk about things like “edge cases.” This isn’t a primary use case, this isn’t a normal thing, that’s an edge case; we don’t need to worry about it. It’s too niche to care about. And I think what you’re really pointing to is the way that there are actually a lot of situations that we treat as edge cases that aren’t because women are not a statistically small percentage of people. [laughs]
SWB And because we have such a clear idea of what we think the norm is, we will write off all these examples of stuff that falls outside the norm that if we actually put them all together, we would see that that’s a huge percentage.
SWB That it’s not actually a small percentage. And so, you mentioned earlier that not every bias ends up with dead women, but that some surprising ones might. And I think there’s an example of that I’d love for you to talk about. In the book, you talk about how research looking at snow clearing in cities, I believe in Sweden, was privileging men’s travel needs over women’s travel needs. And that had some real consequences that you might not expect in terms of women’s safety. And I’m wondering if you can talk about that example and the way that that actually does impact the health and safety of women.
CCP Absolutely. When you’re talking about the edge cases, it’s about collecting the data, but it’s also about how you collect the data because one example that I found absolutely fascinating and also completely infuriating is how we design public transport and we design it around men’s travel patterns. And part of the reason for that is the way we collect the data. So, we collect all employment related travel as one big chunk, but women’s unpaid care work related travel is divided up into lots of little sections like shopping, doctor’s visits, educational trips, and leisure—these smaller things. But actually when you add them all together, it turns out that that is as big as a chunk as employment related travel and it is the number one reason that women travel, but it’s disparate. And also things like shopping for groceries for your family is mixed up with shopping for a TV. So, it’s not separated out properly and as a result, you end up with transport infrastructure planners thinking, “oh, well those are edge cases, they’re not as important, we don’t need to cater for them because it’s just little bits and pieces here and there,” and not counting them all together. And actually, the snow clearing is incredibly connected to this, which was again designing around typical male travel. So, basically what they did—it was in this town called Karlskoga in Sweden, they were doing a gender audit of all their policies because it’s Sweden and they’re just better than everyone, basically. And they realized that they were clearing the major road arteries first and only then the local roads and the sidewalks. And they realized that this was privileging male travel over female travel because the way men tend to travel is for a start, they’re more likely to drive, and secondly, they are more likely to do just a twice daily commute in and out of work using major roads. Whereas, women because of their unpaid care-work responsibilities do this thing called trip-chaining where they will drop the kids off at school on their way to work, pick up some groceries on the way back, maybe drop in on an elderly relative. And they’re more likely to use public transport, partly because women are likely to have less money than men, but also in households with one car, men tend to dominate access to the car. And that’s including in Sweden—this is a sort of global phenomenon. So, for all those reasons, that meant that the order in which they were clearing the snow was privileging male travel. So, they decided to switch it up because they figured, “well, we’re not going to be spending any more money and it’s harder to push a buggy through three inches of snow than it is to drive through three inches of snow.” So, they changed it. And what they found was that they ended up saving a lot of money off their healthcare bill because all of a sudden, the number of people turning up at Accident and Emergency for having injured themselves in icy conditions radically fell. Because the people who were falling over and hurting themselves were pedestrians. And the majority of the people turning up also were women because women made up the majority of pedestrians. It’s just such a fascinating example of how collecting data and using that data to design data, evidence based infrastructure planning can do more than just make the world more equal, but can also save you money. But I suppose also it just makes the world more equal in that women are breaking their hips less, [laughs] which is also a great outcome! I don’t think you need to point to the financial cost saving to realize that that’s a good thing.
KL So, the book has been out for a couple months and getting a lot of attention. What has the reception been like for you?
CCP It’s been really overwhelmingly positive, which has been great. I was actually really nervous before the book came out because I knew that there were going to be people who did not want to listen to what I was saying. I gave a talk—this was quite a few years ago—in Parliament and one of the MPs asked me to speak briefly about the gender data gap in health. And I just mentioned really uncontroversial things that we have known for a really long time. And there was this sort of group of male doctors who just stood there with their arms folded looking so defensive. I just found that so shocking because again, I can’t seem to shake this idea that scientists must be free of all the terrible biases that we all have. Even though I know that’s not the case! I’ve researched this book and I know 100% scientists can be just as sexist and have just as many blind spots. But to be actually physically confronted with it in the shape of these very defensive male doctors who were quite angry with me for talking about this. So, it’s been actually really great to see that actually the reception from men and women has been really positive. Obviously, there have been some negative reactions. The most common really is a really ironic one because it just makes my point for me where I get men who are outliers saying, “well, why are you complaining? I don’t get catered for either.” So, guys getting in touch with me and saying, “well, I’m six foot seven and twenty stone and I don’t fit in a car either,” totally failing to get the point that this isn’t a book about outliers, [laughs] this is a book about half the world being treated like outliers! That’s the difference! But it does show how embedded this way of thinking is that they think they’re giving me a slam dunk when actually what they’re doing is proving my point.
KL Yeah, [laughs] we have a lot of listeners who also want to talk about sexism and gender issues and really bring this into mainstream conversations that they’re having, but can be nervous about backlash. How do you handle people who minimize these issues and say they aren’t real?
CCP I just don’t think that anyone who really properly engages with what I’m saying can possibly make that argument. I just feel like the case is so overwhelming, and it’s so abundantly clear, and I am not making this up. This is based on hundreds of academic papers that I’ve read, loads of experts that I’ve spoken to. There are a lot of very credible people who are pointing this out and the only way that people can minimize it or ignore it is if they refuse to read what we’re saying and engage with the topic. And these people have women that they care about. They have mothers, and if they don’t have mothers, they have sisters, and if they don’t have sisters, they have partners who are going to be, for example, getting into these cars and being more likely to die. Who wants their mum to die of a heart attack because the doctor didn’t recognize her symptoms because we don’t train doctors well enough in female heart attack symptoms? Who wants their mum to die in a car crash because we don’t bother to design cars around the female body? I just don’t believe that people want that, no matter how hard they fight against the idea that women are dealt a raw hand and that there should be more female politicians. I think that that is something that is easier to argue against than literally, “no, women are dying.” You have to be… I mean, nobody wants that! [laughs]
SWB Yeah. Although, it does always make me sad that we have to relate to men in that way, that it has to be about “oh, but it’s somebody’s wife or somebody’s mom or somebody’s daughter” as opposed to “we should care because she’s a person.” [laughs]
CCP But! The research that I found showed that men don’t think of a woman when they think of a person; 80% of them think of a man. So, yes it is incredibly frustrating, of course it is. But to a certain extent, it’s also human nature that you relate more and care more about something when it’s personalized to you. And wouldn’t it be great if we were all able to think about humanity in a humanitarian way? But that’s just not the way the world is set up at the moment. And also, the research shows that men are actually less likely to support something if it’s seen as women’s rights. There was this really depressing paper that I found looking at US legislation finding that male legislators were much less likely to support a bill if it was framed as women’s rights, rather than human rights. And they were less likely to sign it. And if there were too many women with their names attached to a bill, men were less likely to sign it. And I wonder what would have happened if someone had gone to these men and said, “okay, you’re thinking women and thinking it’s not fair, but what about if this bill were about your mum?” And it sucks that we have to frame it that way, but I want us to change this, so I’m kind of prepared to do that.
SWB Yeah! I mean it sounds like you’re saying that we’re so used to not humanizing women that we need to actually physically go out and humanize women by relating them to men in order for them to get to a place where they actually do start to see women as human. Which is a depressing reality, but I also think a very practical approach to say, “this is how we can get into people’s minds—
SWB —and into their hearts and that is what it is.”
CCP But it is a really difficult—and I totally understand that argument—but I guess at heart, I’m a pragmatist and I just want to get things done. [KL laughs] In the grand reckoning, maybe I will have turned out to have been wrong.
SWB Yeah, I think it’s tough! Both things are true—you have to center women and also you need to make these people listen. And it’s not always possible to do both at the same time in all circumstances.
SWB And it sounds like that’s a big piece of how you see your particular role as you’re working on your book and also as a feminist campaigner, which is something I mentioned in the intro and I’d love to talk about that a little bit too. So, that’s actually how I first heard about you back when you were advocating to get a woman on the banknote back in 2013. And I’m wondering, can you tell us a bit about that campaign?
CCP The Bank of England announced that they were going to be withdrawing the only female historical figure on Bank of England banknotes and replacing her with Winston Churchill. And that meant that the entire lineup was going to be men. And [laughs] I just thought,—very naively I guess—“well, they obviously haven’t thought about this.” And I mean, it’s not a totally unfair assumption; quite often they just haven’t, they just haven’t thought about it. And I think probably they hadn’t thought about it. But I thought that they would just say, “oh, thanks for pointing this out, we’ll sort this out immediately.” Of course, they didn’t do that and I had to fight this whole battle just for one female historical figure on a Bank of England banknote. And they ended up putting Jane Austen on the ten pound note. And one of the things I was really pleased with actually was that the heart of my campaign was “what were the criteria you were using to choose the female historical figure?” Because they just presented it as that usual thing of “oh, we choose on merit and it’s the best man the job,” and by man, they mean man. So, I wanted to look at “well, what are these criteria that mean that you just happen to end up with all men?” And they were things like good name recognition and that’s much, much harder for a woman to have ever achieved because we don’t celebrate women and also we write them out of history routinely. There’s so many examples of that happening. Must have good artwork—again, just didn’t really happen for most women before about ten minutes ago. Must not be controversial—and that’s just basic… I mean, what women that we know about is not controversial? In order to become a woman that anyone’s heard of, of course you’re controversial! [laughs] So, all of these criteria which were presented as objective, selection criteria—that’s what they called them, they literally called them objective—were hopelessly male biased!
SWB And so one of the reasons I heard about that campaign is because you ended up receiving a huge amount of abuse for it. So, I’m curious about what that was like. How did that affect how you approached both that campaign and your work going forward? How did it change you?
CCP So, the day after the campaign win was announced, I got my first rape threat. And it just turned into this absolute onslaught of weeks of relentless, really graphic, and detailed rape and death threats of what part of their body was going to be put in what part of my body, and how I’d be mutilated, and which ways I would die. And, you know, looking for my address. And it was absolutely terrifying; it was really, really frightening. Because for a start, all the images and the things that they were suggesting were incredibly traumatic in themselves, but also just not knowing who these people were, where they were, what they were capable of. And I knew that they were literally trying to find me, they were finding various addresses. And I was genuinely scared for my life. I had to have a panic alarm put in my house and they put in some police protection. I mean, it traumatized me and it made me much more fearful and careful about what I said for quite a long time. It’s something that I’m just very aware of all the time, that this is something that might happen. And I am scared a lot of the time. I try not to let it affect me too much because I think it’s incredibly important that they don’t win, and so I try very hard to not let them win.
SWB Yeah, wow. I’m so sorry that happened to you. And also, I know this is something that has happened to so many women. And it’s something that has affected me in that I particularly remember hearing about this abuse a few years ago—I was working on a book about bias in tech. And there were two reasons that the story was really compelling. One was that I was scared of that happening to me, to be perfectly honest. So far my harassment online has been much more manageable, but still… there. And then the other reason is that I was reading about how the level of harassment you were getting and the violence of that harassment was actually the reason that Twitter finally launched a function that allowed you to report an abusive tweet—
SWB —many years too late, in my opinion. That, of course, became something I was talking about in this book about how behind they were on that and how it took so much to get them to take it seriously. And I’m curious about how it felt for you to almost be the straw that broke the camel’s back on that front. Like on the one hand, that’s a meaningful change to the social media platform and on the other hand, what you had to go through in order to see just that one tiny change that’s not even enough was so traumatizing.
CCP The way I sort of look at it is that if you can take it, you have to take it. Because there are so many women who can’t. There are so many women who have been put off having a public profile, going into politics, writing honestly as a journalist, having a social media account, engaging in public debate, and our world is so much poorer for that. And one of the central themes that came out of my book is that actually the female perspective is hugely important when it comes to designing a world that works for women. And the fact that so many of us had to go through this before Twitter did anything is just a perfect example of that. Has this have been a platform designed with enough women there, I just don’t think we would ever have got to this place. Because it would have been designed by people who understood misogyny, and how it functions, and the way that men target women. And they would have had procedures already in place. An example that I think about quite a lot is this game that I came across while researching the book called Quiver, which is a VR game. And this women wrote about how she had been sexually assaulted using this game. And she wrote about it and it was awful. And the guys who designed the game are clearly great guys because their response was immediate, and they were shocked, and they fixed it. And what they did was they extended—you had been able to create this bubble around your face, and they just extended that for your whole body, so that no one could be groped and molested in the way that this women had been. But the thing that i thought was really interesting was how honest they were. They said, “we had thought about the fact that some annoying person might want to jus put their hands in front of your face so that you wouldn’t be able to see,” so that’s why they created the bubble for your face, “but it had never occurred to us that someone would try and grope someone.” And they sort of felt bad about that, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point isn’t for men not thinking about the fact that women get groped to necessarily feel bad about it. It’s to make sure that your design team is diverse because women wouldn’t have forgotten about it because it happens to us. And so we would know to design that out in a way that these men, no matter how well meaning they are, it just didn’t occur to them because they’re nice guys and they don’t go around groping people, so it’s not part of their daily experience.
SWB Yes. I love that point so much and I definitely did a lot of research covering some of that ground. And one of the things I kept coming back to was the way that black women, particularly, had been telling Twitter that there was a problem with abuse on their platform for years—for years—prior to them doing anything about it, prior to it being taken seriously at all. And I think that that comes up over and over again where it’s like we don’t have women involved or we don’t have diverse people involved in the original design process and then we don’t take their feedback seriously early on because we’re not deeming them as the normal users. It’s such a problem that pervades tech and, as you’ve talked about in the book, the whole world. So, I’m so happy to see more of these pieces tied together and put into place for everybody.
KL Was there a point where you feel like your career trajectory sort of shifted when you went from being a journalist with some ideas you wanted to push forth to being more of a campaigner in kind of a visible way?
CCP I think I was a campaigner before I was as writer really. The first two things that I did, I set up with a friend this organization called The Women’s Room, which is basically a database of female experts for the media. Because—well, the catalyst for that was two days in a row the today program, which is the flagship BBC morning political show, had two days in a row where they had an all male panel talking about women’s bodies. So, the first day was talking about teenage girls and their contraception, and they had two guys [laughs] talking about that. And then the next day they had an all male panel talking about women and their experiences of a particular kind of breast cancer test. And they actually asked [laughs] one of the male experts, “so, if you were a woman, would you take this test?” It was just so farcical! So, we set up this database. And then the next thing was the banknotes campaign. And for both of those, I was at university because I went to university as a mature student. So, by this point I was 28 I think and I was doing my masters at LSC. So, the campaigning really came first. And then I started writing because I was pissed off. [laughs] I mean, I very much see my writing and my campaigning as all really part of the same thing. The things that I write about are the same things that I campaign about. And they’re the same things that I give lectures about. It all comes back to my rage, I guess, at the invisibility of women. The invisibility of women in our culture, in banknotes, in statues, in politics, in the media, and now in data, it turns out we’re invisible too. And the more I learn about it, the more damage that I see that it does. And I started off angry about it because I realized the hugely negative impact it had had on me as a young girl and then a young woman growing up and thinking that my sex was something to be ashamed of. And that it was a barrier, an obstacle to be overcome so I could be treated like a human being. But then gradually realizing that this is about much more than the way it’s affected me. This is having a serious impact on women’s lives.
SWB Yeah! And I want to ask before we go—you’ve talked a lot about pushing forth these different campaigns over several years. So you now have a lot of experience making yourself very visible around an issue that you care about. And I’m curious, for those of our listeners who want to speak up more about the biases and injustices they see, is there anything that you’ve learned over the years that you wish you had known at the very beginning when that first campaign started to blow up?
CCP I think the most important thing is to learn to be okay with people hating you. And that is actually quite difficult. Because when you’re just a person who knows everyone that knows you, you’re so much more in control of that. You’re in control of what people think about you because they just see you who you are; they don’t know about you from a few tweets and an interview you did and have formed this whole judgment on your entire character based on that. I think that’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with. Because it all happened to me so quickly—I don’t know if people get trained [laughs] on how to become someone that people know about, but no one told me that was going to happen and that was incredibly difficult. And I think it’s particularly difficult for women because we’re socialized to think that the most important thing is that people think we’re really nice, and caring, and that people like us. And people aren’t going to like you if you’re a public feminist; they’re going to really dislike you, and they’re going to misrepresent you, and that’s really difficult. So, that’s the first thing—is to know that people are going to hate you, and they’re going to be horrible to you, and they’re going to send you really mean things—and that’s the good end—and that you have to be okay with that. And the other thing is you don’t have to engage with everyone who is misrepresenting you and is a bad actor. I think people should listen to the great AOC. I loved her response to Ben Shapiro when he wanted to have this debate with her and she just said something along the lines of, “I don’t have to entertain every bad actor who wants to just waste my time.” And again, I think that’s a really difficult thing for women to do because we’re meant to make time for everyone, that’s what we’re there for. So, I guess that all boils down to, don’t feel like you have to be nice all the time. You don’t have to be nice all the time. Women are always taught we have to be nice and everyone has to love us. And actually, if you’re trying to make change, that is impossible and you have to be okay with that.
KL I think that’s a really beautiful note to end on. Caroline, thank you so much for being here with us.
CCP Thank you for having me. [short transition music plays]
Promo: Jenn Taylor-Skinner
Jenn Taylor-Skinner [music playing in the background] I’m Jenn Taylor-Skinner, the host and producer of The Electorette podcast. The Electorette explores politics, social justice, civil rights, and feminism all through the lens of women. When I decided to start The Electorette, I knew that I wanted to elevate the voices of women and bring listeners deep, smart, and thoughtful conversations from groups that had been previously marginalized. The women that I interview on The Electorette are some of the most brilliant, passionate women on the planet. They are activists, politicians, academics, and authors. They’ve been on the ground helping to fight border suppression, and they’ve helped get women elected. When you listen to The Electorette, my goal is that you will always leave knowing something that you didn’t know before. Or, at the very least, think about something differently. That is my promise to my listeners. So, please subscribe to The Electorette wherever you listen to your podcasts. Or find the latest episodes at electorette.com. [spells url] And I hope to see you there! [music fades out]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel, I have a fuck yeah this week that I think is pretty on brand for this particular episode.
KL Oh yeah? Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to hear. What is it?
SWB Okay. Well, it’s about a topic that I know you love—
SWB —we talk about it all the time.
SWB It’s not snacks.
KL It is…periods?
SWB Yes! [both laugh]
KL Tell me.
SWB Okay, so this week, I am giving a big old fuck yeah to a group of eighth graders from Bronx Prep Middle School who won the grand prize in NPR’s first-ever student podcast challenge because they put together a podcast about periods.
KL Oh my gosh, I just saw this and it is so cool.
SWB Yeah, it’s a group of seven eighth grade girls [KL laughs] and what they did is they decided that they were tired of not being able to talk about periods, so they were going to not only talk about periods, they’re going to talk about it on a podcast in a very public way. It’s called “Sssh! Periods.” [KL laughs] Which I love so much!
KL That’s brilliant. [laughs]
SWB Yeah! And I love how they were really feeling frustrated at this expectation that they were being given to hide their period. And it started making me think about just how early it was in my childhood that I was taught to hide the fact that I was having a period. Like how do you surreptitiously slip a pad into a pocket and stuff like that. And I was thinking about just how ridiculous that was! How many great lengths girls would go to in school to make sure that nobody could tell they were on their period.
KL Yeah, exactly. Or even as an adult, getting up from a meeting and taking your purse with you to the bathroom and being like, “oh no, people will think I’m on my period” and it’s like, “yeah? So?” [laughs]
SWB I read this article recently—I can’t remember the number—but there was this huge percentage of women like, I don’t know, 35% of women who work in offices are anxious about taking their purse with them to the bathroom because they are afraid people will think they’re on their period.
KL That’s ridiculous.
SWB I just made up that stat, so please do not quote that stat! [KL laughs] But it was one of these numbers where I was like, “what? Still?”
KL Oh my god, totally. And I don’t know if this was in the write up that they did about the contest and the girls who were doing this podcast, but they were talking about how they have to use a code word to go and ask for menstrual productions [laughs] in the school office. And I mean, no wonder we have men who think women can hold their periods in making terrible decisions about women’s bodies! It’s like, “why are we hiding this?” [laughs]
SWB Ughh because we can’t just say pad—
KL [laughing] Exactly.
SWB —we have to say… what was it? Marshmallow?
KL [laughing] Marshmallow!
SWB Oh my god!
KL Oh my god.
SWB Fuck that, but fuck yeah to the girls from Bronx Prep Middle School because the period podcast is awesome! I hope every middle schooler learns to talk about periods because I want every adult to eventually be able to talk about periods! Because guess what? Periods are fine.
KL Fuck yeah to them and fuck yeah to periods.
SWB Fuck yeah!
KL Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. They’re an awesome Philly-based band you should check out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Caroline Criado Perez for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts because it really helps us out! And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and then plays out]