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I by IMD Book Club

Review of Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men

1 June 2021 • by Philip Rosenzweig in I by IMD Book Club

Our book for May is a very important book that has received considerable attention and praise, all fully justified. It speaks to business, of course – work design, product design –...



Our book for May is a very important book that has received considerable attention and praise, all fully justified. It speaks to business, of course – work design, product design – but more broadly to our society. It’s a very illuminating book for women and men alike.

What kind of book is this? 

Last month, we read Bob Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime, a personal memoir about one man’s career, spent at one company, in one industry. There were no end notes, no citations, no research – just Iger’s impressions. That’s fine – for a particular kind of book.  (The people featured were almost without exception all white men … other than animated characters likeThe Little Mermaid, perhaps). 

This month’s book is entirely different.  The author is neither writing a personal tale about her experience (only), nor is she a researcher conducting original studies; rather, she’s a writer and journalist who has collected many examples and presented them in a compelling structure. 

Invisible Women is a book with a purpose: to expose bias in a world that in many ways has been, intentionally or unintentionally, designed by and for men.  The Preface makes this clear:  Criado Perez is explicit that she “will argue,” she “will show,” she will demonstrate in order to make a point. 

Does the author succeed? Absolutely.  This is a passionate book that feels deeply and argues forcefully by amassing many examples, presents them clearly, and supports them with ample data.

The book offers hundreds of citations – in my paperback, there are 70 pages of endnotes, each one allowing the reader to follow up if she or he so desires. 

Invisible Women is a passionate and deeply-felt book that seeks to mobilize and to inspire, to reveal and to persuade. Criado Perez dedicates the book “For the women who persist: keep on being bloody difficult” – by which she means, of course, not that the women are difficult, but must persist in the face of difficulties placed before them – and that what may be perceived as being difficult is nothing more than speaking about fairness and equity.

How is the book organized?

The book is organized into six parts, and covers a wide range of issues:  I. Daily life (example of such things as urban transportation and availability of public toilets); II. Workplace (how job rules and standards for career advancement have been designed for and by men); III. Design (examples of product specifications that have not considered sex differences);  IV.  Going to the Doctor  (how medical research and health care delivery often overlook the needs of women); V. Public Life (how social policy and taxation often disadvantage women); and VI. When It all Goes Wrong (how in times of distress, women often bear a disproportionate burden).   

Invisible Women is broad in its scope, addressing a range of topics from product design (zippers on clothes, seat belts, and more) to medical diagnosis, workplace rules, public toilets, to tax policies. Every reader will have her or his favorite – something that was surprising or resonated. The book is broad in scope as well as deep in its treatment, the tone passionate and heart-felt, while also dispassionate in its presentation of evidence. The effect is powerful:  a strong tone of moral outrage with examples supported by solid data. 

About data bias

The thread that runs through all examples concerns data bias, and at least three kinds of bias emerge. 

A first kind involves the interpretation of data in ways that are gender biased. An early example: snow removal that gave emphasis to the transportation needs of drivers in private cars going to and from work (often professional males) and not those using public transportation for many short trips (disproportionately women). The data, per se, were not biased, but were interpreted according to assumptions of what was important that demonstrated a bias. 

In other examples, the data themselves are biased, notably gathered from men to the exclusion of women. Why are some products of a size or weight or configuration that is difficult for many women? Because they were designed with data from only part of the population. Time and time again, Criado Perez shows how the data set is biased from the start. 

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Still other examples show that even when there are explicit efforts to be fair, underlying gender differences lead to outcomes that are not fair. Decreeing equal space for men’s and women’s public toilets may seem fair, but not only do space requirements differ, the frequency and length of use differs as well – leading to the long lines seen at many public settings. Another example comes from support for academic careers. Even when men and women are given what is intended as equal support to pursue research, women are more likely to be also carrying a burden of child care, meaning that providing equal resources in time and support does not translate into equal levels of assistance – the playing field remains uneven.

Criado Perez does not claim that there are malign intentions behind most of these examples. Rather, what she describes is the result of “the default male”—that time and again, decisions are made by assuming that what works for an average man is sufficient, as if the needs and requirements of men are a good proxy for all humans. And, maddeningly, when a bias is revealed, the response is – implicitly at least – to suggest that the problem is with the person (usually female) who does not conform to the expectations. Women are often treated as a special case, a niche market, a deviation from the norm – rather than half of the human population. The author shares her sense of outrage, and most readers will come to share it, too.

Holding up a mirror

Invisible Women is a powerful book for women and men alike. For women – I am guessing – many examples will not be surprising at all but make clear that one’s personal experience is the norm – and therefore to provide support for confronting bias. For men, the presentation of so many examples, in so many fields, is revelatory. A reader is forced to ask: What about me? Where have I failed to gather the data, or interpreted data in a way that was biased, or made decisions based on assumptions that were not equitable?

Some years ago, I was director of IMD’s Executive MBA program, which consisted of five one-week modules spread over a calendar year, with quite a bit of remote work. As it was designed, in 1998, the prerequisite for admission was completion of our Program for Executive Development, which consisted of two modules, each one five weeks in length, delivered on the IMD campus. In other words, to join our EMBA, which was largely remote, it had been necessary to attend two five-week residential modules.

For the first several years, we had very good enrolment of roughly 60 students per year. I became director in 2009, and over the next years – despite what I thought were significant improvements in the program – enrolment declined steadily. As we investigated, we determined that the problem was the lengthy residential requirement of PED – by 2012, there were fewer managers who could be away for such a length.

We restructured the program such that the residential requirement dropped from ten weeks to four weeks, and within one year our enrolment came back to previous levels – and the gender mix changed significantly as well, going from roughly 10 percent female to close to 35 percent female.

We had not realized that, for our age group – managers roughly 35-45 years of age – our residential requirement was disproportionately discouraging women from taking part. Once we made the change, the problem was obvious – How could we not have seen that? Like so many others, we had designed our program with a standard male in mind – a father and husband, perhaps, but able to absent himself and rely on others.

What to do?

Caroline Criado Perez writes in her Introductory chapter: “at heart, Invisible Women is a call for change.”  Most chapters end with some sense of what can be done, but this is not a book about setting forth policy proposals or mobilizing for action. As the title says, it is about exposing data bias. Its main aim is to raise awareness, to point out the many injustices, to show that they are not isolated and exceptional but constitute a broad pattern that is unmistakable and unacceptable. 

It will also, one would hope, both embolden those who struggle with inequality and inspire others to become more aware of gender biases. Why do we reply on incomplete data sets? Why do we assume that one part of the population will have the same concerns and interests as others? Why do we expect one set of behaviors to be associated with one gender and not the other? As a way to spark insight and self-reflection, Invisible Women is very effective.

Further Reading

Invisible Women left me impressed and wanting to know a lot more. There is less about the sources of bias, about how and why sex differences – based on anatomical and physiological differences, which the author frequently describes – lead to gender differences – the construction of social roles and expectations. That’s a different book, perhaps, but the questions are pertinent. As well, I was left wanting to know the extent to which was described could be found in all human societies or just some, and why some and not others.

Many examples are from English speaking countries or Scandinavia;  there is less from South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world. These questions are beyond the scope of Invisible Women, whose aim is to expose data bias in its many manifestations. For that purpose, this is an important and persuasive book.


Phil Rosenzweig - IMD Professor

Philip Rosenzweig

Professor of Strategy and international Management

Emeritus Professor Phil Rosenzweig has been Professor of Strategy and International Management at IMD since 1996. He directed IMD’s Executive MBA program for six years. He is the author of The Halo Effect and Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers.

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