From gender bias to elder care

Caroline Criado Perez spoke about gender bias in data science at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas which also included a debate on elder care.

woman coding at laptop


Gender bias and the elder care debate were at the centre of several events at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

The author and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez spelt out the dangers of gender bias in science and how it impacts women’s lives. She spoke about her prize-winning book Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men in an event at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. She said the spark for the book, which was recently awarded the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize, came from a decade of noticing how different areas, from economics to refugee policy, had been designed around male experiences.

She spoke, for instance, of how ideas of persecution on which refugee status was judged did not include gender-based violence such as female-genital mutilation. She also cited how Google Translate cannot tell the difference between men and women and defaults to the male, for instance, a word in Spanish might denote that the person doing a role is a female [for instance, a female teacher or profesora], but Google Translate will default to the assumption that it is a male [profesor].

Criado Perez said it was not just that data was often biased, for instance, medical research data being collected mainly from men, but that there was bias even before the data was collected in terms of what scientists thought the problem they were solving was. “The problem will be different depending on who you are,” she said. “This is why the argument for diversity on teams is so strong. It’s not just about social justice;  it’s about creating things that are useful to a lot of people.”

The data decides

Criado Perez was being interviewed for the session by Ann Copestake, head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge. Professor Copestake said: “I am still being told that ‘the data decides’. That is not true. There is always a choice about how and where to collect data. That idea of pure science has built up this mystique.”

Criado Perez listed examples of products that had been built without women in mind. For instance, Apple’s Healthkit app which initially measured everything including copper intake, but doesn’t track periods. She spoke too of how female entrepreneurs struggled to get funding for their products, which were often focused on things women might need. She mentioned Elvie founder Tania Boler’s troubles with making a product to strengthen women’s pelvic floor muscles after childbirth. Many women suffer from pelvic prolapse after giving birth which can cause significant pain and incontinence. To create the Elvie Trainer Boler needed data on the shape and variance of women’s vaginas, yet there were only a handful of scientific papers on this that she could draw from. Criado Perez also spoke about Elvie’s breast pump. In the US, in particular, the use of breast pumps is widespread as many women have to go back to work soon after giving birth due to the lack of statutory paid maternity leave.  In the past the main breast pump on the market, said Criado Perez, required women to sit being milked for 20 minutes at a time [something that few working mums had time for] and was often painful. “Tania Boler developed something that should have been obvious which could fit in your bra and allowed you to go about your day,” said Criado Perez.

Another example she gave was of the introduction of clean cook stoves in low-income countries. The idea was to move people away from traditional stoves which gave off toxic fumes, but women, who mostly used them, wouldn’t adopt them, said Criado Perez.  The problem was that the manufacturers had not spoken to or listened to the people who used their stoves. Once they had done that, they came up with a simple, cheap solution. “The default assumption was that there was a problem with the women not with the product. The same thing happens over promotion at work. There is an assumption that something is wrong with the women, not that the system is unfairly distributing pay,” said Criado Perez. “Some studies suggest that women ask for promotion as much as men and some say they don’t. It’s a grey area, but the assumption is that the way men are doing it is the right way and that we need to fix women.”

The important thing when it came to hiring, she added, was to be aware of the biases in the system and to think about the importance of having gender-balanced teams. “We all have biases. We need to be aware of them and correct for them,” said Criado Perez.

Other areas mentioned included transport design. Criado Perez spoke of cities, for instance, being designed around commuters, rather than those with caring responsibilities who may have different needs in navigating the transport system.

Plastic brain

In another Festival event the neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain, spoke about the plasticity of the brain and said that if certain parts of the brain were used more those parts expanded, for instance, parts of London taxi drivers’ brains related to spatial knowledge have been shown to expand when they are working and then contract when they retire. She spoke of how research showed that groups told they are no good at maths perform less well on tests than others and pointed out how this was proof of the permeability of the brain and how it adapted to social context. “Our sense of well being is affected by society. The brain is sensitive to what others think and adapts according to its environment,” she said. That made social stereotypes very powerful, she added.

Who will look after us in our old age?

Another event, a panel discussion addressed the question: Who will look after us in our old age? Speakers included the feminist economist Dr Victoria Bateman who spoke of the ageing population and the impact on carers. She said informal care was the biggest source of care now and that 17% of over 50s in the UK were providing informal care at least weekly. Three quarters of unpaid care is provided by women, according to the International Labour Organisation. This had an impact on women’s earnings potential and their pensions, said Dr Bateman. Yet more and more women were now in the workforce. Moreover children often lived further away from their parents. The care burden was becoming unsustainable, she said.

When it came to formal care, Dr Bateman said 82% of the adult social care workforce in the UK were women, but 43% earn below the living wage. Government cuts had reduced the number of families receiving care and recent announcements of more money for long-term care was less than a quarter of what was needed, said Dr Bateman. There was a crisis in care and this represented a mounting crisis for the UK economy. Economists, she added, had ignored care for too long. “Care is a fundamental challenge to modern economic thinking,” she stated, calling on policymakers to consider creating a national care service alongside the national health service. “The status quo cannot continue. We need to transform attitudes to care,” she stated.

Dan Holden from the International Longevity Centre said that it was likely that demands on informal carers, usually still women, would increase in the next years. There was no silver bullet, he said. A post-Brexit immigration clampdown which allowed in only high skilled workers [care workers are classed as low skilled] was likely to hit the formal care service hard and local authority budgets had been hard hit by austerity.  The impact on the workforce was likely to be huge and would require a change in how we do employed, said Holden. There would be more need for flexible working and a greater emphasis on lifelong learning as society aged and people had to stay in work for longer and adapt to a fast-changing world of work. More financial support would also be needed for carers. Professor Peter Robinson, an expert in affective computing, added that technology was not the solution. While robots could do some of the logistical tasks around caring, they were no substitute for emotional care, he said.

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