Caroline Criado Perez’s exposé of the gender data gap that has created a world biased against women has won her the Royal Society science book prize.
Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, which explores how everything from speech-recognition software to bulletproof vests, from medical tests to office temperature controls are designed for men as a default, was called a brilliant exposé by chair of judges and Oxford professor Nigel Shadbolt.
He said the book had made him, as an AI researcher and data scientist, look at his field afresh. “[Criado Perez] writes with energy and style, every page full of facts and data that support her fundamental contention that in a world built for and by men gender data gaps, biases and blind spots are everywhere,” he said.
The author and feminist campaigner who successfully pushed for Jane Austen to be featured on the UK’s £10 note, called her £25,000 win on Monday night a huge relief.
“Obviously it’s a huge honour, but mainly because it has the official endorsement of scientists and so it can’t be dismissed now, and that’s so important,” she said. “Writing this book was hellish. It really tested my mental strength to its limits, partly because it was a really emotional book to write because of the impact this is having on women’s lives and how angry and upsetting it was to keep coming across this gap in the data. But also it was very challenging because it was a book about the whole world and everything in it, and I had to work out how to synthesise that into something manageable.”
When she began writing, she said, she gave a talk at the launch of the women’s health all-party parliamentary group, during which she said “very innocuous things that are very well-known, like how women are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a heart attack, how female animals are not being included in studies, how women are having adverse drug reactions”. She received an angry response from some of the male doctors present.
“It was a real shock to me. As someone who doesn’t have a science background, I’ve always looked up to scientists as objective and rational. Even though I knew there was this bias in medical science, I thought that hearing the evidence, they would react in a ‘We need to fix this’ kind of way rather than a ‘What is this stupid woman talking about?’ kind of way,” she said. “I was really aware this book was going to ruffle feathers and I was very worried about how it would be received by people who might feel defensive about it, that I wasn’t going to be able to do justice to this incredibly important topic and that I would make a mess of it and it wouldn’t have the impact I knew it had to have.”
Winning the award, which is sponsored by Insight Investment, “makes me feel I did justice to the material and to the researchers who provided the source material … It’s just great for the book.”
Criado Perez is the fifth woman to win the science prize in five years. She beat a shortlist of five other writers, all of them male: John Gribbin, Monty Lyman, Tim Smedley, Paul Steinhardt and Steven Strogatz.
Novelist and judge Dorothy Koomson said that Criado Perez’s “important and vital” book exposed “a real-world problem that needs to be talked about. And changed.”