Invisible Women author Caroline Criado Perez: ‘I knew I couldn’t get a single detail wrong’

Her award-winning book is making governments and corporations wake up to the 'gender data gap' and the sexism built into our everyday lives. Alice Vincent meets the UK's most influential feminist campaigner.

Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Caroline Criado Perez is busy. International Women’s Day is just around the corner, and as the UK’s most prominent feminist activist – and one who's just released the paperback edition of her award-winning book – she is somewhat in demand. Our conversation is the first of her back-to-back commitments for the next three weeks; she calls it ‘Feminist Christmas’.

There are no presents, no turkeys. But the 35-year-old nevertheless has the air of someone charging up Oxford Street, empty-handed, on December 24. ‘Yes, I’m very worried right now,’ she continues, shrugging her way out of a mustard-yellow coat. ‘Can you not feel the stress emanating off me?’

I tell her to catch her breath, while gladly taking possession of Poppy, her tiny Jack Russell-Chihuahua-King Charles Spaniel cross, who is perfectly lap-sized. The notion of Christmas, feminist or otherwise, is one of many familiar life events that gets cast in a ferocious new light when you read Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed For Men.

Criado Perez’s astonishing collection of statistics and facts, taken from hundreds of studies, demonstrate the innumerable ways that the world we live in ignores the existence of women. From car crash safety tests and heart attack prevention (comprehensively, and near-exclusively, based on male research data) to the size of bricks and iPhones (both too large for the average female hand), to city and traffic planning and politics, the book points out systemic bias that is making women’s lives more difficult - and dangerous - in dozens of tiny little ways every single day.

'I knew if I didn't get every single detail right, it would be used as a stick to beat all women with.'

Once I had read it, I found I viewed the world differently – and, as a woman, with more outrage. At two dinner parties I attended in as many days, Criado Perez’s book dominated the conversation; people were shocked at what it showed, and then even more so that they hadn’t noticed it before. 

Personally, it was the most banal things that I found the most eye-opening. That every day I pull open glass doors too heavy for my able woman’s body. That, when public speaking, I’ve always had to wedge the battery pack of a radio mic into strange places, because its creators assumed I’d be wearing trousers and I’m usually not. Before reading Invisible Women, I’d taken these things as normal irritations. Now, I know them to be sexist. 

In the year since it has been released, thousands of other people have been taken aback by Invisible Women, too. The book soared up the Sunday Times Bestseller charts and has won four awards, among them the Science Book Prize and the Business Book of the Year. It has encouraged international governments and multinational organisations to liaise with Criado Perez to try and change the way they collect their data, so the quality of women’s lives can improve.

Caroline Criado Perez
Stuart Simpson/Penguin

None of it, she says, was what she imagined. ‘How could I have expected it to have the impact that it’s had?’ she asks me, barely rhetorically. This is less false modesty than raw fear: there was, she says, an enormous weight of responsibility on getting every statistic in Invisible Women correct – and there are thousands.

‘I felt that if I didn’t, a whole generation would go by and we wouldn’t be able to fix this,’ she explains. ‘Because the thing is, when you write about feminism in a way that challenges norms, and you’re a woman who challenges norms, if you don’t get it right, it is used as a stick to beat all women with.

‘Obviously it wouldn’t have been like that if I were a man. If I were Malcolm Gladwell. If he had made a mess of his first book – which was iconoclastic – another guy could have come along and written the same book and it would have been fine. But I knew that this was kind of make-or-break for the gender data gap. It was really scary releasing it, waiting to see if I’d made some awful mistake.’ 

Obviously, there were no awful mistakes. ‘In terms of powerful people who are reading and reacting to it? It’s pretty astounding,’ she says. When I prod for specifics, she shuffles a little: ‘I’m not sure how much I should say who they are’. What is already public knowledge, however, is how First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has set up a sex and gender data working group following the release of Invisible Women. ‘Sometimes I get an email that lands in my inbox and I’m like, “Holy fuck! That’s incredible!”’, she concedes.

It’s surprising she hasn’t got used to the incredible correspondence by now; it was 2013 when she first started to deal with seriously powerful people as part of a three-month campaign to get a woman on the £10 note. Criado Perez was 28 at the time, balancing her studies for an MSc at the London School of Economics with running The Women’s Room, a source of female experts for the media. She hadn’t intended to be getting into legal battles with the Bank of England, although admits she was naive. ‘I was a fairly newly hatched feminist’, she claimed four years later, on the eve of the note’s minting. While most fresh to the cause will maybe start reading Mary Gaitskill or give up their razors for a bit, Criado Perez changed the nation’s currency. 

In the process, she received such bilious trolling on Twitter that, in 2014, two people were imprisoned for relentlessly sending Criado Perez death threats. At the time of sentencing she described the experience as ‘terrifying and scarring’. But she remained undeterred: by International Women’s Day 2016 she was leading another campaign, this time to get a statue of a woman to interrupt the wall of male statues around Parliament Square. Two years later and Gillian Wearing’s sculpture of Suffragist Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in Westminster.

For all the admiration Criado Perez’s tenacity has won her (she makes no money from her activism), it has also put her on a pedestal she never asked for. She admits that ‘learning that I had to cede control in what people thought of me’ was ‘really difficult’. The worst critics, she says, ‘generally haven’t even read my stuff. People can have very passionate views about you, despite not knowing you. And that was hard. I wouldn’t claim that I’m 100 percent zen about it, but I’ve definitely got a lot better. And you have to, because otherwise you’d just go crazy.’

'Honestly? I started to get really angry'

Criado Perez has relaxed a little now, like a wind-up toy that has reached an even keel. She laughs loudly, often, and usually at herself. She is ripe on her foibles – namely that, until 2010, she was ‘an anti-feminist. I was the kind of woman I would hate.’ Her previous feelings on feminism were that it was ‘very stuff and nonsense’. It is not, shall we say, an expected admission. 

Books, she says, were what changed her. Transforming Criado Perez from a young woman who ‘had it as a point of pride that I didn’t read women, because I was an intellectual’ into a feminist activist. 

Criado Perez was a mature student, albeit in her early Twenties, when she read English Language and Literature at Oxford. ‘Until I finished my undergrad, the only feminism I experienced was all through reading,’ she says, quoting Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own and How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ as transformative titles.

But it was Deborah Cameron’s Feminism and Linguistic Theory that ‘really changed it for [her]’ by including studies that showed that the use of the generic masculine in language meant that women were picturing men whenever they encountered the words such as ‘mankind’, even if they were used to mean both genders. ‘It really made me think very hard about how much of a negative attitude I’d had to women as a teenager and a young woman,’ she continues. ‘And honestly? I started to get really angry.’ The lightbulb went off, and the future of British feminism started to change.

Invisible Women

I’m keen not to interrupt Criado Perez much. She speaks eloquently for minutes at a time, in swathes of words and numbers, and we don’t have long together. But I do tell her that I recognise her story: until I was in my early Twenties, and had a lightbulb moment while reading a book (Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, like many people my age), I considered feminism dowdy, embarrassing and irrelevant, too. I tell her I took pride in having mostly male friends. ‘There’s a cache to getting the respect of a man,’ she says, in response. ‘There shouldn’t be, but it’s very difficult not to fall into that. It’s so inculcated, how society views men to be great and women not to be.’

The past decade has been, then, a momentous one for gender politics. And Criado Perez admits that ‘there are far more feminist activists around’ than when we first had feminist awakenings. But there’s still plenty of work to do, plenty for Criado Perez to be worried about. Corporate ‘pinkwashing’ - or companies paying lip service to gender parity without actually doing anything about it - remains a concern: ‘[Companies] tend towards the easy and cheap and sometimes. It not only doesn’t help, it can make things worse,’ she explains. 

Gathering data properly and using it to do better can help mediate change, she says, but so can simply being nice. ‘In the current political climate people have retreated into their silos, just hating the other side,’ she sighs. ‘I am increasingly becoming convinced that it’s incredibly important, in terms of making any kind of progressive change, to approach people in good faith and with openness and generosity.’

Our interview carries on out of the hotel reception and past the roadworks that cleave Covent Garden in two. As we pause at the traffic lights mid-conversation, I’m aware that she has photoshoots to pose for, podcasts to appear on, events to speak at, and that there is far more to be discussed than we will ever have time for. But then is that not the spirit of Feminist Christmas? So much to do, with most of it falling on women. Good cheer – it goes a long way.

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