Behind the book: Into the world of Caroline Criado-Perez

Behind the book: Into the world of Caroline Criado-Perez

Caroline Criado-Perez 16.9.jpg

Caroline Criado-Perez lets us into her world of data-driven feminism, her thoughts on technology and gender equality, and her journey into the realm of activism

It was a Thursday afternoon, but unlike typical British weather it was surprisingly bright and clear, a good omen for the conversation ahead. After an obligatory greeting and the standard messing around with headphones and microphones, Caroline Criado-Perez, best-selling author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, let Capacity's Natalie Bannerman into her world.

In the words of Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, ‘let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”.

Criado-Perez is a noted feminist, author, and proponent for gender equality, and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2015 for her work in equality and diversity, particularly in the media.

Admittedly Criado-Perez wasn’t born this way, she goes so far as to say, “I was a misogynist”.

“Recognising what the media was like, in the late 90s and early noughties, it's actually not surprising that I was pretty misogynistic because it was a very misogynistic environment,” she says.

“The way we spoke about women was very demeaning, so it’s not surprising that I didn't really see myself reflected in that, and therefore just didn't identify with what I felt being a woman was.”

As result, she went through her 20’s feeling fairly anti-feminist, saying “I thought it was embarrassing, I thought it was man-hating and I didn't want to be associated with it”.

But as she started her undergraduate degree in English language and literature, it the first time she actually had to read any feminism work, as opposed to how feminist was spoken about in the media.

“I read this book in particular called Feminism and Linguistic Theory (by Deborah Cameron) and there was this section on the generic masculine in language, so things like he to mean he or she; man, to mean humankind.”

While she had heard that feminists don't like the use of, he as a gender-neutral pronoun the younger Criado-Perez saw it as another example of how stupid feminism was being, because we all know that it's gender-neutral, surely there are bigger issues in the world?

“But the author of the book pointed to research that showed when people read these terms, they do, in fact, picture men. That completely blew my mind because I couldn't believe that I had never noticed that before. I didn't know what was going on in my own head,” she explains.

My relationship with social media has changed a lot over the years. I think I was much more open on social media about a decade ago

This was what kickstarted her into the world feminism and primed her to start noticing the other areas where we think we're speaking gender neutrally, but we're actually thinking about men.

After she completed her first degree, Criado-Perez went on to study feminist economics and behavioural economics, and in the process discovered how the whole economic system is designed around the stereotypical male way of engaging with the workforce.

“Then I came across the healthcare data, and discovered that in the study of human bodies, we act as if the male body is the default human body and the female body, which is 50% of human bodies, is seen as a kind of atypical niche area of study, and the impact that has on women, could be potentially fatal,” she says.

As someone seemingly so self-assured and confident in her convictions, it’s refreshing to hear Criado-Perez laugh off this observation saying, “I'm glad that my mask is so impressive”.

Under the surface she says there's a mixture of terror, stress, paranoia and anxiety, most of which stems from social media, a place where she’s been burnt a number of times.

“My relationship with social media has changed a lot over the years. I think I was much more open on social media about a decade ago,” she says.

“I've really learned to not express any emotion or any personal feelings. I keep it very objective and try to just present the facts, which is sad but also just the reality of being on social media as a woman with a profile.”

This sense of vulnerability comes as a result of her activism. One of her most notable campaigns was petitioning to have a female historical figure on Bank of England £10 notes. A campaign that gained 35,000 signatories and subsequently saw Jane Austen replace Winston Churchill (who had previously replaced Elizabeth Fry) on the £10 note.

Unfortunately, in 2013 following the aforementioned Bank of England campaign, Criado-Perez received numerous threats, including threats of rape and murder as well as other women on X (Twitter) associated with the cause.

But she instead led another campaign to encourage Twitter to review its 'inadequate' abuse reporting procedures, leading it to introduce the “report abuse” button on all of its Tweets.

Though credited as a journalist, Criado-Perez doesn’t see herself that way because as she puts it, “I don’t think that journalism and activism sit very well together” despite how objective one tries to be.

“That's something I write about in Invisible Women, when we kid ourselves that we're objective, that is, in fact, when we are at our least objective, because we're not accounting for all our biases,” she says.

She also does this in her own work ensuring that she doesn’t say anything that isn't true, doesn’t cherry pick data or attempt to frame things in a dishonest way, as it would massively damage her credibility.

“I think that when you're an activist, you really have to work very hard to ensure that your passion for your topic and your desire to change the world doesn't make you overly credulous when you read research that confirms your priors,” she says.

So, who are the people or in this case, person who inspires Criado-Perez the most? Unsurprisingly its politician, writer and activist, Millicent Fawcett along with the suffragists and well any woman fighting for women’s rights.

“The reason for that is, it was such an audacious thing to think that they could get. They had no rights,” she says.

“To think that when you have no rights, you can somehow get the most important right, which is the right from which all other rights flow. To have that belief that they deserved that and that they would be able to have that, I just find deeply inspiring.”

On those days when she’s most frustrated by the pace of change or she becomes despondent in her own activism she thinks of the women like Millicent Fawcett who spent their entire lives fighting for this one cause, and that pulls her through.

As conversation turns to other areas, technology, and in particular telecoms, suffers from its own unique brand of patriarchal thinking. Mostly due to the fact that its companies are decades old, largely led and operated by a very homogeneous group of men.

While work has been done to improve this, Criado-Perez gives her thoughts on how to approach change in these industries that are so built on legacy thinking and culture, beyond just talking points.

“I share your frustration, your frustration that there's a lot of talk going on, but how much tangible change is actually happening? That is one of the reasons that I do focus on data because I believe presenting people with facts laid out in terms of statistics and numbers, is much easier for people to grasp,” she says.

Another benefit of presenting data in this way means it’s much harder for people to get defensive, which is one of the issues that Criado-Perez thinks we do have to deal with, when we're talking about things like sexism.

“People hear that word and they immediately can feel like it’s an attack, because when we think of sexism, we think of bad people. But when we're talking about data, it's much clearer that actually, we're talking about bad systems,” she explains.

It's also about making a lot of these issues visible which is part of the problem when dealing with legacy companies.

“They've got this long history, and it's the same with governments, the thinking is ‘this is the way we've always done things’ and it becomes much harder to see why there might be a problem, or how you might even do something differently,” she says.

Most people are just using [AI] to do what we already do but faster, and that's just such a waste of an opportunity

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and generative AI is often touted as a tool that can reduce biases in society, but as we know, AI is only as diverse as the data it is fed and the people who program it. Criado-Perez agrees with this sentiment and its potential to help in the fight against inequality.

“It's a tool, and it really depends on how we use it,” she says. “If we are just using it to replicate what we've always done, it's going to make things worse. What we know about machine learning is that it amplifies the biases that are in the data.”

One example would be using AI to replace doctors by training it using the same data that we already have to predict and diagnose heart attacks, that AI is going to make things worse for women, in a context where women are already systematically under diagnosed.

“That said, there is really exciting and interesting applications of AI that I've been reading about where they are taking AI and applying it to areas that, for example, we may have ignored traditionally,” she continues.

“I recently spoke to one researcher who was developing an algorithm that was able to spot victims of domestic violence.”

Other application she suggests is using AI to spot bias in datasets, the problem as she says is that at the moment, most people are just using it to try and do what we already do but faster, “and that's just such a waste of an opportunity”.

So where do we go from here? Across all industries certain things are being mandated and box ticking exercises are being put in place, but the momentum is waning and progress is slow.

Though she doesn’t have all the answers, Criado-Perez has a few ideas as how to generate meaningful, lasting change. The first step is driving awareness.

“So, talking to people about the fact that we are not collecting enough data on 50% of the global population and the impact that has,” she says.

“I bet you that a random person on the street, does not know car crash safety tests, are tested using an average male car crash test dummy, and that the ‘female’ test dummy that exists is just a very small version of the male dummy. Obviously, the female body is unique and not just a small version of the male body that needs to be tested accordingly.”

She believes that if more people knew about these things that companies would be required to act because that leads to pressure.

As for those of us who work with data, they're the ones who can make the biggest difference because they're the ones who are in a position to make sure that the data that we're collecting is both representative and disaggregated.

“There are too many datasets and research papers that I read that have managed to have a diverse population, but then don't disaggregate the data in their analysis,” explains Criado-Perez.

“That causes problems because you get this sort of muddled middle figure that could be hiding a big disparity, you need to know what is actually going on when designing policy, anything else is unhelpful.”

As our chat draws to a close, it’s clear the overarching message from Criado-Perez is that we have an opportunity to do things differently in the name of gender equality, leveraging this next wave of technology and innovation.

All we need is to create an awareness around the issue, have an open and honest dialogue about it along with the data and statistics to back it all up. But above all, a little bit of imagination

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