Invisibility isn't always a power

Published May 1, 2019

Invisible Women book cover

I’m currently listening to the audiobook Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s focus is on the gender data gap - the ways in which the world is often unthinkingly designed for men and how that affects women in real and unexpected ways.

I’m finding it hard going, not because of the book itself - it’s well written, researched and read - but because the unintended and far-reaching consequences of a simple lack of thinking weigh heavy on me. I’m having to listen in short bursts and then stop to do something else.

However, I think it’s really important information. So far, a couple of examples have really made me think, including the floor space equality in public toilets, and the reason even the snow plough people need to think twice.

Another example is below, where it became clear that the attendance of young girls to Vienna’s public parks (for sporting and recreation purposes) rapidly drops off after a certain age.

But rather than simply shrugging their shoulders and deciding that the girls just needed to toughen up, city officials wondered if there was something wrong with the design of parks. And so they planned some pilot projects, and they started to collect data.

What they found was revealing. It turned out that single large open spaces were the problem, because these forced girls to compete with the boys for space. And girls didn’t have the confidence to compete with the boys (that’s social conditioning for you) so they tended to just let the boys have the space. But when they subdivided the parks into smaller areas, the female drop-off was reversed.

They also addressed the parks’ sports facilities. Originally these spaces were encased by wire fencing on all sides, with only a single entrance area - around which groups of boys would congregate. And the girls, unwilling to run the gauntlet, simply weren’t going in. Enter, stage right, Vienna’s very own Leslie Knope, Claudia Prinz-Brandenburg, with a simple proposal: more and wider entrances. And like the grassy spaces, they also subdivided the sports courts. Formal sports like basketball were still provided for, but there was also now space for more informal activities–which girls are more likely to engage in.

These were all subtle changes–but they worked. A year later, not only were there more girls in the park, the number of ‘informal activities’ had increased. And now all new parks in Vienna are designed along the same lines.

Bonus points for the Parks & Rec nod but I thought this was fascinating. And good on the city for doing something about it.

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