Exposing the facts of patriarchy

The Guilty Feminist: From our Noble Goals to our Worst Hypocrisies by Deborah Frances-White (Virago Press; £14.99) and Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Created for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Penguin Random House; £16.99) reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor.

Each episode of the hit podcast The Guilty Feminist starts with comedians confessing ‘I’m a feminist but…’, and each chapter of Deborah Frances-White’s book starts in the same way. These confessions are the reason Frances-White calls herself a ‘guilty’ feminist, in acknowledgement that there’s no such thing as a perfect feminist. Being raised in and shaped by the patriarchy inevitably leads to some less-than-feminist guilty desires, but Frances-White argues that this doesn’t mean we’re not feminists; this is in fact partly why we need feminism.

The Guilty Feminist, as both podcast and book, takes an intersectional approach to feminism, recognising the multiple intersecting aspects of identity that change how we experience the world and are treated within it. Among the many interviews throughout the book is a conversation with transgender and non-binary neuroscientist Reubs Walsh, who shows why inclusion of trans people, who are routinely marginalised, is important in feminism. Comedian Bisha K. Ali talks about the problem with white feminism, which is the equating of all women’s experiences regardless of skin colour, despite this aspect of identity affecting how much privilege we have. The topics sound heavy but Frances-White deftly switches between serious and funny, helped by those regular confessions, including: ‘I’m a feminist but one time I went on a Women’s March and popped into a department store to use the loo and on the way back, I got distracted trying out face creams and when I came out, the march was gone.’

Invisible Women is a good companion book for The Guilty Feminist, providing the cold hard facts that show how unequal the world really is. In a chapter called ‘The myth of meritocracy’, Caroline Criado Perez tells the story of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra which introduced blind auditions in 1970. The proportion of women in the orchestra immediately began to grow – an orchestra that until 1970 had almost no women soon began hiring women 50 per cent of the time. In a similar story recounted in The Guilty Feminist, the world’s largest short film festival, Tropfest, introduced anonymous judging of film entries in 2017. Following this change, the proportion of women finalists rose from 5 per cent to 50 per cent.

Criado Perez points to academia, and STEM in particular, as an area of abundant gender bias. Rightly or wrongly citations are one metric that academics are judged by, yet Invisible Women shows that women are cited less than men are and they self-cite less than men do – despite papers authored by women being rated higher than those authored by men under double-blind review conditions. Many of us have marked coursework where the student has incorrectly assumed a researcher is a man. But it’s not just students – Criado Perez says that women are cited as if they are male ten times more often than men are cited as if they are women.

Invisible Women recounts how students’ teaching evaluations are biased in favour of men. Men receive higher scores than women, even on speed of handing back assessments, despite there being no difference between women and men on this measure. These statistics are all the more concerning in light of those universities using student ratings as a probation or promotion marker.

Both books highlight how unconscious and conscious bias leads to real world inequalities. They show the permeation of gender inequality throughout all aspects of our lives, including in medicine, wages, taxes, housework and the media. Feminists still have their work cut out to bring down the patriarchy, and these books show that they really have nothing to feel guilty about.

- Reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor.

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