The Science of Invisible Women

Lab bench too high? Lab jacket doesn’t fit? These common issues experienced by women in science may not come as a surprise after reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. Here, we discuss our thoughts on this book and how scientific research has been built around the “Reference Man”.

The Science of Invisible Women

Many would argue that it is impossible to underestimate the extent of misogyny and sexism in the wake of #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. Yet, this reality is exactly what Caroline Criado Perez reveals to us in her book Invisible Women. Whether it’s the size of your smartphone, the drugs prescribed by your doctor, your income, or how safe you are in your own automobile; there are a myriad of imperceptible ways in which women are still being put at a disadvantage in the modern world.

So why is our society so inhospitable to women? This is in part because our world was designed to fit the “Reference Man”. The “Reference Man” is a hypothetical individual, intended to represent the average person. He is a white male, around 40 years old, and weighing approximately 70 kg. However, considering that women make up half of the world’s population, the median age on most continents is below 40 and that the most populous continents on Earth are Asia and Africa, it is clear that the “Reference Man” actually does a poor job of representing the average human. Invisible Women explores how our reliance on the “Reference Man” has produced a problematic gender data gap and thus created a world that is inherently biased against women.

The “Reference Man” is a hypothetical individual, intended to represent the average person. He is a white male, around 40 years old, and weighs approximately 70 kg... it is clear that the “Reference Man” actually does a poor job of representing the average human.

While the gender gap may seem like an abstract concept, its implications affect women on a daily basis. Some of these effects can be annoying, but mild; for example, you may not be able to comfortably hold or use your mobile phone because its dimensions were calculated with men in mind, who generally have a larger handspan. While this may seem relatively innocuous, the repercussion associated with instruments built for men can follow us throughout many facets of life, including to the lab bench. As women scientists we encounter this on a daily basis, from gloves and pipettes that are made for bigger hands to flow hoods that aren’t built to accommodate us and lab coats that are by turn too tight, too loose or too long.

In addition to these physical hurdles, women in science are also confronted on a daily basis with unconscious biases against women in the academic setting. For example, women scientists are systematically cited less than our male counterparts. In teaching evaluations, male academics are more likely to be labelled “intelligent” or “genius” than female academics, who in turn are more likely to be labelled as “mean”. Moreover, while women are evaluated less positively than men, students still demand more from women academics, turning to them when they are in need of academic and emotional support.

While the gender data gap clearly affects the ability of women to fully participate and be successful in science, science itself can also fuel the gender data gap in very harmful ways, even leading to the preventable death of women. For instance, Invisible Women highlights that prescription drugs are often  tested on mostly male subjects, to then translate the results to women. This ignores huge differences in our biology including the female reproductive cycle and the differences in bio-distribution of drugs between men and women.

One of the most extreme examples is from a safety study on Flibanserin, often referred to as “female Viagra”, which included data from 23 male subjects but only two female subjects. As a result of studies like this, women are often misdiagnosed or misprescribed. Think for instance of the symptoms caused by a heart attack: the first thing that comes to mind is probably chest pains. Did you know that this symptom is almost exclusively present in males? Female heart attack victims more often present with symptoms like nausea, indigestion, and fatigue. Because these are not conditions typically associated with heart attacks, women often do not seek the medical help they need and can even be misdiagnosed by medical professionals when they do seek assistance.

A major factor contributing to the gender gap is that most people are entirely unaware of its existence in the first place. We therefore believe that the first step in fixing this problem is to address these issues openly.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, data demonstrate the disproportionate effect on women in academia, with those in the early-career phase being particularly vulnerable. These data are not surprising; when we enter into a pressured state, those already disadvantaged will be the most affected. But these data do solidify the need to support women – both during pandemic and non-pandemic times.

So, what do we do about this gender gap problem? A major factor contributing to the gender gap is that most people are entirely unaware of its existence in the first place. We therefore believe that the first step in fixing this problem is to address these issues openly. Whether you use Invisible Women as a starting point or not, the important thing is to have a frank conversation with friends, family members, and colleagues about how gender bias can shape our lives and why this poses a problem for everyone, not just women. Having this conversation with colleagues may be particularly important given the finding that those who are most confident in their ability to be objective, a core scientific value, are the ones most prone to expressing bias.

Change needs to come from individuals, but also within institutes. There are multiple examples of structured networks for women (WHEN,500womenscientists, AWIS). Beyond these networks, changes to university, institute, and company hiring and retention need to be made. Biases exist in CV evaluation and academic positions have been designed with the Reference Man in mind. Importantly, though there has been a big push over the last years to obtain equal representation for women in many fields including STEM, it is important to note that even when women make substantial gains in representation, gender bias can persist. Luckily, we can all take steps to mitigate these biases. One great way is to first identify our own biases. This test, created by Project Implicit helps you identify the biases you might not realise you have. Once you know your implicit biases, you can move forward with implementing guidelines to reduce bias in aspects of academic science. Relatedly, there are programs, such as BRIC at Georgetown and the USC race and equity center, which offer training in inclusive practices. Make sure to take a look at whether your own institute offers similar training programs, we strongly encourage all members of academia to participate. Finally, it is critical for funding organizations to alter their review and funding processes to promote equity. Examples include reviewing all submitted applications, including a separate letter of intent stage in which short applications are screened (resulting in predicted reduced efforts by writers and reviewers), uncoupling the scientific review from the review of the applicant (i.e. independently review the research statement and CV), instituting alternative funding mechanisms (e.g., lottery systems) , and requiring implicit bias training for all administrators and reviewers. Changes are required by both the individual and the system to generate equitable working environments and opportunities for women.


We would like to thank the members of the eLife Ambassador Intersectionality Book Club - Samantha Seah, Renuka Kudva, Stephanie McKenna, Stephanie Moon - for discussion and sharing personal experiences.

About the authors:

Vera-Marie Dunlock is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she works on single cell signaling dynamics in immune cells. Connect with Vera-Marie on Linkedin or on Twitter.

Lotte deWinde is a postdoctoral researcher at the department for Molecular Cell Biology and Immunology at Amsterdam UMC (location VUmc), and investigates the role of lymph node stromal cells in immunity and cancer. She is also member of eLife's Early Career Advisory Group. Follow Lotte on Twitter.

Sarah Hainer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and passionate about inclusive practices within academic science. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

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