Book Review: Invisible Women

This year, after watching this video, I have been encouraged to try and return to the heights of my preteen reading capacity (probably not possible with the rate I devoured YA novels) to expand my exposure to novels and books beyond the confines of my academic course. Whilst over summer I focused more on fiction (particularly recommend 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'), this month I treated myself to a (hardback!) book called 'Invisible Women' by Caroline Criado Perez, and whilst a lot of the book felt infuriating, many of the insights felt ever relevant and the solutions proposed optimistically straightforward.
Split into 6 sections, this book proved to be eminently accessible and even though economic understanding is present throughout, this is not a barrier for those intimidated at the thought of an 'economics book' as such. Whilst as I got towards the end of the book and came across sections I was more familiar with such as GDP calculation I found myself skimming, there was plenty of content I had not encountered before which felt more engaging. Perhaps then this book is best suited to an introductory investigation of key topics.
Whilst many of us have seen articles lamenting design flaws such as smartphone size and VR headsets, topics which Perez does discuss, what held most impact for me within this book were instances of planning, policy and research that failed to include the perspective of women and consequently held gendered consequences. Below I will include a couple of examples
Medical Research
This section in the book was probably where 80% of my outraged scoffs were aimed. Perez takes the reader through an academic and practical minefield for women. Referring back to her introductory remarks about the male default, Perez criticises assumptions made within medicinal teaching and care that the male body is the neutral norm whilst the only sex specific differences between men and women occur within reproductive systems. A lot of the reticence to examine sex differences relates to the 'messiness' of hormones commonly present within female bodies that complicate studies and warp results- the solution? Just exclude women from the study to get a neat conclusion and move on. In fact, sex difference exists within 'every tissue and organ system in the body', there are differences down to our cells, inevitably producing differential reactions to 'standard' treatments and diagnosis. Perez looks at the example of heart attacks to illustrate the dangers of such an approach. A 2014 review if the FDA database of CRT-D devices used to treat heart attacks found that only 20% of the participants in trials were women with individual studies having such negligible numbers of women that dis-aggregating results by sex found no major difference. When the results were combined however, it is revealed that women needed such devices at a lower threshold of symptoms than men. A shame then that medical guidelines releasing doctors to recommend this treatment relate to male averages then. If such devices were given to women at their lower threshold, Perez states that this would see a "76% reduction in heart failure or death and a 76% reduction in death alone" from having this pacemaker implanted. This implies that the gendered data gap is causing preventable deaths.
Moreover, Perez discusses 'Yentl syndrom', describing the instances when women are misdiagnosed and not believed unless their symptoms conform to the presentation of symptoms according to the male standard. Again referencing heart attacks, it becomes apparent that despite the fact that women and men often exhibit different symptoms that indicate an individual is having a heart attack, the male standard is used to measure a patient against, leading to many women being turned away or misdiagnosed. This is fatal!
Transport Funding
Whilst the title of the first chapter 'can snow clearing be sexist?' got a look of amusement from the man sat next to me on the bus, I am sure he might be even more surprised to find out that in fact, yes it can. Perez discusses the way that city planners can unknowingly and without any malice disadvantage women in the allocation of funding to different projects and schemes. In most countries, women tend to rely most heavily on public transport and walking. This is due to the fact that women tend to be more likely to have to make 'trip chains' running smaller errands and making multiple short journeys throughout the day. Walking and public transport lends itself to this. Men on the other hand, are more likely to drive, with a journey in and out of their workplace often covering their daily travel. So in Sweden when city officials of Karlskoga dedicated their efforts to clearing the roads rather than pedestrian walkways this was largely catered to one type of travel. Interestingly, this was actually costing Sweden, a lot, in healthcare during the winter months. The equivalent of £3.2 million was the cost of pedestrian falls in a single winter season! This sum was about twice the cost of road maintenance in winter- it made sense to adjust policy to cover broader winter safety measures and since changes has been introduced, considerable savings have been made.
This is just one of many seemingly innocuous policy choices unwittingly perpetuating a male bias, often entirely unintentional, unpacked in ‘invisible women’. Certainly the extent of impact policy at the city planning level was quite astonishing to me.

Whilst by the end of the book I felt that a certain argument was being copy pasted a lot with new examples, the very fact that there are so many instances where the argument applied should in itself give pause for thought. Overall I found the book to be packed with studies and statistics alongside enraging points that felt increasingly urgent. 

Incentive Problems in University Education

This blog post is inspired by the very boring lecture I've had to attend all semester.

While I am interested in all the modules I take this year (I picked them, after all) I don't have nearly enough time to spend on each one. As I try to allocate my time between the modules this year I can tell that I spend more time on some modules than others. Part of the reason for this is that some modules are simply better than others. But why?

Disclaimer: The following framework is pushing it a little bit because in the first bit I implicitly assume that lecturers care about students' final grades. This might not be the case but bare with me, because as will be revealed later in this post, it may be beneficial to the university experience if lecturers were invested in grade outcomes, too.

In our model set up, we have students and lecturers/course convenors. For each module, students can decide whether to put in a lot of effort (study a lot) or very little effort (do the bare minimum). Students care about the final grades they get but all else equal students will prefer to put in only a little effort. This means if students can get the same grade regardless of how much effort they put in, they will prefer to only do the minimum amount required.

On the other side, we have the course convenors/lecturers. They care about the final outcomes (grades) in the modules they design. Lecturers want students to exert high effort because studying a lot will increase the probability of students doing well in the exam. Maybe lecturers care about students' grades because they care deeply about our learning experiences, or maybe they get some kind of reward if students perform well in their exams.* Students are scarce on time which means that they can't spend a lot of effort (or time) on each module. Lecturers only observe the final results (good grade/bad grade) which doesn't necessarily tell them about the students' effort. This is because putting in a lot of effort only increases the probability that students do well in the exam. You might study a lot but on the day of the exam, you have a terrible headache so that you can't remember any of the course material. On the other hand, you might not study at all but the exam is multiple choice and through some miracle, you get all the answers right. The point here is that studying a lot will only increase the probability that you do well, it doesn't guarantee it. Overall, this means that lecturers want students to study a lot for their module to increase the probability of good grades. For example, Emma who teaches Microeconomics wants students to study the most for Microeconomics to increase the probability that they get good grades.

How can she do this? As we know by now, economics is all about incentives. What the lecturers will try to do is design their module in a way that is incentive compatible. This means course convenors will want to incentivize students to spend a lot of effort on their module. How could they do this?

1. They could make the module and lectures really exciting!
This would require more effort from the lecturers' side, but a well-designed module will always be preferred by students. If you explain concepts clearly, design interesting lectures with real-world examples, students might naturally prefer to study more for your module simply because it's more fun.

2. Weekly test
This one's a bit on the mean side, but it gets the job done. Instead of trying to make your module more fun you could incentivize students to study by holding weekly (or bi-weekly) tests on the material. Because students care about their grades to some degree, they will study the material every week to do well in the test. It is also less effort to revise material each week than it is to revise a semesters' worth of lectures the week before the exam. Again, this comes at a higher cost to the lecturers because they have to write and mark the tests (or they get the teaching assistants to do this).

It would be great if lecturers actually did these things because entertaining lectures and well-designed modules are more fun, and while weekly tests might be a pain, it will make revision before the exam easier. So, why don't all lecturers do this?** These things require effort, and apparently, not all lecturers are willing to put in that extra effort. There definitely are some lecturers who actually do care about these things and design great modules. Yet, it might be interesting to see what would happen if the university incentivized lecturers to care about grades, too.

The interested reader might have noticed that this is actually what the professionals call a double-incentive problem***. The incentive problem exists between the lecturers and students but there is a second one! To get lecturers to care about students' grades, the university needs to incentivize them to do so.****

* This, of course, assumes that they can't just design really easy exams but instead the only way to achieve this is by getting students to study for the module
** In other words: Why do I have to sit through two hours of boring formulas and terrible lecture design every week?
*** This is a joke, only I call it that
**** I don't know how lecturers' contracts are designed, maybe they already include something like this

Shorter Working Weeks; why the Permanent Three Day Weekend isn't just a Fantasy

"Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest." This was one slogan used in the fight for shorter working days, legally defined limits to work and improved working conditions for the masses during the industrial revolution. Sure, this was for 6 days a week, but it was better than the 12 hour + shifts many were forced to do at the time. Fast forward a century or so and the accepted working week was about to be challenged again, this time from the top down. Henry Ford decided to remove a day from the working week at his factories, decreasing the weekly hours from 48 to 40. Certainly, such a move wasn't super selfless, Ford kept production targets high but just expected this to be achieved with less time. Setting this aside for now, productivity soared and so did profits.

Now, debates surrounding a shorter working week are surfacing again- Labour has incorporated the 4 day week into its party policy. Losing hours whilst maintaining a rate of pay might just take us one step closer to 'utopia', lengthening leisure, reducing stress from overwork, facilitating care responsibilities and allowing citizens greater capacity for democratic engagement. But is this unrealistic, supremely optimistic tunnel vision? Despite more comprehensive systems of protection for working conditions and limitations on working hours, we appear to be more accessible than ever before (on average we work an extra 7 hours a week after leaving work) and overwork has not gone away- so can we really afford to slow down?

4th Industrial Revolution
A shorter working week may seem completely radical- the 9 to 5 is just a fact of life! But with the age of AI and machines displacing workers, we need a radical rethinking of the way we structure work. A 30% increase in productivity, as made possible by technology addressing inefficiencies, would allow the UK to drop to a four day week of 32 hours. But these benefits are anything but guaranteed;"automation will not produce more free time for ordinary workers unless adequate policy is in place to ensure it". Certainly without effective policy, businesses may instead choose to cut costs and pay workers at the same rate for their reduced hours, defeating the gains made for ordinary workers whilst also leaving many unemployed and impoverished.
Beyond the context of a labour market about to be completely reshaped by technology, reducing hours has an impact without technology, actually causing increased productivity and thus gains for business.
A report published by the CDC in 2004 came back with a number of important findings regarding working beyond the 40 hour week;

  • People who regularly work overtime are less healthy than those who stick to 40 hours.
  • After the 8th hour of work, employees are less focused and less likely to make mistakes
  • People who regularly work overtime tend to be less productive.

Okay, so this is testament to the fact that working longer hours is counterproductive but actually reducing them?
When Kellogg reduced the working week to a 6 hour day in the midst of the great depression accident rates declined by 41%; this reduction was so successful that Kellogg announced "The unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight".
So not only does productivity not increase after an eight hour day, it might actually be the case that eight hours is not  the point of peak productivity.
Further studies contribute to the picture that not only does working fewer hours give us more lesiure time, it makes us happier and more productive.
For two months in 1974, the British government shortened the working week to just three days for two months. Despite this 40% drop in hours, productivity only dropped by 6%, demonstrating a rapid rise. Moreover, fewer employees took sick leave, further contributing to savings on the margin- when 57% of sick days are due to overwork related issues, shorter weeks can be an important change.
Meanwhile in France, when the less radical 35 hour week was mandated almost 60% of workers reported that the decrease had a positive impact on their work life balance and general happiness. This was just with a 5 hour decrease.
So really, it could be beneficial economically to decrease our working hours; as referenced in the above video, Britain works longer hours than many European countries and yet is less productive individually. Maybe a decreased working week can begin to change this.
Other benefits
It is easy when we are looking at things from a purely economic perspective to disregard elements that we are less able to quantify but in reality, a lot of these extra points can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. Fundamentally, less time at work = more leisure time. These extra hours can be put towards:
  • Civic engagement. With less time at work, individuals will be able to engage in a more meaningful way with politics, increasing accountability of our representatives and allowing more people to make informed and well thought out decisions when it comes to participating within our democracy. 
  • Unpaid work. Globally, 75% of unpaid work is completed by women ranging between 3-6 hours per day on this extra labour. this is impacting women's health too. Even working 41 hours a week holds an added risk of mental illness for women. Reducing the working week will allow greater leisure time for those engaging in unpaid labour but also more time for this unpaid labour to be completed in. It may also go some way to correcting the imbalance, with greater availability of both men and women to complete these extra tasks.
  • Family units. Decreasing the working week could go some way to family bonding and parental involvement in child rearing (as well as saving families the costs of childcare.) Moreover, the reduced burden of a four day working week may seem less intimidating for women on maternity leave, providing a route back into employment that still allows time for being a mother.
  • General leisure. Reducing the working week would give us more free time to do what we want with! This is the utopia imagined by economists in the past because humans receive great utility from having more leisure. Even without the added scope for uses of this leisure time, having more leisure in itself would be something to celebrate.