In her keynote address here at the IAPP Europe Data Protection Intensive in London, Caroline Criado-Perez gave a sobering account of why privacy professionals should take seriously the job of bridging the gender-data gap, especially in this age of big data.
Criado-Perez, a journalist, studies how women are affected by data uses in society by experimenting a bit. She looks at how data is aggregated in industries like transportation, medicine and the workplace and is troubled by the imbalances she's found. For example, in medicine, women are twice as likely as men to have an adverse reaction to drugs, in part because they are "hugely underrepresented in medical trials," Criado-Perez said. Just 20 to 30 percent of those participating in trials are women. For example, the female version of Viagra, approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, was in fact tested on 23 men and two women.
Or take a simple Google search. Though women are more likely to die from heart disease than men, and heart disease is the number one cause of death for both U.S. and U.K. women, searching the term "heart attacks" brings up only images of men. According to Criado-Perez's research, most medical tests related to heart disease are done on male bodies. In Cardiac Resynchronization Therapies, for example, women were represented in only 20 percent of studies.
The problem with examples like these and others, Criado-Perez said, is that it's impossible to get good data, data that can save or improve lives, if you don't have a representative sample.
"We live in an era of big data, and we'd like to be excited by that," she said. "But there are huge gaps in our knowledge about women on anything," and that affects anything from consumer products to government policy. And even when data does exist, she said, "we are failing to use it."
In 2015, Criado-Perez championed a campaign within the U.K. to get female representation on bank notes. The campaign was successful in getting Jane Austen's face on 10-pound bills, but the backlash was brutal. A few Twitter users who ostensibly didn't share Criado-Perez's enthusiasm for advancing the feminist movement and creating a more inclusive currency, lashed out, tweeting threats that they would cause her harm, even threatening to rape her or kill her, in no uncertain terms.
Attendees saw these threats emblazoned on display screens, one after the other, in what one attendee called a "gobsmacking" experience.
But Criado-Perez is well-aware she isn't the only victim of online trolling and hate speech, and that her gender itself makes her much more likely a target than if she were male.
"Women routinely get abused online in ways men don't," she said, adding that a study during the early days of online message-boarding showed, on average, users with masculine handles receive about three abusive message a day, compared to 100 for users with feminine handles. But what bothers her more than those statistics is the fact that that kind of desegregated data was available at the time Twitter's infrastructure was being built.
"Twitter could have considered this data when it built the product to account for the way women were abused online," she said.
The omission of data desegregation as common practice and the subsequent ignorance of it in creating algorithms, policies, and even products, plagues our society, Criado-Perez said, but privacy professionals, in their decisions on the kind of data they're collecting, how they're processing it and then how that data is applied, have a significant role to play in leveling the scale back toward equality.
"One action to take away from this, it's very simple, don't worry," she said. "When you start on any new project, stop for a second and ask yourself to think about the 50 percent of the population that just happens not to be male."
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