It was only last year that the first anatomically correct female crash test dummy was created. With so much data still based on the male perspective, are we truly meeting all consumer needs? Adél Drew discusses her thoughts, based on the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
In her 1949 book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.” (Epigraph to Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez). That same year, the first crash test dummy was created – and I doubt de Beauvoir realised how precisely this invention would illustrate her point.
Crash test dummies test the impact of vehicle accidents on human bodies. While more men than women are injured in vehicle accidents, they are more frequently involved in them in the first place. Women are 17% more likely than men to die in the event of a car crash, based on university studies in the US, and 73% more likely to sustain serious injuries in a front-end collision (Invisible Women, p186). In the world of crash test dummies, ‘human body’ has really meant ‘male body’; the first anatomically correct female crash test dummy was only created in 2022.
This is just one example of many where the word ‘human’ has effectively been a synonym for ‘male’, and not the only one with deadly consequences. When we consider mid-20th century society, it is not surprising that crash test dummies were modelled on male anatomy. Problems arise when conditions change and the assumptions of a previous era are not explicit, remaining hidden in plain sight. This can result in societal systems that hide biases.
The harm caused by these blind spots is not intentional: it comes from the knowledge of those with the most influence, who think their experience is representative of everyone else’s. One reason male crash test dummies are not representative of female vehicle occupants in an accident is that seatbelts do not sit in the correct position on female bodies, because of their breasts. This has resulted in a system of safety testing, and by extension car design, that favours male safety over female safety. This, combined with the higher number of car accidents involving men, has created a data gap that masks the reality of vehicle safety for females.
As a side note, I write this article from my perspective as a woman and have therefore focused on the female experience. However, the concepts apply equally to other under-represented groups, and I encourage the reader to consider parallels.
Gaps in leadership
The invisible nature of mistaken experience shows the importance of ensuring your leaders represent the staff and customers for whom you are making decisions. Without the empowered voices of those with diverse experiences, we risk remaining blind. However, even when it comes to appointing diverse leaders, there may be systemic biases.
Consider the objective selection criteria for inclusion on UK bank notes: the person must have made an important contribution to our society and culture through their innovation, leadership or values, and there must be a suitable and easily recognisable portrait of them (Invisible Women, p15-16). The historical denial of female contributions to science is so pervasive that it has a term: the Matilda Effect (after US suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage). Add in historical female gender roles, the prevalence of network-based recruiting, the ‘people’ who have decided what constitutes ‘important’, and the lower wages and shorter career spans historically experienced by females, and we can see that this ‘objective’ criteria is not objective at all.
A US study by psychologists Lin Bian and Andrei Cimpian with philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie, Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests, shows that, from as young as the age of six, girls stop associating brilliance with females (Invisible Women, p101). Much of this is due to historical representation in what we are taught; the same factor contributes to impostor syndrome. Yet many businesses attempt to tackle this issue through leadership courses that aim to help women fit into the existing system, with little focus on the idea that it is the system that fosters this feeling in the first place. This is like expecting women to change their anatomy to better fit the cars we have already designed.
Gaps in actuarial work
When we think about diversity, much of the focus is on diversity within our organisations – but what about the insurance products we design? Under new Consumer Duty regulations, Principle 12 requires firms to act to deliver “good outcomes” for retail customers. The Prudential Regulation Authority has issued guidance stating that the product or service design must meet the needs, characteristics and objectives of customers in the target market to deliver good outcomes. Given who the voices at the table were when most insurance products were first designed, and whom they were designed for, leaders should think about whether they truly meet the needs and objectives of all the ‘humans’ in our target markets.
Here is a simplified example. Consider a heterosexual couple who are about to have a child and have some level of individual insurance protection. Let’s also assume that this household does not receive any group protection benefits from work, so their cover does not extend automatically during parental leave. Traditionally, we would assume that the male is the main breadwinner, with the protection policy aiming to protect the family from the loss of his income.
Current product designs allow for a waiver-of-premium option during times when the policyholder cannot work due to illness or injury. There is no widely available equivalent rider designed to accommodate a breadwinner who takes time off work on the arrival of a baby. While the mother is legally entitled to 90% of her earnings for the first six weeks, and the minimum of £156.66 per week or 90% of earnings for the next 33 weeks, the father in this example has no such entitlement. This presents two potential issues:
- If the mother is the breadwinner, she faces a difficult choice: go back to work after six weeks, or risk the household not being able to cover their bills. This might be manageable for a life-insurance policy but what about a more expensive critical illness policy? If she did decide to take more time off, her options may be to lapse the policy and lose the benefit at a time when protection is needed the most, or put household finances under strain.
- If the father is the breadwinner and it makes sense for the mother to take the full year of maternity leave offered, a similar issue may arise if he chooses to spend time with his new child. A system where it is seen as a female’s job to look after children is thus perpetuated, which often results in lifelong financial repercussions for women – including poverty in retirement.
There are greater societal issues here, but perhaps offering a waiver of premium benefit during parental leave could create a fairer outcome for both mother and father.
Gaps to close
There are widespread systemic data gaps around women’s experiences and we will make inadequate decisions for half the population if we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. In some cases, established systems unintentionally continue the cycle of discrimination that we are attempting to address through other means; in others, they can be harmful, or even deadly, for women.
While there has been progress on reducing the gender pay gap, we must look at the hidden perspective gaps in our systems – otherwise we are at risk of overlooking biases, perpetuating past injustices and placing unnecessary hurdles on the road to true equity.
Adél Drew is a senior consultant at Milliman in the London office, specialising in actuarial risk management