“Invisible Women”: Excluding 50 Percent of the World’s Population Has Real Consequences

How many women and girls throughout the millennia have been better suited to something other than the “women’s work” they were confined to? How much productivity and technological progress has the world missed out on by assigning roles by gender and not aptitude? The invisibility of women in world affairs leads to unnecessary pain and suffering, for women and men alike. 

Imagine aliens who know nothing about the human race were to conduct a research project on our species. Like any good researchers, they would start by examining the written record. Since all that has been written about the human race has been written by humans themselves, the aliens would pore over humankind’s government decisions, research endeavors, academic writing and so on.

Our alien researchers would not be unreasonable to hypothesize that the human race consists of a default group “men” cohabitating the Earth with a small minority of a subcategory group  “women.”

Then, imagine the aliens’ surprise once they move on to direct observation of life on Earth to discover that, in fact, women comprise half of all homo sapiens! How could we have known there were so many of them? the alien researchers might ask themselves. How could they have, indeed.

For too long, women have been invisible in world affairs. (Need further proof? Check out the hashtag #WhereAreTheWomen to see the sheer perniciousness of the erasure of women.)

And this invisibility of approximately 50 percent of the world’s population has real consequences. It leads to incomplete and inaccurate pictures of reality, which in turn leads to poorly planned policies, or perhaps a lack of policies in issue areas that need them. But ultimately, the invisibility of women in world affairs leads to unnecessary pain and suffering, for women and men alike. 

An Incomplete and Inaccurate Picture of Reality

When 50 percent of the population is “invisible,” people do not have a complete picture of what is actually going on in the world. This comes out in a multitude of ways—like how countries calculate GDPs and diagnose the causes of social problems, and how the defense sector assesses risk. 

The way GDP is calculated is case in point for the invisibility of women. GDP is supposed to capture a country’s level of economic activity in terms of all goods and services produced in the country. However, GDP only accounts for work and production in the traditional, masculine sense of the words—that is, work and production which is exchanged for money.

Work that is necessary for daily life like cooking, cleaning and caring for children and animals are not included in GDP, unless money changes hands. Since most of this work is done by women in their own homes without monetary compensation, it is not included in the figure which is supposed to represent a country’s production.

This is no surprise—in a world where women are invisible, so is their labor. Therefore, many countries probably look richer or poorer than they are in reality. This has real-world consequences, because woman-blind politicians, policymakers, academics and pundits make decisions based off of GDP. 

An incomplete or inaccurate view of the world can also lead to the misdiagnosis of the real root of a problem.

One example is terrorist group recruitment: In a world of invisible women, policymakers may think that ideological extremism, unemployment or nationalist fervor drive men to join terrorist groups. While those are definitely factors, one of the best predictors of terrorist group recruitment is actually the condition of the marriage market. If men cannot afford the brideprice to get married, they will join terrorist groups to make the money to do so—especially in cultures where a man is not seen as a man until he marries and becomes head of a family. Therefore, policymakers looking to combat terrorism would be wise to look at local marriage markets, but they might not even think to look there if women are invisible. 

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Another example of misdiagnosing the cause of a problem is identifying the cause of famine, hunger, or malnutrition. In a world of invisible women, these problems may be attributed to drought, climate change, or poverty. Again, those are definitely factors, but in places where women are the primary agricultural laborers, a wise person would also consider factors like women’s lack of time or expectations to tend cash crops before food crops.

In fact, in a world of invisible women, what people perceive to be the “root cause” of a problem is often just a stem growing out of an even deeper “root.” For example, a woman-blind person may say that the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai because of religious extremism. But religious extremism stemming from what? A person who sees women will take one step further and see that the Taliban’s religious extremism is rooted in a need to maintain absolute control over women. That is why educating girls is so dangerous to them.

"Invisible Women": Excluding 50 Percent of the World’s Population Has Real Consequences
Malala Yousafzai at the UN on Aug. 18, 2014. (UN Photo / Mark Garten)

Finally, an incomplete or inaccurate perception of reality creates blind spots for people in the defense sector who are supposed to be properly assessing the world’s risks to keep us safe. Valerie Hudson and her coauthors recently showed that the countries with the worst records of stability are the ones which treat their women poorly. Treatment of women “emerged as a persistently significant explanatory variable” for national outcomes like violence, instability, conflict, and terrorism.

This has real implications for assessing risk and creating war plans. For example, would a country be more willing to accept huge casualties if it had millions of excess men because of decades of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide? (Looking at you, China.) This is a question worth asking, since such a country would be harder to deter.

Also, women-blindness can lead to partnerships with groups that maybe should not be partnered with based on their treatment of women.

A textbook example of this is the U.S. partnership with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As we now know, the mujahedeen morphed into the Taliban which harbored Al-Qaeda and still fight U.S. forces today. So the U.S. sacrificed its long term security for short term political advantage against the Soviets.

Such lack of foresight about a group that openly advertised its treatment of women is unacceptable for military planners who are supposed to “see the world as it is, not as they wish it would be.” How can one “see the world as it is” without seeing half the world’s population?

Wasteful Use of Resources 

Designing effective policy requires having as accurate an understanding of the problem as possible. Therefore, if women’s invisibility causes policymakers to perceive the world inaccurately, they will design wasteful policies that miss the mark. This happens from either improperly identifying beneficiaries of a policy or from fruitlessly and prematurely attempting to solve problems before addressing underlying problems.

Additionally, not only does society risk wasting its time and money, but it also risks wasting the human capital of all those invisible women. 

We mainly see the improper identification of beneficiaries in aid programs. For example, imagine a government is trying to reduce poverty or hunger, increase school enrollment, or achieve any kind of societal good.

In a world of invisible women, policymakers may design a policy that distributes money to the heads of households in the targeted demographic. However, heads of households are usually men, who spend less money on their families compared to women and are more likely to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, or other luxuries. Other programs may misdirect information and training. Aid organizations that host agricultural workshops may train those who own the farmland (typically men), rather than those who labor on it (typically women)

"Invisible Women": Excluding 50 Percent of the World’s Population Has Real Consequences
Farmworker women leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers during their “Harvest without Violence” march in New York City on Nov. 20, 2017. (Working Families Party / Flickr)

“Invisible-women” policies may also waste resources by attempting to address a problem before it’s even possible to do so. An example of this is U.S. efforts to build democracies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Democracy is a high-level societal good which rests on a foundation of countless household-level democracies between the sexes. If men cannot share power in the home, how can they share power with competing national factions?

Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan must first move towards giving their women more rights at the household level, then perhaps decades or centuries later democracy will develop. Trying to graft democracy onto these societies was like trying to install windows before you’ve even built the walls. Resources poured into democracy promotion would have reaped better returns had they been spent on fighting household-level inequalities like child marriage, polygyny, unequal inheritance laws, and divorce and custody laws. However, in a world where women are invisible, policymakers did not think of this. 

Finally, if women are invisible, so are their intellects, ingenuity and insights—in short, their human capital. Bill Gates perhaps put it best in a speech he gave in Saudi Arabia to an audience that was only about 20 percent female and segregated by gender. Asked how Saudi Arabia could break into the top 10 economies in the world, Gates replied, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”

What kind of potential is locked in the minds of the world’s undereducated girls? How many female Albert Einsteins and Thomas Edisons has the world missed out on because they spent their lives making men comfortable rather than discovering?

This is not to say Einsteins and Edisons are more important than those who keep the world running day-to-day, but different people are suited to different things, and talent is not dependent on gender.

How many women and girls throughout the millennia have been better suited to something other than the “women’s work” they were confined to? How much productivity and technological progress has the world missed out on by assigning roles by gender and not aptitude? This is perhaps the most tragic waste of a nation’s resources.

Unnecessary Pain and Suffering

In a world of invisible women, there is much preventable pain and suffering. Many of the examples already mentioned come along with it. Famines stemming from the invisibility of women make everyone hungry. Terrorist groups full of men who could not afford marriage kill men and women alike. Efforts to spread democracy in Iraq ended up destabilizing the entire society and rapes went through the roof. Perhaps American policymakers would have decided to still invade anyway had they known this would happen—but the point remains that in a world of invisible women, their physical safety does not even make it into the discussion.

The most recent example of the invisibility of women leading to unnecessary pain and suffering is government responses to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Governments all over the world ordered lockdowns and quarantines to contain the spread of the virus.

There was much hand-wringing about the impact of these policies on countries’ economies, but did policymakers even consider the impact on women living with domestic abuse?

Did they not think how tone-deaf the mantra “the safest place for you is in your home” sounds to women and children trapped with their abusers?

Did policymakers in countries with inadequate healthcare systems consider the impact on pregnant women when they reserved their countries’ limited healthcare resources for victims of coronavirus?

Did policymakers in countries with large amounts of women working in the “formal” economy consider that when daycares and schools are closed, the burden of childcare and education is more likely to fall on mothers than fathers, and working moms would have to face the painful choice between career and family?

In a world of invisible women, these effects are only considered after the policies have been made and the pain has been suffered. 

How many menstruating girls drop out of school in countries where toilets are considered a luxury, because one “can just go outside”?

How many women in these same countries are sexually assaulted just because they had to answer the call of nature?

How many women are raped during natural disasters because they evacuate to shelters where they are forced into cramped quarters with lots of men and no way to escape or defend themselves?

How many women and children die in natural disasters because they avoid those very shelters?

How many women suffer preventable death and injury in car accidents because safety features are designed for the typical male body, rather than the typical male and female bodies?

How many women suffer heart attacks because they do not recognize their symptoms, which differ from the “default” symptoms of heart attacks in males? How many women die from AIDS complications because the disease progresses differently in females than in males?

These questions could go on, but we must remember this pain and suffering is not limited to women: How many men lose their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters because of women’s invisibility? 

"Invisible Women": Excluding 50 Percent of the World’s Population Has Real Consequences
Signs seen throughout the country during the 2020 Women’s March in October. (@uncannycrust / Twitter) (Roxy Szal) (@Resisterhooddoc / Twitter)

A Transformed World

If everyone suddenly “saw” women, the world would be transformed. People would be more likely to see the world as it truly is. Economists would realize that nothing is free, everything has a cost, and that includes all of women’s taken-for-granted labor.

Therefore, GDP calculations would include all of the unpaid goods and services women provide in their homes. The very definition of work would change from something that one chooses to do to in exchange for money to something that must be done for the maintenance of life. GDP figures would thus more closely reflect how much work goes into just day-to-day living. Properly valuing women’s unpaid work would also allow for homemakers and stay-at-home parents to draw Social Security. In a world of visible women, defense professionals would assess risk based off of the full picture, and they wouldn’t ignore things like sex ratios and treatment of women.

If women were visible, resources would be used more efficiently. No longer woman-blind, policymakers could design policies that address problems at their roots. They would not even attempt policies promoting things like democracy before a basic foundation of stability of the first (i.e., sexual) political order was built.

A world where women were visible would also see their human capital. This would lead to 50 percent female leaders in both the public and private sectors, a reflection of their percentage of the population. Major decisions for society would be made by men and women working together, and the benefits would be manifold. Women’s caution paired with men’s risk tolerance would lead to more balanced decisions. Markets would be more stable; wars would be less likely.

All in all, a world with visible women may be more boring, but boring in a good way. 

This boring world full of visible women would just have less of what causes unnecessary pain and suffering in the world of invisible women. Though the world will never be completely free of war, famine, poverty, and human-trafficking, it is reasonable to think the problems which did arise in a world of visible women were unavoidable (famine caused by drought, for example). Men and women would address these problems together and would probably mitigate many of the unforeseen consequences which seem to plague invisible women. For example, perhaps even in the world of visible women, policymakers would have decided to employ lockdowns and quarantines to contain the spread of the coronavirus in 2020.

However, in this world they would recognize the implications for women in the planning stage. Domestic violence shelters and hotlines would receive increased support and awareness campaigns would educate citizens to watch for signs of abuse. Daycares and primary schools may be deemed “essential” because policymakers would recognize the outsize impact of their closures on working women. Every policy comes with costs and tradeoffs, and in a world of visible women people would examine the costs to women upfront. 

Women make up 50 percent of the world’s population, so there’s absolutely no reason why they should not be seen, whether by their fellow humans or aliens researchers. There is no excuse for humans to miss something so obvious.

Seeing women would lead to a more accurate view of how life is actually lived, a more efficient use of resources, and less pain and suffering and more health and happiness for everyone. Ultimately, men and women both have much to gain by seeing women, and much to suffer by failing to.

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Caitlyn Bess is a Masters of International Affairs candidate at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.