The segment was beset by difficulties from the start. Having sat online for about fifteen minutes listening to the show (they like to set you up early so that any technical difficulties can be ironed out before going live), suddenly when we went live, the sound my end dropped. The text I got from the AB to tell me I was on the telly and that Christiane Amanpour was holding up a copy of Invisible Women was the only way I knew I had, in fact, gone live. Eek!
The producer called me on my mobile, I restarted skype, couldn’t get through. Tried again, got through, but I still couldn’t hear anything. Third time we struck lucky, but who knew for how long. Meanwhile, I had heard nothing that had been said by Dr Moalem, and it’s fair to say I was a bit flustered by this point.
The truth is I get extremely nervous every time I do any broadcast appearance about Invisible Women. It’s one of the least favourite parts of my job.
It’s the usual imposter syndrome, magnified by the fact that of course I’m not a scientist. Worse than that, I’m a lady not-scientist, challenging the work of not-lady scientists (admittedly using the work of many other scientists, both of the lady and not-lady variety).
But nevertheless, what I say will put people’s backs up (who is SHE to question US/THEM?), and so they will not be reading me with a charitable, open mind, but with a view to finding errors and “debunking” me. The fact that I don’t come from a position of traditional authority means that if I make any mistake, no matter how tiny, I risk undermining the entire thesis.
And the stakes are huge: nothing less than preventing the unnecessary suffering of the hundreds, thousands, millions of women who are injured and sometimes die, simply because we know less about their bodies. Simply because of our unthinking positioning of the male body as somehow unisex. Neutral. Default. Universal.
The thought of making a mistake terrified me the entire time I was writing the book, and while that fear has gradually started to lessen now that it’s won awards, and it’s been read and endorsed by so many people far cleverer than I and whose research I actually cite (thankfully correctly!) in the book, I still have that fear every time I go live. You never have much time to really lay out your thesis and one fumble can be fatal. So the technical difficulties didn’t set me off to a good start.
But on the other hand, deep down I know that I know my stuff. I know that what I’m saying is important and right. And in this case I knew there was one thing in particular I really wanted to highlight. Something that readers of Invisible Women, readers of this newsletter, and the benighted readers of my twitter account, will know I have raised many times before: the lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for female workers.
This is a huge issue outside of Covid-19, but it is of particular concern right now, as so many of the workers on the frontlines of this pandemic are female. Recent analysis
found that 77% of workers who are in the most high-risk jobs in terms of exposure to Covid-19 are female. And of those high risk workers being paid poverty wages, women make up 98%. You want more stats? Try these: 77% of NHS staff are female, 89% of nurses are female, 84% of care workers are female.
And, yes, men do seem to be more likely to die (although we still don’t have good enough data to tell us exactly to what extent it is sex versus gender that is causing this *COUGH MATT HANCOCK COUGH
*), but women do still die. And one of the risk factors in this disease, that seems to be driving a fair number of the “surprising” deaths, is the viral load to which the patient has been exposed.
Healthcare workers are the ones most likely to be exposed to a high viral load. Obviously. And so they are most likely to be the ones who, despite not having underlying health conditions, catch a bad case of Covid-19. And so, you would think it would follow, it really matters that these workers have access to good quality PPE.
And yet they don’t. Because like PPE everywhere, much of the PPE that frontline workers have access to has been designed around the “unisex” male body
. Small, as one worker memorably explained, is small for men.
Even where women are being able to get a “good enough” fit on a mask, it has to be pulled so tight that they are developing pressure sores. Obviously #notallwomen and #notallmen, but these are average gendered trends, because bodies are not unisex. On average.
This was the case I made on CNN
, noting that there was a problem with PPE designed for a default male body being used by a predominantly female workforce. It seems clear to me that we want to avoid as many unnecessary deaths as possible. This includes measures like lockdown, but it also includes measures like having PPE that actually fits the bodies of those providing the care. Not only so they themselves don’t die, but also so that we keep our healthcare workforce healthy so they can treat those who are not. Or, crazy idea, so they don’t spread the disease. It’s a matter of both justice and practicality. Of fairness and saving lives.
Some people are going to get this virus and some people are going to die from it, no matter what we do. And those deaths are a tragedy, but they are no-one’s fault. But some people will get it and die from it because our response is inadequate. And those deaths are someone’s fault. Those deaths are, arguably, criminally negligent. So, obviously carry on making PPE that fits men. But add to it PPE that fits women. It seems to me to be a no-brainer.
So it was a fairly unpleasant surprise when Dr Moalem took great and aggressive issue with my comments, calling me “morally indefensible,” for raising this. Men are the ones who are most likely to die, his thinking seemed to go, so it was shockingly wrong of me to raise the issue of safe working conditions for the, predominantly, women caring for those with coronavirus.
I was taken aback and confused by his reaction – but also immediately felt terrible. I had done the thing I had always worried so much about: I hadn’t stated my case clearly enough and, in so doing, I had let women down. I had made it possible to characterise my comments as a war of the sexes, which is the last thing I have ever wanted to do, since I know how damaging that can be to an argument like mine. I had wasted this opportunity to make things better during this horrendous pandemic, where so many unnecessary deaths have already taken place.
Going on twitter afterwards, my worst fears seemed realised. I had already noted a growing attitude where since men are dying in higher numbers, talking about the need for sex-disaggregated data, talking about the gendered effects of this pandemic, is seen – and angrily dismissed – as nothing more than feminist grifting. “Morally indefensible.” And the CNN segment brought it all out.
We don’t need data on women because MEN ARE DYING. Ignore the fact that if we had historically been studying the female immune system rather than excluding women from medical research because our bodies are “too complicated”, maybe we would understand better why women have a higher chance of survival and, who knows, we might even be able to save more male lives. Ignore too the fact that for many common diseases such as heart disease, the sex outcomes are exactly the inverse because we simply know less about how heart disease progresses in women, leaving them under-diagnosed, under-treated, and over-dead.
Ignore all this. I was a liar. There is no evidence that women suffer from poorly fitting PPE (well yeah at the moment we don’t have official data, because sex-disaggregated data hasn’t been collected – please let’s collect some! – but I choose to believe that the healthcare workers who are busting their guts on this are not lying. But no, I should shut my craven mouth, because it is men who are delivering me my chablis in my castle.**
To which I could easily riposte with the stats about women being the majority of frontline workers, but I didn’t *want* to because I don’t *want* to make this a war of the sexes. It *isn’t* a war of the sexes. It’s about avoiding avoidable injury, disease, and death. Every death, whether of a man or a woman, is a tragedy. Why not use all the possible tools at our disposal to avoid as many as possible?
*I no longer feel at all guilty. Bite me.
**just to note that I actually prefer champagne.