03 Apr 2019

Who gets to decide which women talk about sexism?

In his inaccurate review of Caroline Criado-Perez’s “Invisible Women”, writer Toby Young seems to believe that privately-educated women don’t experience sex-based oppression.

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Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
Who gets to decide which women talk about sexism? - NewsMavens
Toby Young, YouTube

When Toby Young failed to get the grades he needed to be accepted into Oxford, his dad put in a call. After all, what’s the point of having a network of powerful friends if you can’t lean on university admissions departments every now and again? It was a lesson, Young wrote later, of how to “never to give up”.

Young would lever that early leg-up to become a professional provocateur who once disguised himself as a woman to try to pick up lesbians at a gay bar, tweeted about having his “dick up the arse” of his female colleague, and berated female presenters on Comic Relief for not having large enough breasts.

These comments came back to haunt him in January 2018, when he was hastily promoted to the Office For Students and just as quickly thrown off the Board. Apparently a man who wrote that working class students were “vaguely deformed [with] acne and anoraks” and who had an interest in eugenics was not the best person to oversee student welfare.

On March 14, 2019, Young used his Spectator column to review feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez’s second book Invisible Women: Data Bias In A World Designed For Men.

Listing Criado-Perez alongside other privately-educated feminists like Laurie Penny, Zoe Williams, Laura Bates, Afua Hirsch and Grace Blakely, he asks “why is it only privately educated women who get to lecture people on oppression?


Young claims that Criado-Perez and her fellow feminists are “searching for things to be angry about […] which is odd, given what charmed lives they have all led.” The assumption here is that upper/middle-class women cannot have experienced the “systemic inequality” they campaign against.

He goes on to take aim at Criado-Perez’s complaint that there “aren’t enough statues of women” which, he states:

"...[it] doesn’t feel like an example of ‘data bias’ or even ‘unconscious bias’. Rather, it just reflects the fact that there aren’t many female historical figures -- which is surely a shortcoming of previous eras rather than the present day?"

He goes on to say “it isn’t biased” for the current canon creators to leave out women’s contribution to history -- and “the same point applies to her jeremiads against the ‘white middle- and upper-class men’ who rule the roost in academia for not including more female scientists or philosophers on university courses."

Young’s final claim is that Criado-Perez has “another, deeper blind spot”, in that she:

“...fully subscribes to the feminist orthodoxy on the subject of gender differences, which is that they’re socially constructed and have no basis in biology [...] such gender imbalances cannot be explained by biological differences in typical male and female brains, she argues, because there aren’t any.

He argues that this undermines the whole premise of her book in that “Criado-Perez cannot criticize medical researchers for failing to include more women when developing drugs for mental disorders” because “...if there are no neurobiological differences between men and women, it doesn’t matter which gender you test a new psychiatric drug on.


Young’s characterization of “social justice activists” as tending to be “rich, high-achieving young women who have been to elite universities” ignores the masses of grassroots feminist activists who work hard every day to improve women’s lives.

These, to mention a few, include Focus E15 who campaign on housing, Southall Black Sisters who support black and minority ethnic victims of violence, and the Abortion Support Network who help women in Northern Ireland access pregnancy terminations. There is a wealth of feminist activism that includes a whole variety of women, conveniently ignored in this piece because it doesn’t fit Young’s narrative that feminists all live “charmed lives.”

Young undermines his own point regarding women’s lack of contribution to history. He quotes Criado-Perez’s example of how one Music A-level syllabus featured no women composers -- despite the fact that there are 6,000 female composers listed in the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. Young states that her criticism of the syllabus “makes sense only if women had been as influential as men in fields like classical music.”

But clearly, if there are 6,000 female composers to choose from, there is an argument that women did contribute to this field and deserve to be recognised in our cultural canon.

While of course there were fewer women composers, scientists and philosophers throughout history, that should not equate to ignoring those who did exist and failing to bring them into school and university syllabi. Instead, as Criado-Perez has campaigned for throughout her career, the absence of women from our historical understanding is a reason to fight for more inclusion and more visibility.

Finally, there’s Young’s claim that Criado-Perez contradicts herself by arguing that gender differences are socially-constructed.

Young has muddled sex and gender here -- a distinction which Criado-Perez explains in the introduction to her book:

“By sex I mean the biological characteristics that determine whether an individual is male or female. XX and XY. By ‘gender” I mean the social meanings we impose upon those biological facts.”

At no point does Criado-Perez say there are no sex differences between men and women. Her whole argument rests on the fact that women’s and men’s bodies are different, and that “women’s bodies are simply not afforded the same level of medical attention as male bodies.”

On the example of psychiatric drugs, Criado-Perez’s research on antidepressants highlights how researchers are not taking sex differences into account. She explains how clinical trials routinely fail to consider the impact women’s menstrual cycles when “some antidepressants have been found to affect a women differently at different times in their cycle.”

Her book doesn’t claim there are no neurobiological differences between men and women and that “it doesn’t matter what gender you test a new psychiatric drug on.” instead she demonstrates how women’s bodies have the potential to react differently to drugs – including not reacting to them at all – because women have periods, women get pregnant, women have different average body mass to men, and higher levels of oestrogen than men.

Crucially, Criado-Perez cites a study that found male and female cells responded differently to estrogen: “When researchers exposed male and female cells to this hormone and then infected them with a virus, only the female cells responded to the estrogen and fought off the virus.”

Gender differences, however, are socially constructed. And because they are social constructs, Criado-Perez is correct that they cannot be explained by biological differences between men and women. It’s not gender differences that mean we need to test psychiatric drugs on male and female bodies. It’s sex.


Young’s argument that middle/upper class women are searching for “things to be angry about” misunderstands (one assumes deliberately) how sexism and oppression works. Some women do benefit from some privileges -- e.g. white women have white privilege, and upper/middle class women benefit from class privilege -- women as a class lack male privilege.

Women from BAME or working class backgrounds will experience the intersecting oppressions of sex, race and class. A black woman, for example, will experience intersecting oppressions of race and sex. This is the meaning of “intersectionality”, a term coined by academic Kimberle Crenshaw to illustrate the interplay between different kinds of discrimination.

So while class and racial privilege brings some advantages to white, posh women, all women will experience some form of sexism as a class. All women experience the impact of endemic sexual and domestic violence, the exploitation and controlling of women’s reproductive labor, and the economic disadvantages compared to men of same race or social status.

The idea that being a bit posh means you have no right to talk about gender-based oppression is an effective tool of silencing women. It says to women that our experiences of violence, reproductive coercion, medical policing and the pay gap are insignificant and treats women’s concerns as irrelevant and frivolous. Pointing this out often leaves women accused of “victim feminism” — as if explaining the fact of structural oppression is somehow a cause of that oppression. That is not the case.

In his column, Young ignores the contribution of women to history, conflates sex and gender differences, misrepresents the positions Criado-Perez takes in her book, and distorts the ways privilege and oppression works in order to downplay the sexism all women experience. His article is a mix of manipulation of facts and biased reporting.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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