72. Geospatial Gender Balance - A Potential Breakthrough?


While I don't know enough about the workplace gender balance issue to have much of an opinion on the topic I do know that, based on an article which I recently read, the geospatial industry could be in for some positive change. Given that it's the week of International Womens Day now is a good time to share details.

First up, the gender imbalance in the geospatial and general STEM world is no secret, and we only need to look at the industry's past to understand why this is the case. Today, the industry is still somewhat tied to its male dominated roots. From the early exploring and conquering days to the resources, utilities, and military industries of today, the geospatial world is based on creating and using maps to acquire and maintain power.

It's fair to say that, for the most part, maps have not found as much appeal among women as they have for men. But all that could soon start to change...




A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara provides some insights into the relationship between maps, gender and spatial cognition abilities. According to the study, test participants were shown a picture of a scene which included various different objects. They were then asked to imagine themselves standing in the scene - at a certain landmark facing a certain object - and to create a mark on the diagram indicating the relative direction to another object (e.g. drawing directions to a stop-sign while standing at a house while facing a cat).

In another task, participants were presented with a map of a route. They were then asked to imagine themselves walking along that route and to mark an “R” (right) or “L” (left) at each of the turns which they made. Without going into detail, the results found that framing certain tests as social tests instead of spatial tests (i.e. by placing a human figure in the scene of objects or at a route corner) eliminated the performance gap between women and men.



Essentially, what the above results prove is that most men and women think differently about landmarks and routes, and that 'humanised' spatial tasks are more accessible to females. If this isn't a powerful enough motivation for changing the industry then consider the possibility that women may actually make better geospatial professionals that men.

An article entitled "Men are better at map reading, but women are superior at remembering routes" refers to research conducted in 2010 by the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In the study a group of men and women (all fitted with GPS and heart rate monitors) were tracked while sent to gather mushrooms in a rural setting. While both genders returned with roughly the same amount of mushrooms, the women had used some 70% less energy than the men in doing so. According to the article, the women were better at remembering productive patches of land than their male counterparts which resulted in them making more stops but travelling less distance. It's important to note that this is a trait which women are said to possess and use to great effect in today’s modern urban landscape.



If the geospatial industry is to meet the needs of a growing market then it needs to attract top talent. While obviously there are a number of factors (i.e. cultural, legislative, corporate governance) which will determine the industry's future gender balance, maybe the first step is to recognise that women have distinct spatial-thinking abilities which are best engaged through less abstract, more humanised approaches.

Or maybe we should just ask…

  • Barbara Ryan, Secretariat Director of GEO
  • Laura Dangermond, Co-Founder of Esri
  • Jen Fitzpatrick, VP Product & Engineering, Google
  • Bonnie Bogle, Head of Operations at Mapbox
  • Kate Chapman, Former Executive Director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team
  • Corinne Vigreux, Co-Founder of TomTom
  • Dawn J. Wright, Chief Scientist of Esri
  • Athina Trakas, Services Director Europe, Central Asia & Africa at OGC
  • Annu Negi, Chief Operating Officer of Geospatial Media and Communications
  • Dr. Vanessa Lawrence, former- Co-Chair Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM), former-Director-General and Chief Executive, Ordnance Survey
  • Claire Rutkowski, CIO, Bentley Systems
  • Denise McKenzie, Executive Director, Communications and Outreach, OGC and OGC representative for the UN-GGIM
  • Anita Graser, OSGeo Foundation Board of Directors
  • Lila Snyder, Executive Vice President and President, Global Ecommerce, Pitney Bowes
  • Amy Minnick, Senior Vice President, General Manager – Commercial Imagery, DigitalGlobe
  • and many more...