The Importance of Diversity in Cartography

Exploring the meaningful influence of female and minority mapmakers


Female explorers, soldiers, and volunteers have played leading roles in many defining moments throughout the storied history of geospatial science. Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark’s groundbreaking expedition to survey the western frontier. The Military Mapping Maidens charted roads, land contours, and other strategic locations for the Army Map Service during World War II. STEM pioneers Mary Sears and Marie Tharp are the mothers of modern oceanography and maritime navigation. Yet, the geospatial workforce remains dominated by men.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2014 that, though cartography was projected to grow nearly 30 percent in the next decade, women comprised only 38 percent of its labor force. A GIS Lounge job survey from the same year collected demographic information from 1,186 GIS analysts, developers, managers, executives, and more. Of the respondents, just 37 percent were female.

How does that gender imbalance effect the mapping world? Mainly, it means maps are more likely to address problems visible to the people who create them. For example, male and female responses might differ significantly if asked to map safe walking routes through a city. Or a male open map contributor might fail to make note of women’s health services while tagging healthcare providers in a foreign municipality. Similarly, a heterosexual analyst living in a progressive society might not think to map LGBTQ-safe spaces while tagging locations in a less tolerant country. If diverse perspectives are applied during a map’s creation, the map will be helpful to more diverse populations.

Sarah Holder’s CityLab article “Who Maps the World?” investigates gender equity in mapmaking through the lens of the crowdsourced OpenStreetMap (OSM) project. While OSM volunteers are predominantly male, one area is particularly popular for female cartographers: humanitarian efforts and disaster relief. Participants in OSM’s humanitarian field projects (which work directly with people from the communities being mapped) are 48 percent female, indicating a draw toward work marketed as service-related rather than technological.

Humanitarian relief efforts, more so than other mapping applications (such as self-driving vehicles or smart-city expansion), are intended for more diverse populations. For example, mapping areas of highly concentrated malaria transmission in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia; mapping non-camp refugee data in the Middle East to improve service delivery; or simply mapping infrastructure in densely-populated developing cities like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

In nations with less social parity, the information delivered by these humanitarian mapping projects has life-changing implications. Women in Africa, South America, and other parts of the world are often forced to either travel long distances for services such as HIV testing and counseling, cancer screenings, and OB-GYN services, or to forgo those services altogether. Many times, these services are available locally, but are not advertised or marked in existing maps. Accurate, up-to-date maps containing information pertinent to women’s health can prevent deaths or injuries as a result of HIV/AIDS and maternal complications—the top two causes of death globally for women ages 15-44.

The Women in GIS organization created a story map using Esri’s ArcGIS platform that visualizes where women work with geospatial information systems around the world. Of the thousands of women represented by this map’s data, the majority live in the United States. To achieve equal (and holistic) cartographic representation, the global mapping community should embrace and uplift women mapmakers with the goal of achieving workforce parity.

Photo Credit: Women in GIS

Posted in: got geoint?   Tagged in: Civil, GIS, Human Geography, Humanitarian Issues

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