Women in the World of Mapping

Why aren’t there any women cartographers? How come all the famous mapmakers are men? A high school teacher put the question.

There is evidence to support her question. In the book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton singles out those dozen maps that in his scholarly judgment have had the greatest impact.

His list is impressive, from Ptolemy in Alexandria about CE 150 to Arno Peters in the 20th century. In between he celebrates the contributions of the North African Arab Al-Idrisi,  the creators of Mappamundi  (now in England’s Hereford Cathedral), the East Asian Kangnido of 1402, Martin Waldseemueller, the German who first labelled the New World “America,” Diego Ribero, whose work provided information vital to Magellan as he circled the earth, Gerhard Kremer, who gave the world its most familiar map, the Mercator, the highly productive Joan Blaeu,  the Italian Cassini family whose mapping of France pioneered new methods,  and Harold Mackinder, the British theorist of  political power. Brotton caps his top twelve list with Google Earth. Noteworthy is the fact that all the identifiable names here belong to men. (Don’t be fooled by seeing Joan on the list; Blaeu was a Dutchman; furthermore, let’s not glibly assume that Google Earth represents women’s contributions as much as those of men; within Google’s top staff, only three of 36 are women. And Google is far from being an aberration in the digital world: in Apple’s tech staff males outnumber females four to one, and at Facebook, 85 percent of tech employees are men.)

So back to the teacher’s question: What’s going on here? Where are the women? 

Some seek an evolutionary explanation. In civilization’s early days men roamed mountains, plains and seas in search of food. To get back home they had to have a good sense of direction; they developed an ability to note landmarks and distinguish a right path from a false trail. Questions like How far? How big? were ever-present; getting the answers right might make the difference between life and death. Hunting skills gave rise to geographic skills; the claim, then, is that through inheritance men’s brains are hard-wired for mapping. Women, on the other hand, took on different responsibilities. Their roles were more focused preparing the food, homemaking, community building, child rearing.

Let’s call these separate skills spatial intelligence and relational intelligence. No claim is made that one is more important; they’re just different. But examining the long, slow process of specialization we may get a perspective on how it is that men may be drawn to maps while women often choose to be teachers and communicators or enter the caring professions. Many studies point out that girls speak at an earlier age than boys, and even as adults use more words on an average day than men do. Even if – this line of reasoning goes – even if their spatial intelligence is not fully used, their communication skills and relational intelligence are well exercised.

The Huffington Post offers a different but compatible evolution-is-the-clue approach here.

A more direct answer to the teacher’s question would be that many professions were for centuries closed to women. Outside the last 100 years, how many medical pioneers, lawyers, fire chiefs, engineers, explorers, clergy, political leaders or corporate movers-and-shakers can you name? That is, mapmaking suffered from the same constraints as other occupations. To get to the heart of the question, think about power relationships rather than spatial skills vs. relational skills. Reality is to be understood in terms of social restraints, externally imposed, not innate ability.

Let’s never assume, however, that the future will be like the past. Women are now playing leading roles in many occupations, including mapping.

A prime example is Penny Watson, who heads Oxford Cartographers, a mapping enterprise with global reach. In a recent conversation Ms. Watson dissented from the view that map making is dominated by men. “Cartography here in the UK is not a male-dominated profession. When I trained at Glasgow University the split of men and women in my class was fairly even. Across our company in the UK and the USA there are both men and women working in various disciplines …. I have worked for this company for 29 years and it has always been about who is best for the job and not whether they are a man or woman.”  This comes, let me say, as the voice of experience from one whose cartographic and interpersonal skills command great respect.

What about faculty in universities with strong departments of geography/cartography? I did a random sampling. With only six women for every ten men now teaching at bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, the field – at least in North America – still appears to be dominated by men.

So let’s broaden the inquiry. A friend, Norma Weller, demonstrates extraordinary spatial intelligence. When presented with a set of architectural drawings she gets the big picture, even pointing out strengths and possible problems before many of us have figured out just the basics. Norma, whose formal education ended at Grade 12, has taught many a man how to read blueprints … and interprets maps with equal authority. Working with maps and working with architectural design draw on the same part of the brain.

From California Claire Stremple adds another dimension. She wrote,

“I’m working on a research project concerned with mapping and the human conception of space and geography. … Specifically, how mobile mapping applications are changing the way we think about the world.

“I’m a fan of your writing, so I’m interested in what you think the message of map applications is … “

Claire’s query had substance. She had the counsel of Darin Jensen, a cartographer at UC Berkeley, who supported her inquiry and encouraged her to have her findings published. And a work-in-progress report was aired on station KQED’s Perspectives.

Women not interested in maps? Forget it! Women suffering a spatial intelligence deficit? Where’s the proof?

Taking another angle on a related interest, Mary Anne Bell in Ontario writes

“Reading How Maps Change Things, my impression was that you were coming from a feminist perspective. However, it could be that you are writing more from a faith and values perspective. Overall, there is a refreshing all-inclusive tone to your work.

“As an afterthought, are map makers in general similarly inclusive or are they gender-biased?”

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So a seemingly simple question by a high school teacher I had never met pushes the boundaries of our understanding. Since you won’t find a simplistic answer here, the ball is bounced back to your court. What do you think? For starters, If women are making progress in the world of mapping, how rapid is it … in whose lifetime will gender equality be achieved? Or, If women drew our maps, how would they be different? Your comments are welcome!