“Where Are the Women Cartographers?” – Time to Revisit

Late last year we posted a blog on the question, Why are there no women in cartography? We looked at the issue (raised by a teacher) from several angles, pointing out that, strange as it may seem, all the famous mapmakers are men. Certainly in history, and even now. 

But the story does not end there. We included examples of women who, professionally or as an avocation, are making stellar contributions to the art and science of mapping.

The blog set cartography in a wider context. We asserted that the computer industry also, as seen in Silicon Valley, is heavily male in its creative and management operations.

Though that sounded preposterous to some and brought a call for more proof, recent events have highlighted its importance. In a lawsuit settled March 27, 2015 which grabbed national headlines, Elaine Pao contended the internet firm she worked for had unlawfully discriminated against her …  finally firing her. Though she lost in court (she has filed a notice of appeal), what she did got people talking about gender balance – and minority rights – in her industry and beyond. In reality, the issue is still very much with us.

Can a better balance be achieved? Some signs seem to say so. For one thing, public awareness is key, and that appears to be building. Slowly, to be sure, but steadily. The lawsuit just mentioned and even blogs like this one may be contributing.

Meanwhile, women are making their mark in mapping; let's recognize that. Check out, for example, The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World by cartographer, feminist and professor Joni Seager. Using maps as a medium, she depicts the varying status of women worldwide. Or consider the work of Marie Tharp, whose work on plate tectonics has led to a deeper (pun intended) understanding of Earth's oceans and earthquakes. She and colleague Bruce Heezen pioneered the use of maps as tools of technical analysis in their field. Note, however, that right from the start the man was given most of the credit for the discoveries they made together, raising again the question of fairness.

The 2014 blog identified what we call spatial intelligence as essential to map makers and map users, adding that far back in the human story – in the era of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – males developed spatial skills out of necessity while women's roles emphasized other life skills. Ken Jennings, record-setting Jeopardy contestant and maps aficionado, drove home the same point in a recent CBC Radio interview. Still, men are not the sole possessors of spatial skills: the November blog cites the example of a friend whose spatial skills outshine those of many a man. Now let me add a surprising story to say not all men inherit or develop that gift. The story has it that Albert Einstein – the genius whose calculations in physics were said to be understood by a mere handful of people – would sometimes ask for directions to his own house. Walking or biking across the Princeton University campus, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Studies, he sometimes got lost. He counted on “ordinary” people to supply him with a mental map! Were there women among them, orienting him and providing directions? The question is worth asking, though the answer may be as lost as the father of modern physics evidently was.

Should women play a larger role in the things that matter most? Dee Dee Myers, former White House press secretary, clearly thinks so. In her book Why Women Should Run the World she points to a difference beyond spatial intelligence/social intelligence: She says women have a  different sense of humor. Quoting research, she asserts that women enjoy a more sophisticated sense of what is for real and what is a joke. The ability to draw clear distinctions between reality and make-believe – or political posturing or window dressing – may be crucial to life in community, especially in a democracy.

Maybe that balance, that ability, is what we need as much as we need diversity. Throwing out all the men and having only women run for office is not likely to gain traction anytime soon. Anybody got better ideas how we can map our way to that goal?

When we achieve it, we may need to revise the book A History of the World in Twelve Maps. This time the number will be 13, with the new chapter being how women are reshaping the world, offering new directions through new maps. I think Arno Peters, one of the twelve most influential mapmakers of all time, – and a man, of course – would be pleased. After all, his lasting contribution had everything to do with fairness.