Why only ‘Women in GIS’?

By Bill Huber

A dedicated reader recently wrote about our "Women in GIS" interview series:

I'm curious why you have a column entitled "Women in GIS" and don't similarly have columns variously titled Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, Seniors, or 'Minority of the Week' in GIS? I would suppose that the other minorities (actually women are a majority in the country by total population) might feel slighted that their contributions are being overlooked.I feel that it is difficult to be a militant feminist and also be a humanist.To the extent that you give focus to women in general, you inadvertently play down the contributions not only of men, but women who also perhaps identify more with some other characteristic such as ethnicity or sexual orientation.So, please tell me why you chose to give special recognition to women and not other special interest groups.

Thank you for raising this question.Others have written to us from time to time but your letter articulates some of the issues succinctly.

There is no question that gender is a significant determiner of a person's role and visibility in society and business [1, 2].World wide, many scientific and engineering professions historically have had little participation from women [5, 6, 7, 8].It is evident, from recent growth in the proportion of females entering these fields and successfully contributing to them, that the discrepancy is due not to differences in innate ability, but to differences imposed by society: different training, limited availability of role models, and so on.

There still exist objective gender-based differences in compensation in academic, professional, and technical disciplines [4]

The issue is not "minority" versus "majority" [6], but rather a lack of constructive participation in certain disciplines within a major subgroup of society, worldwide.And yes, it is true that minorities in many countries face similar obstacles: people visibly of African and Asian descent in the United States, for instance [9, 10].

One purpose of "Women in GIS" is to help demonstrate that gender need not be an obstacle to success in the GIS profession.This is consistent with a recommendation of the Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering [3] that "the active role of women in engineering be portrayed so that parents and the public will encourage young women to pursue careers in engineering." Characterizing this effort as "militant feminism" is just name-calling, a transparent effort to disengage from the issues.

If we accept your premise that focusing on women (or any other class of people) amounts to "overlooking" the contributions of others, then either we must focus on all minority and special-interest groups or on none.Since focusing on every possible class of people is impracticable, the logical conclusion is that we must ignore the facts of inequities in professional life.Denial of reality leads not to humanism but directly to its opposite.A humanist cares about people, whereas demanding that we ignore or dismiss real differences among people amounts to caring about nobody.

Your questions imply we are willfully "overlooking" or "playing down" the contributions of some particular group or segment of society.I cannot imagine how such perversely selective behavior would be in our or our readers' interests.Limiting our reporting would be limiting our value.We don't do that.

It is misleading to characterize women as a "special interest group," as if women everywhere were banded together to promote their welfare above that of all other people.If there is any special interest at all, it is on the part of Directions Magazine, which has an interest in exhibiting successful people in the GIS profession.

So why not also have a "Men in GIS" series? The portrayal of male role models happens in due course because of their vast preponderance in our profession.

Consider, for example, the feature articles that have appeared in Directions during the past year:

These and most of the other feature articles written for us obviously were written by males.There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.However, it is difficult or impossible to tell whether or not they were written by or about blacks, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, or Martians for that matter.That's one beauty of written work: it is a medium that conveys the message rather than the persona.

What about the "minority of the week" suggestion? Gender cuts across almost all divisions of society.The problems faced by women are also the problems faced by Hispanic-American women, Black-American women, and Indian women.Male/female is the most fundamental analytical division of human types there is.

Certainly, other divisions--such as race--are important, should be acknowledged, and need to be addressed too [9, 10, 11].We will seriously consider enhancing our efforts to reach out to minority GIS professionals to provide them additional visibility.But as I have suggested above, these divisions into minority groups are not as universal as gender and any related inequities in the GIS profession are not as apparent in the work we publish.

The evidence on the Web and elsewhere [8] is that there are few women in GIS.The implicit message, unfortunately, for women is that there may be few roles for them to assume in this profession.Our Women in GIS series demonstrates that this message is misleading.There are plenty of women filling GIS related functions, at all levels, in all branches of industry, government, and academia.As far as I know Directions is one of a very few publications, on the Web or in print, that is routinely making this fact apparent [12].

Ultimately race, gender, or status within any "special interest group" of the person we interview does not matter.Our interviews always uncover something universal about a career with GIS.That is the deep underlying message: male or female, white or black, gay or straight, we all have a common interest that holds limitless possibilities and satisfaction for those who pursue it.

--William Huber, Ph.D., Editor

Article Poll
What do you think about Directions' ongoing Women in GIS series?
Focusing on any special group plays down the contributions of other groups.It's not right to do that.End the Women in GIS series.

The proper action is to expand the Women in GIS series to focus on other special groups (minorities) in GIS as well.

Women form a special group within GIS and it is important to send a message that there are roles for women in GIS.Please continue with the Women in GIS series.

[ Results | Polls ]


[1] Ellen Spertus, in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315 (1991), states that "Women pursue education and careers in computer science far less frequently than men do.In 1990, only 13% of PhDs in computer science went to women, and only 7.8% of computer science professors were female." See http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/Gender/pap/node1.html

[2] In "More Than Just Numbers," (1992), the Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering states that "women represented just under four percent of registered professional engineers in Canada in 1991." See http://www.carleton.ca/~mfrize/wise/webmtjnen/repomtjn.html#intro

[3] Ibid., http://www.carleton.ca/~mfrize/wise/webmtjnen/appd.html.

[4] Ward, Melanie, "Salary and the Gender Salary Gap in the Academic Profession", 1999, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, Germany (http://netec.wustl.edu/WoPEc/data/Papers/izaizadpsdp64.html).Her conclusion, based on a study of conditions in Scottish universities, is that there are "vastly differential opportunities for promotion faced by men and women."

[5] International Studies Newsletter, July 1997, Vol 24 No 4 (http://csf.colorado.edu/isa/newsletter/july97.html).This summarizes a study of participation in International Studies Association journals: "Our results show clearly the gap between tokenism and incorporation with respect to the work of female scholars in international studies.... research by women is poorly integrated into the corpus of scholarship in this field in spite of the publication of work by women in flagship journals.The significant relationship between female editors and the inclusion of references to work by female authors shows the importance of gatekeepers."

[6] Dr.Mildred Dresselhaus, 1992: "Women as a Percentage of Employed Scientists and Engineers, by Field: 1988".A link to this chart is available at http://tweedledee.ucsb.edu/~kris/WIS.html.The chart makes it clear that women truly are a minority within the science and engineering professions.

[7] US National Science Foundation, "Characteristics of Science & Engineering Doctorate Recipients: Selected Trend Tables 1993, 1995, and 1997." Available at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/srs00412/pdfstart.htm.

[8] US National Science Foundation, "Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996" (available along with more recent updates at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/women/start.htm).This report flatly states, "Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities are underrepresented in scientific and engineering occupations." A "specific concern" of the year 2000 report is "the declining numbers and percentages of women in computer science." No such concern about declining numbers of minorities or disabled people in computer science was raised.

[9] Kristen Philipkoski, "Asian Scientists Hit a Ceiling," Wired News, Feb 25, 2000 (http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,34110,00.html).

[10] National Science and Technology Council (US), "Ensuring a Strong U.S.Scientific, Technical, and Engineering Workforce in the 21st Century," April 2000 (http://www.ostp.gov/html/workforcerpt.pdf).Among its recommendations are "Particular emphasis [in enlarging the ST&E talent pool] should be given to women, minorities, and persons with disabilities..." (p.6).

[11] Eleanor Babco, "Uphill climb: The status of African Americans in Science and Engineering," 2000, American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://ehrweb.aaas.org/mge/Reports/Report1/Uphill.html).

[12] See the Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research's (CRAW) brochure on "Women in Computer Science" at http://www.sdsc.edu/CRAW/careers/, for example.

Published Thursday, August 23rd, 2001

Written by Bill Huber

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