By Liz Hughes, MapAction Chief Executive
International Women’s Day is as good a day as any to reflect on gender diversity in the humanitarian and geospatial technology sectors and on what MapAction is doing to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone.
Globally, the proportion of women in the humanitarian sector workforce is high compared to other business sectors, but they are significantly under-represented at leadership level. The gender gap is more pronounced in the tech sector, where LinkedIn data indicates women make up just 27% of the total global workforce, and fewer than one in five female employees reach positions of leadership. That is very worrying when you consider that technology is, in a very real way, shaping the world in which we all live.
Some research suggests that women are better represented in the GIS (geographical information systems) sector than in other technology fields, and, according to our friends at Open Street Map, this is particularly true within the fields of humanitarian and disaster response mapping.
All of this indicates that MapAction, operating as it does at the centre of the Venn diagram of humanitarian emergencies and geospatial information, should be able to achieve gender parity. As an organisation committed to equal opportunities, that is certainly our aim, and one towards which we are steadily progressing, but have yet to attain.
We are fortunate enough to have as distinguished a female geographer as Dr Barbara Bond, Past President of the British Cartographic Society and Fellow and Past Council Member of the Royal Geographical Society, as a Trustee. As well as this, our senior leadership team is evenly balanced by gender. However, currently the overall proportion of women in the organisation is around 30%. Within our volunteer team, where much of our GIS and tech expertise resides, the figure is 26% and currently only a fifth of our ten Trustees are women. We can and will do better.
Why diversity matters
This is important for several reasons. It is certainly desirable that women and other under-represented groups have the opportunity to experience the tremendous personal and professional benefits of being a MapAction volunteer, so they can bring all that learning and personal growth back to help their own organisations and careers. In addition, part of the volunteer experience is belonging to a close community of GIS professionals with whom you work, train, socialise and share some very unique and powerful experiences. As one of our volunteers Kirsty Ferris put it, the “great support, understanding and shared geekiness” is invaluable. According to Kirsty, “There are not many places where you can talk GPS and geodesy with such shared enthusiasm.” To have that kind of peer support network can be vital when 62% of women say they do not see themselves staying in GIS for more than ten years. We need to ensure we have a diverse mix of people, so that all members of our team feel they belong.
But over and above the importance of diversity to our team is its importance for the work we do and the people who’s lives we are seeking to save and improve. The maps we create are a product or our collective know-how and team experience. As Andrew Foerch explains in his article ‘The Importance of Diversity in Cartography’, “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.”
Thinking differently can make a difference
GIS and technology expert volunteers make up the lion’s share of MapAction’s membership – we have over 80, plus 10 Trustees, compared to a staff team of 17, most of whom are part-time. We recruit our volunteers once a year, enabling us to train each new intake group together, in order to equip them with all the skills they need to operate effectively within a disaster zone.
Our volunteer recruitment drive is an important annual activity and each new year group brings fresh energy and experience as well as new personalities to our team. The number of men applying to volunteer and making it through our rigorous selection process has nearly always exceeded the number of women. This has always been a concern, but the problem became urgent in 2017 when for the second time in three years, all the successful applicants were male, and only three women were recruited during the three-year period out of a total of 25.
To address the issue, we set up a working group of volunteers and staff members to review our recruitment and also working practices and develop a plan of action. A number of actions came out of that process:
- We reviewed our GIS volunteer profile to ensure it was attractive to and inclusive of under-represented groups.
- We published profiles of a diverse group of volunteers and offered to connect prospective applicants with them to find out more about what it’s like to be a MapAction volunteer.
- We made sure a statement about our commitment to diversity and equal opportunities was included in all our recruitment materials.
- We broadened the advertising strategy of our recruitment drive, to incorporate organisations such as Women in Technology and Girls Who Code.
- In order to ensure there are no barriers to entry for any particular group due to unconscious bias on the part of those shortlisting candidates, we are looking at removing all information pertaining to gender, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. from applications.
It is still early days, and there is still much more to do, but it was gratifying to see that our 2018 volunteer intake achieved gender parity at least. We will continuously evaluate and improve our approach. There is tremendous commitment within our staff and volunteer teams to achieve our diversity objectives as part of making MapAction as good as it can be. With that momentum behind us I’m confident that we will get there.