Is Sexism a Problem in GIS?

Caitlin Dempsey


Over a two week period in September of 2015, I opened a survey on GIS Lounge to those working in the geospatial industry in order to take a look at the question of, “is sexism in the workplace an issue for women (and men) working in GIS?” This article reports back on the results from that survey.

What is considered sexism?  Sexism can be any action or language that discriminates against or stereotypes a person based on gender.  Sexism can be overt such as a manager claiming those of a specific gender can’t do something or paying a GIS professional less because of his or her gender.  Sexism can also stem from not very well thought out instances such as referring to women as girls in a professional setting or calling them “honey” or “dear”.  The prevalence of sexism in the technology industry has been the subject of countless articles and even has its own Wikipedia page and the Everyday Sexism Project is attempting to map out incidents of sexism on a global level.

Below are the results of the survey.  This writeup is not intended to be an all-encompassing report on the state of sexism in GIS but rather an opportunity to allow those working in the field to personally report on how sexism has impacted them (please note that all quotes listed in this article have been published anonymously).

Sexism in GIS Survey Respondents

The survey received 214 responses during the two-week period it was open.  Respondents hailed from all levels of GIS with the most dominant level being that of an Analyst/Developer or similar at 43.7%.


The average tenure of respondents was a little over six years working in GIS.  Respondents ranged from interns just starting out to seasoned GIS professionals who have worked in the industry for over 20 years.

Length of tenure to date in the GIS industry.
Length of tenure to date in the GIS industry.

Does Sexism Exist in GIS? Survey Says…

Of interest to note is that while an informal gender survey of over 1,100 GIS professionals in 2014 found that roughly one-third of those working in the field are female, respondents to the sexism survey overwhelmingly were female at 64.5%.  This flip in representation suggests that sexism has a greater impact on women working in GIS and there is a greater concern about sexism for women than men.

This is further evidenced by the gender contrast in perceived sexism.  When respondents answered the question, “Have you personally been affected by sexism while working in GIS?”  Almost half (49.3%) of females responded “yes” as opposed to 10.8% of males.


How is Sexism in GIS Harmful?

While GIS may be a relatively young field, it is certainly not immune from outdated or inappropriate sexual innuendo and biases. Persistence sexism, whether it be overt or subtle, damages morale, provides a hinderance to productivity, and can have a negative effect on a person’s career movement and wellbeing.

Harmful behavior in the workplace affects not only the person being discriminated against but others in the office.  A common complaint is the lack of equal treatment of females in the workplace ranging from being expected to make coffee or take notes at meetings to a complete disregard of their input or work contributions.  Another example is the focus on physical attributes, such as being referred to a “pretty”, “lovely”, or “sexy”.  A few of the female respondents even noted that they have experienced sexism while interviewing a male job applicant, explaining that the applicant would only make eye contacts with the male panelists, even when the question came from a female.

There were many comments explaining how sexism has impacted women in GIS.  Here are just a few examples to provide a perspective:

From a female technician:

“As one of two females in a 12 person team, we are often referred to as the girls or ladies.
When a newer colleague has a question he’ll always ask the men first for help.
One would make jokes about us cooking lunch for the whole group.

From a female analyst:

“Being called pretty during professional meetings by manager instead of focusing on my work ethic and results.”

From a female analyst:

“When people would pass by my desk to ask a male coworker a question that I should answer.  I don’t think it was intentional, just the underlying thought that older men are more knowledgeable about technology in general.”

From a female director:

“I’ve worked in the engineering consulting industry, had many clients who would “talk down” to me – one even told me to “Go in the corner and make pretty maps”. I also worked on a national disaster and was treated with the utmost respect by military personel. In 1997 at the ESRI UC in San Diego, the greeter at the door told me I was in the wrong place, that the “Future Homemakers of America” conference was at the Marriott.

From a female project manager:

“I have not been affected by ‘words’ but by actions. Such as the idea that the ‘boys’ in the office receive additional training where as the women tend to be over looked. This includes general courses (fme, programming, technical aspects) and learning how to use field equipment (geos, scanners, UAVs) as well as processing data collected.

It is always ‘assumed’ that the ‘girls’ don’t have an interest in field work, wouldn’t want to work overseas (Middle East) nor have the desire/knowledge/skill to operate UAVs. We aren’t asked. The offer isn’t made to us. The decisions are, in fact, made on our behalf.”

A male software engineer explained one situation he encountered:

“I was in one of those meetings about some data quality issues one of our high valued costumer found in our map product. The goals: a quick plan to fix the bad entries in our GIS and a way to detect similar issues during our Quality Checks procedures.

After the meeting one woman who was in the meeting called me immediately afterwards. She had this awesome idea that would fit our needs. Simple, elegant and very effective. My favorite kind of solution!

The odd request from her: “Could you present the idea to your manager?”.

I felt something was wrong and then replied back: “I sure can, but… why not you? This is a great idea!”

Her response was “well, I tried it, one week ago. But maybe he’ll listen to you, ’cause you are a man”.

I was quite skeptical. It was just too hard to believe, but she knew my manager from the company’s “old days” before I even joined the team.

Thing is: the same idea, this time presented by me, was heard and deployed in production database a couple of days later. I obviously gave her credit, but at the end I felt really bad about the whole situation.

Was it possible someone neglecting/ignoring a terrific idea just because it came from a woman? It is and this is the single stupidest thinking I ever saw in 8 years of work.”

A male project manager also recounts his experience

“I have had female team members and subordinates come to me to complain about their treatment by male colleagues. The female workers’ complaints typically center around accusations that they are denied advancement opportunities and the opportunity to work on particular projects. In my investigations into their complaints I find their grievances to be valid. This personally affects me because I am charged with delivering projects. Sexism can erode the trust and confidence team members have in each other, which ultimately affects the quality of the project deliverable.”

Unequal treatment in the workplace doesn’t just impact morale and the health of a workplace but can directly impact salary.

From a female analyst:

“I make approximately $12k less than my male peers and I have more experience than some of them. I work in a corporate office just like they do, but the closest they would come was a $9k raise when I approached them about the huge pay gap difference. My Sr. VP told me the quality of my work was remarkable, so why the huge pay difference?? My Sr. Manager calls me “one of his girls” and I, along with “the other girls”, can’t stand this (especially since I’m nearly 40 years old and I’m not the oldest nor the youngest), but yet he continues to refer to us that way even in meetings with other departments or vendors. Makes me feel about 3″ tall and like I should be wearing a uniform with “Mike’s GIS Girl’s” plastered across the front. “

From a female project manager:

“I have encountered lower pay for the same exact position. I became GIS Coordinator for a local agency 15 years ago. The GIS Coordinator I replaced had only been here 2 years.   When I received the position they had significantly lowered the pay ($10,000 +) and took away supervisory privileges.   I was still the lead and did EVERYTHING the previous Coordinator did and had about 10+ years experience than he did but I received lower pay and I believe that was because I was a woman. I worked in a larger agency for 10+ years when I started in GIS and the pay was equal to the men because it was a large agency but I noticed that the people that qualified for the promotions were the males and it was because they were always given the better assignments to enhance their skills. The women were kept as digitizing monkeys (name I termed for us) and unless you left the agency you would not be able to work your way up in the GIS field. After that I was a contractor for different agencies and I was not offered the pay as my male counterparts were, again I think it was because I was a female.     Females don’t/can’t usually fight for higher pay and equality because they want/need their jobs. I was a divorced single mother so I took the lower pay at the agency I am now even though it was like a slap in the face because I needed the benefits for my children and a recurring paycheck.   Maybe we need to fight more for our rights but it’s hard to do that when you are raising a family – why men are offered higher salaries straight out is beyond me. Maybe in the old days men were the breadwinners in the family so higher salaries were given but now there are many single women/mothers who are not being taken care of by men and we should be offered the same amount without having to fight for it.”

Girl or Woman?

Is referring to women in GIS as “girls” acceptable or sexist?  Highlighting one such example of referring to women GIS professionals as girls, the last question of the survey asked for the respondents preference for the designation of the female GIS superhero introduced by Esri (a request for comment on the choice of creating the MapMan and MapGirl combo was declined by Esri).


The majority of respondents indicated no preference, regardless of gender.



(In one ironic twist, a New Zealand politician Maurice Williamson attended a GIS function where he was accused of making misogynist and sexist comments while dressed up as a superhero).

Does being referred as a “girl” as opposed to “woman” matter?  One female intern explains how it affects her:

“Colleagues and interns are referred to as “girls” by men who, while they do not mean ill, don’t understand that phrase can engender others’ assumptions of intelligence or maturity. I am 34 years old and interning while I get a Master of Science; a woman, not a girl.”

This short video by Caroline Drucker explains why it should matter:

Advice From the Field

Many of the respondents had some advice on how to deal with sexism in the workplace.  Many suggested confronting the sexism in a direct but polite manner:

“Speak Up. Rehearse a few polite, non-combative responses that allow men to understand that what they have said can be interpreted as undermining your intelligence or capability, and offer up alternatives to their language. An example might be “While I appreciate your sentiment, I prefer to be referred to as a woman, not a girl.” You are not offering judgment, but offering them the opportunity to say “Okay, I will” and leave it at that. The hard part is treading lightly enough to not be perceived negatively as a “ball-busting” feminist but a professional who is asking for the same level of respect that a man of the same age should command.”

“I was told to ignore it by many male colleagues, which is easier said than done. The sexism  affected every facet of my life including my health. If you are in the position to say ‘ignore it’ then you are also in the position to say ‘stop it.'”

Especially with serious incidents, many also recommended documenting and involving HR:

“Remain positive and professional and never try to resolve the issue alone. Contact HR or a supervisor and get written documentation of any instances.  The greater goal of doing this should be to create a safe work environment, not to target men or other women for sexism.”

Finally, seek guidance.  If your workplace offers it, take advantage of mentoring programs. This site has a Women in GIS page with pointers to various groups set up to promote the careers of female GIS professionals and to provide peer support.

“Get a mentor who has been successful before you, and can help you figure out how best to navigate the specific issues in your environment.  Look for allies among your coworkers/colleagues.  Have a place or you can let out your anger and frustration about the sexism outside of work.”

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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