Of the many uses of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), one of the newest is in the study of gender and development. Alongside this emerging discipline exist critiques of GIS and its inherent biases. One such critique by John Pickles points out that GIS users do not acknowledge social context within which GIS operates. This, of course, influences data collection, manipulation, and representation. While the use of spatial data through GIS is giving way to increased study of women’s and gender issues, gender bias in the GIS and data collection realm is ever-present.
The gender data gap, or the lack of adequate and accurate data on women, stems from an inaccurate definition of what makes data objective. The ‘one size fits all’ approach to data collection appears to actually be male-biased, resulting in underrepresentation of women in research, urban design, and of course, GIS. There is important social context which affects this viewpoint, as John Pickles points out. The phenomenon of the ‘one size fits all’ approach is not exclusive only to data collection. Throughout history, men have been considered to be the gender standard or norm compared to one end of the binary, meaning that women are viewed as one deviation from the gender standard. This, of course, greatly influences the way that women’s issues are viewed and studied.
GIS is frequently used to map climate change and other environmental phenomena. Women and men are affected differently by climate change because gender roles cause variation in peoples’ relationships with the environment. The idea of ecofeminism is that women and the environment are inextricably linked. In the past, this concept has been used to subjugate and suppress women and their perspectives. However, an ecofeminist perspective provides a unique opportunity to highlight female perspectives on the environment, women’s connections to nature, and how climate change uniquely affects women.
While climate change has a profound effect on people of all demographics, women, especially those in rural areas, experience climate change disproportionately. In traditional agricultural societies, women are often tasked with supplying water, taking care of the family, cooking, and gathering food. So, when pollution and climate change affect agriculture and water supply, women become more vulnerable as they are unable to fill their prescribed duties. While in current geodata, the perspective of women is not necessarily highlighted as differing from male perspectives on climate change, it is essential to acknowledge distinct gendered experiences.
The use of geospatial data to study gender issues has immeasurable benefits for women. While a significant portion of GIS is mainly focused on land-use studies, it can be used to depict the everyday experiences of women. While this involves more qualitative than quantitative analysis, it can serve to bridge gaps in perspective, which makes the struggles of women, both climate related and other, much more tangible to those who consume geospatial data. For example, Bernadette P. Resureccion’s Water Insecurity in Disaster and Climate Change Contexts details the struggle of women in Southeast Asian Peri-Urban areas. The paper highlights perspectives of women here with first-hand accounts of water insecurity in different areas and economic classes. These stories depict not only the problem of water security across the globe, but how women are uniquely harmed by lack of access to water. On a level even beyond simply acquiring water, women are sometimes at risk for domestic violence when they are unable to fulfill their extensive household duties, and climate change is one factor that threatens access to clean water.
The growing presence of acknowledgment of gender bias in GIS brings us to a unique opportunity to make strides towards gender equality through the use of technology. Climate change is something that affects all people in some way, but those effects are unequal across geographical location and gender. As our world progresses towards a more equitable and intersectional climate justice movement, it is crucial to include women, especially from the disproportionately impacted Global South, in these efforts. While climate change is a global phenomenon, it is absolutely vital to include the specific experiences of women in new research. The achievement of climate justice is not without major reform to the methods with which we collect and analyze data. Data collection and GIS used to study women’s issues are of equivalent importance to men’s issues. GIS, just like all other scientific traditions, is steeped in a masculinist approach that does not directly address gender diversity, discrimination, and inequality. Advancing leadership of diverse women from the Global North and South in the geographical and geospatial field is of utmost importance, as gender bias (and intersections of racial bias, disability bias, etc.) within geospatial data collection and processing and qualitative and quantitative research processes can be addressed more thoroughly and directly.