Mapping Gender Inequality

Long ago I used to have a blog called Design Thinking Digest that has long been lost to the ages. I’m posting some of my older writings that I still think have value on Medium.

Originally published on March 9, 2007.

The January/February edition of The Atlantic has a great article (subscription required) by P.J. O’Rourke (A writer and humorist I admire back from his National Lampoon days and who wrote perhaps one of the funniest essays ever on US and French relations back in the 1980's — see “Among the Euro-Weenies” from 1988’s Holidays in Hell. O’Rourke’s focus at this time was on mapping innovation rather than a lack of good ice cubes in Europe (which has since been remedied).

The crux of this piece focuses on work done by geographers for the University of Sheffield’s Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group, which is led by Mark Newman, a physicist at the University of Michigan. They’ve created a tool called Worldmapper, which is basically a tool that allows us to visually look at statistics in a much more meaningful and insightful way (The link is a wonderful Web site that is quite easy to spend hours exploring.

It basically works like this, countries retain their familiar national boundaries or shapes but expand or contract according to the presence of a given variable. It’s much easier to understand it if you just look at it. It’s when one starts comparing maps than interesting insights can be derived, for example O’Rourke compares two data points, one is ‘women in agriculture’ (number of female laborers) and the other is ‘tractors working’ and goes on to say…

“It’s good when a society values women, not so good when it values a woman because they are cheaper than a John Deere. The United States and Western Europe excel in the ratio of farm machinery to women farm workers. They also excel, as do Japan, South Korea and South Africa — in another statistic: Female managers. A country is more likely to be innovative when 100 percent of its population, instead of 50%, has an opportunity to innovate.”

Women in Agriculture
Tractors Working
Female Managers

This type of visualization is incredibly powerful and Mark and his team provide some wonderful resources for people to explore our world’s data and derive insights. Another area the article focused on that I find most interesting is the spending that occurs on education. Politics aside The Atlantic often has some wonderful articles that used principals of design thinking and systemic design (regardless if those words are mentioned in the articles themselves). It would be interesting to take a data set like this and implement it in a rich application format.

Images from worldmapper.org.