Why Aren’t There More Leading Women in the Data Visualization Community?

Key takeaways from a panel with Gaia Scagnetti, Lev Manovich, Sarah Groff-Palermo and Zach Lieberman

Over the past two years I noticed that gender diversity within the data visualization and visual storytelling community was turning into a frequent point of discussion.

The reason why this topic is important and why we need to talk about it more is pretty simple, and frankly, not really surprising: There are far more men (leading) in the data vis community than women.

What’s clear from the online discussions is that the community really wants to be more diverse. But simply wanting more diversity doesn’t automatically make us more diverse. Just like dreaming about being an amazing bass guitarist doesn’t automatically make me one. So what are the actions that we need to consider to become a truly diverse community?

I am a woman myself. I work with data. I am also a designer. I am an Iranian born in Germany. Also, this year I helped organizing the NYC Visualized event; a conference on data, design and storytelling. This is when I realized that I should really know many more women than I do who are excellent in this field of work than I actually do.

Gender diversity is admittedly a delicate topic. Whilst everyone agrees with wanting more of it, almost nobody is 100% confident speaking about it, even though ‘pop-up’ conversations frequently appear on Twitter or similar outlets. It becomes clear that gender diversity needs more attention — and rightly so.

The conversation

In the context of Visualized I organized a ‘critical thinking’ meetup. I invited Gaia Scagnetti, Lev Manovich, Sarah Groff-Palermo, and Zach Lieberman to meet in a physical space and talk.

These experts are leaders in their respective fields and are able to speak on this topic through personal, professional and academic/educational experiences. Believe it or not, being as successful as the individuals in this incredible line-up doesn’t protect you from feeling a little uncomfortable when speaking about this matter. Given the delicacy of the topic and the little time we had, we decided to have a purposefully casual ‘away-from-keyboard/IRL’ conversation. A lot like a lunch break conversation but with an audience. Despite the level of casual, the conversation resulted in some useful questions coming to the foreground.

The key questions from the conversation

The initial question ‘why there aren’t more women in data visualization?’ triggered more questions, theories and ideas by all participants and the audience.

  • What does the gender disparity look like in education?
    Data visualization is an interdisciplinary field. Graphic/interaction design, data analysis, engineering, software/hardware development and many other fields merge together. In order to answer this question, we have to look at universities and the pre- vs. post-graduation disparities. We looked at the field of graphic design and found out that over the past few decades female design students have gradually outnumbered male students. Other fields still have a long way to go to understand why women aren’t applying to their programs and to potentially change that.
  • What does the gender disparity look like after graduation?
    As we continued looking at graphic design academia, we noticed that once women graduate, the gender disparity flips. Men end up in leading positions and become the dominant voice in the field. We also tried understanding why this is the case. A couple of theories like ‘women have to make a conscious choice for career over family’ and ‘men don’t have to prove themselves as much as women, to get to higher positions’ were voiced too.
  • Are we all biased?
    Without a doubt! Like it or not, we’re all biased, women as well as men. Being biased means we assume that someone’s skill is better or worse based on their gender. This is most likely the biggest problem we have. If we were able to assume that women are as skilled and smart as men, we would have the perfect foundation to help us solve the mystery about diversity. Generally speaking, women always have to prove themselves more than men, whether it is in the workplace or in the process of applying for a leading position.
  • What active role can men take to create a diverse and professional environment?
    Look around yourself and if there is an uneven divide, ask yourself why. Also ask yourself what ways are there to bring women into your space? Even if your field is extremely male-dominated you will still be able to find qualified women. Zach Lieberman mentions that it’s important to think about the images you project and the messages you put out.
    One great example of this how the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC) has been working to improve their ratio despite the structural inequality of the art and tech world. Taeyoon Choi, one of the founders, spoke about diversity at the SFPC at the CMU in May 2015:
We realized the diversity was an important issue and have been consciously trying to improve and reach out to a wider range of communities. We continue to adjust the language and images on our website to better represent our community, and also offer work-study scholarships to women, people of color and those in need of financial assistance. Also, inviting diverse teachers and visiting artists to the school has been a way of establishing a culture that celebrates diversity.
  • Are all-female collectives a good way to empower women?
    Yes, totally. All-female collectives, just like the Deep Lab, are a great way to elevate incredibly talented women who work on important topics. Some might argue against all-female collectives because they may seem counter-intuitive if we want to achieve a fair gender balance. Well, look at it this way: If one woman as skilled as a man doesn’t receive as much attention towards her work, then maybe a bunch of them will. And that’s just awesome. So awesome, that men wish they were women.
  • What about ethnic diversity?
    All minority or marginalized groups have to be elevated. You cannot have a conversation about gender diversity without also speaking about ethnic diversity, and rightly so. We think that the problem of ethnic diversity can be helped in the same ways as gender diversity. Just like Deep Lab, Black Girls Code is one extremely successful example of an initiative empowering an ethnically diverse group of young talents.

So what’s the answer to all that?

You see, this one big question had to be broken down into many, in order to learn more about the problem, and yet we have not been able to answer them, nor have we had the time to ask all questions that need to be asked. So there is a lot more. And that’s a good thing. We need to take time to talk about this. We need to take time to really understand what diversity and disparity means. We certainly need more meetups like this one. And we need actions.

Wanting more diversity is not enough

All the talking is worthless if nothing real comes from it. So let’s start a conversation about what those things are. Regardless of your gender or ethnicity, every voice is important.

What can we do to make our community more diverse?

Please feel free to share your thoughts/suggestions/ideas in the comment section below or on this hackpad.

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Maral Pourkazemi is a London based designer. Follow her on Twitter.