Discussion: Is data visualisation gender blind?

Over the past few months its been hard to ignore the quantity of stories, incidents and awful mis-judgments that highlight a certain under-representation and sub-standard treatment of women amongst the science and technology sectors.

One term that seems to pop-up in most of these accounts is ‘brogrammer‘, a fusion of words to signify a specific cohort of programmers with frat-boy characteristics, and this culture is something that appears to have been developing in recent times, particularly in parts of the tech world.

Seeing these stories emerging in fields that overlap or have a natural association with data visualisation made me wonder if there were any gender-related issues prevalent in our subject area. I knew we still had issues in society at large (recent evidence 1 and 2) but I was curious if there were any specific community or subject-related issues in data visualisation and infographic design.

However, going beyond a basic curiosity and turning it into something constructive was difficult. I honestly wasn’t sure how to handle it: was it even something I should look into? As a freelance male in the field without any personal experiences or observations of poor treatment towards female I’m not exactly best placed to offer observations about this issue after all. Furthermore, by simple drawing attention to this issue would it prove to be a positive action or could it run the risk of being clumsy, patronising, tokenistic and just generally ill-judged, creating noise about an issue that didn’t need it?

Never-the-less, the matter of whether data visualisation was ‘gender blind’ felt like an important and interesting topic and I did want to put the question out there to find out if there are any observations from within the field where women have felt they get a rough deal, feel like they get treated differently to men, experience more limited opportunities etc.

So I decided that I didn’t want to write it myself but simply facilitate a discussion to see if there are any issues that surface, find out what they are and see what can be done about them, if not, we move on. I invited a few participants to offer their thoughts on the topic in the hope of collating a sample of perspectives. This invite to participate wasn’t an exclusive golden-ticket, by the way, just a few people I either know in the field or whose names happened to pop up on my twitter timeline at a time when I was thinking about it. A couple of people I approached politely declined the offer which is absolutely fine.

Anyway, the final piece is presented below as a mixture of responses to the questions I posed and more open-styled responses to the general subject. I was going to split them up over a number of posts to reduce the content in a single article but that would mean potentially fragmenting the discussion so I’ve piled everything in to one.

I hope this creates a positive reaction because its intention is simply to ask a question and trigger a discussion. I therefore hope to see some constructive observations in the comments section from anyone, male or female.

Finally, I want to sincerely thank all who contributed to this article. If you think about it, its a bit of a tricky call deciding to take part in a discussion like this but every respondent has been superbly honest, open and constructive in their support for this piece and I wish them all the very best!

And so, in purely random order, and presented verbose, as received…


 

KIM REES

1) What would you describe your role/position/title or discipline in the field?
I’m CEO and Co-founder of Periscopic, a socially-conscious data visualization firm. I have a computer science background.

2) How long have you been working in the field?
I’ve been working in the interactive field for almost 20 years and specifically in data visualization for 8 years.

3) What barriers to entry have you seen or felt in this field?
The data visualization field (in its current incarnation) is nascent and that, combined with the trendiness of it, contribute to a spirit akin to the wild West. It seems to be a free for all of how to do it, what is possible, who’s able to do it, etc. I’ve seen people from sociology, political, mathematics, design, psychology, and other backgrounds entering the field of data visualization. More structure may emerge as we all figure out this field, but currently there seem to be few barriers.

However, I do believe the media isn’t painting a picture of parity in the data fields. Journalists currently seem infatuated with most of our male counterparts whom are interviewed time and again for their expertise in our trendy discipline. There are a lot of women in the field. I would like to see them lauded in the media as much as the men.

This lack of inclusion in the media can create the perception that the dataviz field is male-dominated and can lead to fewer women feeling compelled to enter it.

4) In general how do you perceive the culture/community of data visualisation?
I think it’s incredibly supportive and welcoming. It seems to be driven more by the desire to bolster the practice of visualization rather than by business. As such, there can often be very spirited discussions and critiques of visualizations, but I see these as helping the discipline as a whole become better, more exacting, meaningful, and important.

I’m frequently impressed by the collective knowledge, insight, good humor, and openness of the community.

5) Have you experienced (observed or directly been involved) any negativity surrounding gender issues…

(a) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a design project?
No

(b) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a technology/programming solution?
No.

(c) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of analysis/stats?
No.

(d) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a specific subject matter?
No.

(e) …through involvement/participation/attendance at conferences?
No, quite the contrary. I feel I get preferential treatment as some conference organizers, such as O’Reilly, specifically look for diversity in their speakers.

(f) …interactions over social media?
No.

6) Have you ever felt compelled and comfortable to act on anything you have witnessed or experienced?
n/a

7) Finally, how would you contrast your experiences in this field with any experiences or observations you have made about other related fields such as science, technology, maths/statistics, design or industry?

Of all the computer science related sub-disciplines I’ve been a part of, data visualization is by far the most friendly. I’ve been involved in the fields of gaming, physical computing, web development, and IT. Some of these more than others are more male dominated, competitive, and almost antagonistic, making them hard or at least intimidating to break into for women. I once launched a small website boycotting Duke Nukem because of its sexism and received a lot of hate mail including people telling me to die. It was striking to me that there was such aggression directed at me as a woman over a simple call to action they could have easily ignored. Some men in male-dominated fields, apparently, feel that being in the vast majority allows them to be more domineering or wanton. I once had a boss that told me I had to wear skirts to work. You can see similar cases of this such as the recent Secret Service scandal.

Perhaps my familial and welcoming perception of the dataviz field is due in part to social media. Nowadays it’s easy to connect with fellow practitioners, academics, and even celebrities in a given field. Pre-Twitter, we had to rely on introductions and cold calling/emailing to make these connections. Additionally, social media in some ways holds people accountable because their identities are attached to them as opposed to the days of BBSs and forums where anonymity reigned, making it far easier to behave in malicious ways without repercussion.

Whatever the case may be, I’ve encountered nothing but support and encouragement from the dataviz community, although I’m still waiting for my profile piece in Fast Company or the New York Times. ;)

 


 

JEN LOWE

My first rule of being a woman in tech is don’t talk about women in tech, but I’m very bad at following rules, and I’m so happy to see Andy tackling this issue, so here I go (again).

For me, the “women in tech” issue is more usefully understood as the intersection of two greater problems: the women in public problem, and the diversity in tech problem.

Diversity in Tech

I think “women in tech” is the safe discussion of diversity, and leaves out: race, class, more. So I want to quickly get a little unsafe with you: if you think women are underrepresented in tech, look around for people of color. I do this when I feel lonely at conferences; it’s a good practice in perspective.

There is invisible diversity that is almost never discussed. For instance, class. How lucky we are if we have the resources to be at a conference in the first place, to buy these shiny objects we make our work on. How many interested talented people have no hope of being able to attend, of having the tools we take for granted.

Women in Public

Last October at VisWeek I was walking around downtown Providence to get dinner, the lone woman out on the street, and the vibe was a little hostile. I tweeted “One of my favorite things is wandering around alone in strange cities. Sometimes this makes me wish I was a man.” Last week, after running a meetup in Portland, I was walking along a busy street just before 10pm. A man in a black suv rolled to a stop next to me and asked the classic “do you want a ride?” Usually this sort of thing is a bad joke, but he was a little more threatening than normal. I noticed I was the only woman on the street, and at that point my night was over: retreat to the hotel.

These are blog post friendly examples; the threats and acts against my safety in public go far beyond this. This is not to make you feel sorry or particularly concerned for me. I’m a grown woman. I know what I’m getting into. There’s no reason public spaces have to be this way, but they are. Walking around at night by myself is both a pastime and a conscious act of resistance against public spaces without women.

At the beginning of every tech conference, when the “there are so few women here” alarm is sounded, I want to say: Let’s look around more often and be honest. How many women do you see in male public spaces in general? Women on the street at night? Female business travelers in the airport?

Professional Experiences: Data Vis & Math

A listing of unfortunate events that have happened to me professionally as a woman in math and data vis.

I’ve realized, halfway through a semester, that my voice sounded weird in class because I was the only woman who had ever spoken. I’ve been the only woman in a class where the professor started every new proof with “If a guy wants to….” This is how I learned that “guys” isn’t as neutral as we pretend it is. I’ve been in classes where no one spoke to me the entire semester (and were then shocked to find out who ruined the curve).

I’ve been seated at the wives and girlfriends table. I’ve been asked many times who my boyfriend is by people searching to explain my attendance at an event.

I’ve been ignored. I’ve been introduced as an afterthought or not at all. I’ve watched, on many occasions, women in professional partnerships with men be treated by the press and public as invisible appendages.

I’ve been called out publicly as the only woman at a table and asked to respond immediately as to why more women weren’t in attendance. (Some of you reading this were there.)

I’ve been mistaken for other women. Molly Steenson and I gave very different Ignite talks at Eyeo, but a non-trivial number of men started conversations with me thinking I was Molly. (A tiny sample, but no woman mixed us up.) Techy gentlemen, let me tell you: if I can tell you apart, if I can recognize an individual in a sea of black rimmed glasses and shaggy hair, I know you can discriminate two blonde women.

Stop – did you notice the part of my Eyeo story where men were approaching me to talk about my work and ideas? Yeah. That does not happen often. Despite the mixups, an explicit recommendation: Women, come to Eyeo next year, you’ll be happy you did. Eyeo is the by far the best event I’ve been to in terms of being listened to and not ignored.

Conclusion

The story is too long and sad to tell without a drink, but math as a field was ruined for me by experiences that happened because of my gender.

I decided I would never waste my energy that way again – if, after a few knocks at the door in good faith, a field doesn’t want me, a person or group ignores me, I walk away.

If you flick through who data vis people follow on Twitter, you won’t see many female faces, and you’ll see almost no color. I make a daily decision to be in public online, to have my face as an avatar, to engage, to be visible in the stream. I choose to be visible online consciously, and at some risk, in the same way that I choose to be in male public spaces offline.

I make this effort because I believe that increasing the diversity of visible voices in data vis will make the community stronger.

I knocked (loudly, a lot) and the data vis community opened its doors to me. So many people publicly, privately, and in invisible ways, have supported me in making massive changes in my life this past year. So many that I can’t list them, but can say: you know who you are, and thank you.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this: “You can have anything you want, you just have to pay the cost.” If we want to increase diversity in data vis, we can make it happen; we have to decide to pay the cost. The cost is dedicated individual effort, it is you remembering someone’s name; you remembering to name the female partner in a partnership; you introducing people who should be introduced; you asking people about their work; you recommending people to clients; you talking to people who don’t look like your friends.

Something to make it easier: you don’t have to get it right every time. I’ve put my foot in my mouth terribly, though I’m aiming for less regularly. We all make mistakes, we all have thoughtless moments. One moment doesn’t make a person, but somehow all our collective moments do add up to make a community. If everyone who reads this decides to make the effort, the moments will add up. What a community we can have if we decide to pay the cost.

 


 

NAOMI B. ROBBINS

1) What would you describe your role/position/title or discipline in the field?
Seminar leader, short course instructor, speaker, author on presenting data clearly

2) How long have you been working in the field?
15 years

3) What barriers to entry have you seen or felt in this field?
None. (I’m self -employed)

4) In general how do you perceive the culture/community of data visualisation?
I don’t think that there is a single culture/community of data visualization but rather separate communities of graphic artists, statisticians, computer scientists, journalists, etc.

5) Have you experienced (observed or directly been involved) any negativity surrounding gender issues…
I did in my days in industry but not since I’ve started my second career.

(a) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a design project?
(b) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a technology/programming solution?
(c) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of analysis/stats?
(d) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a specific subject matter?
(e) …through involvement/participation/attendance at conferences?
(f) …interactions over social media?

None of the above

6) Have you ever felt compelled and comfortable to act on anything you have witnessed or experienced?
No

7) Finally, how would you contrast your experiences in this field with any experiences or observations you have made about other related fields such as science, technology, maths/statistics, design or industry?
Experiences in all these fields have changed over the years. Years back there was much more discrimination.

 


 

STEFANIE POSAVEC

1) What would you describe your role/position/title or discipline in the field?
Graphic designer / information designer / data illustrator (and everything in between :) )

2) How long have you been working in the field?
For about 6 years, while also spending much of that time working as a book cover and book designer.

3) What barriers to entry have you seen or felt in this field?
I don’t really think there are barriers to entry in this field but I think that it sometimes feels harder for people coming in from a graphic design background as opposed to a more technical background because of all the distrust/fatigue around many information graphics on the internet (and the general debate about the balance between aesthetic and information)

4) In general how do you perceive the culture/community of data visualisation?
I do meet and know many helpful, charming, and lovely folk who are within this community, but often I find that many people are quite happy to chat about what others are doing wrong instead of what others are doing right, which can sometimes be intimidating. Perhaps it’s a graphic design sort of issue…I wonder if people coming from a graphic design background are possibly more sensitive to criticism and how it is worded as opposed to other fields. I find many of my graphic designer friends and I tend to attach to our work in a more emotional way than other industries.

5) Have you experienced (observed or directly been involved) any negativity surrounding gender issues…

(a) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a design project?
(b) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a technology/programming solution?
(c) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of analysis/stats?
(d) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a specific subject matter?
(e) …through involvement/participation/attendance at conferences?
(f) …interactions over social media?

I haven’t answered any of these because I haven’t felt this in any specific way. Sometimes the differences feel more intangible, I guess. I produce quite different work than other data practitioners, and I often feel as though there is a barrier between myself and the more technically-minded, though it’s hard to know whether this is just down to the difference in our work or the difference in our gender, particularly as there *are* more men in data visualisation anyhow. One thing I do notice, however, is that after I speak at conferences it sometimes feels that more women approach me after conferences than men. Again, I’m not sure why this is.

I have felt the gender imbalance more greatly at conferences, both with speakers and with the attendees, though this might differ by the conference (Eyeo felt more balanced, whereas at See conference in Germany there were more male speakers)…at a dinner after the See conference this year there were at least 30 men and only two women! Of course, all the people in these various settings are all good, lovely people. But in a situation where you feel like the odd one out it can make you feel more self-conscious or more shy, less confident to speak your view, depending on your personality. I can feel shy in situations where I don’t know anyone and this is amplified in an all-male environment.

6) Have you ever felt compelled and comfortable to act on anything you have witnessed or experienced?
I don’t think I feel comfortable to take to Twitter or social media to discuss this, but that might just be my nature. I am happy talking about these sorts of things with other data practitioners, however.

7) Finally, how would you contrast your experiences in this field with any experiences or observations you have made about other related fields such as science, technology, maths/statistics, design or industry?
In the design world I feel like there is still a ‘boys club’ mentality in some cases, but it’s tempered by the fact that I know a large group of successful female designers and illustrators. In comparison to the design world (and the digital world) the data world feels more obviously male, and harder to access/engage with, but again: I’m not sure if this is either down to the nature of data folk or their gender.

In short: I am a graphic designer and lots of data folk are programmers / scientists. I don’t know whether I feel slightly intimidated due to the personality differences between the fields or if its because of gender!

 


 

CAROLINE GOULARD

1) What would you describe your role/position/title or discipline in the field?
I am one of the 4 co-founders of Dataveyes, a start-up specialized in data-visualization

2) How long have you been working in the field?
Since 2009 and my degree into media management.

3) What barriers to entry have you seen or felt in this field?
I have no seen any barriers to entry in this field, in France, probably because of the immaturity of this market in my country. When we began designing data visualization, we were in a way pioneers in France to blog about this subject, to give conference about this subject, to “market” our self as “dataviz” specialist, etc.

I come from the media field, which I studied during five years, that also give us some visibility, around the thematic of the data journalism, and made us different from the statisticians, cartographs, or other data-analyst that could have worked far before us on data visualization, without beneficing the same media cover.

I think our positioning also helped us enter this field: since the beginning at Dataveyes we mix technical skills, with an approached focused on user, information, and storytelling, and that was new in France.

4) In general how do you perceive the culture/community of data visualisation?
It is a very open minded community in my opinion. It is a passionate and inquiring community, always exploring, in search of novelty and discoveries about what we can visualize, always creating new way to draw this visual and interactive language to communicate information buried inside data. It is also a rigorous culture, seeking to combine logic and harmony, mathematics and aesthetics, analyse and intuition.

5) Have you experienced (observed or directly been involved) any negativity surrounding gender issues…

(a) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a design project?
No

(b) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a technology/programming solution?
No

(c) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of analysis/stats?
No

(d) …through the evaluation/feedback/discussion of a specific subject matter?
No

(e) …through involvement/participation/attendance at conferences?
No. On the contrary, in France, the new technology field is mainly masculine. When you’re a young woman, and when you are able to tell the story of your work, I have the feeling it is easier to be invited to conferences, because organizers aim diversity, rhythm, dynamism, etc., to make their event interesting. I did not feel any negativity against women. In France, I have the feeling that new technology community would like to welcome more women, but for cultural reason, there are less women likely to choose this field to make their career.

(f) …interactions over social media?
No

6) Have you ever felt compelled and comfortable to act on anything you have witnessed or experienced?
N/A

7) Finally, how would you contrast your experiences in this field with any experiences or observations you have made about other related fields such as science, technology, maths/statistics, design or industry?

Due to my young age, I did not have many experiences into other professional field, but I feel the data visualization field as an innovative & always moving group, where everything is possible.

 


 

SARAH SLOBIN

Being a journalist has nearly ruined my ability to be candid. I fact-check myself when I speak, start my sentences over to add context, attribute ideas that aren’t mine and feel uncomfortable making definitive statements that I don’t know to be fact.

So I’ve been struggling with how to present my personal take on gender issues at work. If a man behaved badly should I also present an example of a woman behaving badly? Or for balance an example of a man behaving in a lovely manner?

It’s taken awhile to arrive at the following framework:

Context: I’ve spent more than two decades at news organizations where women have had positions of power. My career has been graced by many female mentors who have made my rise possible. (I’m a visual journalist.)

Balance: The older I get, the more of a humanist I become. Gender is not a filter for how I view people. Also, I understand that sometimes there is a cognitive gap between perceived and actual offenses.

Caveat: I’ve had stellar colleagues, both male and female. I have experienced women behaving badly. This is not about that.

What this is: Some examples of negative experiences that I’ve had with men during my career + some Insight into why I found the behavior offensive. Note: not all bad behavior is equal and all this represents outliers within the subculture of these workplaces

1) Meeting with an editor about a story, he told me to make sure to incorporate pictures of either “cocktails, meat or women, because that’s what draws readers to a page”
So, women, meat and booze are not equal. While I understood his logic, I also understood that this blatant objectification was meant to provoke me because I was a woman. Which was low, and annoying.

2) One morning the colleague I shared a cubicle with took out several bottles of cologne and asked me if I’d like to “choose his scent.”
This guy was confusing proximity with intimacy. He also crossed the line into the world of physicality. (Sadly for him, he was later fired for browsing pornography at work.)

3) There was a sports editor I had to duck for almost a year because he kept asking me out. When I’d tell him I had a boyfriend, he’d suggest I do what he did and lie.
Relationships at work are a bad idea, but I get that they happen. This was past the ‘take a hint’ stage though. When I’m at work, if you really want me to find you interesting — try working with me, not presenting yourself as a lying cad.

4) A friend of mine confided in her manager out of courtesy that she was pregnant, but not ready to share that information. The manager then pressured her to go public so he could line up a replacement for her.
While I don’t expect men to understand pregnancy or how scary it can be, I don’t think it’s too much to ask someone to understand that private information is private. Also, when you choose your administrative tasks over your obligation to the human race everyone loses.

5) A colleague who fancied himself good-looking told many of us that we were his ‘work-wife’ so we’d deliver better work for him. “Everyone has a wife at home and a wife at work.”
A) I never accepted the proposal B) His polygamist tendencies were pathetic C)He wasn’t all that

So have men gotten in my way at work? Sure. So have women. For balance though, and this is just me, you should know: I’ve been referred to as “a force of nature,” ‘the intrepid” and told “get it done, just don’t kill anyone.” So getting in my way is possible. Stopping me altogether … X or Y chromosomes make little difference.

4 Comments

SantiagoJuly 23rd, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Using Network of Visualization Resources, I’ve selected all the women (8 from 31 people): http://moebio.com/datavisnetwork/#08128361b3dd1818b3f2fd937e853f228

comments:

– the nodes seems to be homogeneously distributed in the space, there´s no a “women’s area”, or even some cluster(s).

– There’s not a single relation between two of these nodes! (you can check that on the list at the left, where each node contains the list of its related). So it’s not only that there´s no clusters, is that this is a highly disconnected set.

– The network is made from words people use to tag people or companies websites (using Delicious), so this is a map about perception: how people perceive professionals, blogs, companies, tools and books. It could had happened that the gender of a professional was denoted by a tag (probably “woman” or “women”)… but it didn’t… there’s not a single gender-revealing tag.

Will Stahl-TimminsJuly 23rd, 2012 at 1:38 pm

When I was doing a Masters degree in design in the UK, I ran a small experiment, asking people to relate simple shapes such as circles and triangles to abstract concepts like “sense” “action” etc (I was interested in designing a symbol system for clothing technology). I included gender as a variable in the experiment, expecting it to make no difference. To my surprise, it was the only variable that affected my results at all!

People identifying themselves as men in my survey had a much clearer (and statistically significant) idea of a relationship between shapes and concepts than those women that took part. I was floored by the result at the time (and had to be very careful writing it up, not to let gender prejudice creep into how I tried to explain the difference). I wonder if there is any research on differences in interpreting visualisations / information graphics between different genders (and if not, maybe there should be…)

Kim ReesJuly 23rd, 2012 at 6:03 pm

@santiago, I think your sample is far to small to warrant any sort of assessment. I follow tons of women in datavis. (Also, I’m not in the group.)

SantiagoJuly 24th, 2012 at 1:04 am

Kim, indeed, it’s a very small sample and yes it’s not possible to make an assessment (that’s why I didn’t)… nevertheless you can take it as a good indication, and the whole experiment has meaning. The chances that a cluster correlated with a category exist in a larger network (let say containing tens of thousands of nodes), pick 8 random nodes from the category and there’s not a single relation between any pair (that is 0 from 28 opportunities) are very low. So, even with a small sample you can at least, being conservative, discard the existence of a cluster strongly correlated with a category (woman in this case).

You’re not in the list because the people links are links to personal portfolios or personal blogs (with very few exceptions of a couple of theorists). If I had to make a one member list of women in the visualization field, you would be there.