Posted by on May 21, 2016, in Etc.

A couple of days ago Tim Wallace, a cartographer and graphics editor at The New York Times, posted a portion of his academic dissertation on Medium. There’s tons of interesting stuff in there, but unfortunately it’s no longer posted because the part that got the most attention is the little highlighted part way down toward the bottom…

… which is the part explaining why there are, regrettably, no women among the cartographic journalists he interviewed.

medium-highlighted-graf

It’s been a while, but Tim and I were NYT graphics interns at the same time. We worked together on projects like this and this. I find it impossible to believe that Tim and all the men he interviewed were unable to name any women he should interview. Honestly, I don’t know many women who focus on cartographic journalism the way he defines it. But that’s because it’s not my area of emphasis, “not many” is not the same as none, and — most important — the men on his list don’t all focus on cartographic journalism, either.

What I see here is not really just a lack of women. It’s that all these men are similar in other ways, too, like age. These are people like Tim. And it reminded me of another Twitter exchange from the end of last year about the fact that the popular podcast Data Stories did not invite any women to participate in its year-in-review episode:

A portion of the long and fragmented conversation.

A portion of the long and fragmented conversation.

This is the hard part of this argument to articulate — no one wants quotas. No one wants to be the token woman or the token minority. But this is the problem with relying on the first people that come to mind unless you keep very diverse company.

This isn’t unique to news graphics, or news in general. (Alas, Gay Talese.) And it’s been written about so many times before — this is the problem of relying on who you know. We all tend to hang out with people like ourselves, because it’s easy and enjoyable. The most discouraging type of sexism I’ve witnessed professionally has nothing to do with men demeaning or underestimating women; it’s about young men who would rather hang out with dudes like themselves.

Getting to know people unlike yourself is a skill. It takes practice. Some lucky people are naturally great at this and lots of folks are forced to learn this skill because the people they’re forced to interact with — their teachers, bosses, mentors — are people unlike themselves. The way things are now, only (white) men can get through professional life without getting to know people unlike themselves. If you have never been forced by circumstance to learn this skill, you have to force yourself.

I think this case rankled people primarily because of the glib phrasing — a well-intentioned acknowledgment comes off as “someone else can fix that.” If you can’t think of any women with a particular expertise, some of that is systemic, sure. But that doesn’t make you powerless. It’s not an acceptable excuse. These aren’t new ideas, but I hope they can be reminders to all of us that we are part of the system and it’s on us to fix this in all the small ways possible:

Mentor young women. A lot of guys avoid taking a particular interest in young, female colleagues for fear of appearing creepy or too interested. But if you are a young woman entering a largely male field or workplace, this can feel like many of your potential mentors are avoiding you. So I want to say: Stop being all chummy with the male intern if you’d feel weird about acting that way with the female intern! But the real point is that it’s a nice perk if you consider your colleagues friends, but it’s not required. You don’t have to be totally comfortable with someone on a personal basis in order to champion their work and career.

Seek out voices unlike your own. This isn’t just men vs. women. We also have a tendency to stick with people who went to the same schools as we did, or work in the same cities, or have similar lifestyles or political views. And that’s fine if you’re having a dinner party, but way too self-limiting for pretty much anything else, especially professional work. Waiting to do this until you need to write an article or organize a conference is what makes it artificial.

Ask: “Who else should I talk to?” This is a fundamental question journalists are taught to ask in every interview, and it works beyond journalism. This is how you find the people you don’t yet know. And if the people you interview can’t name anyone you don’t already know, that doesn’t mean you’re done — it just means you’re not the only one who needs to take a hard look around to see who you’re missing.

I hope Tim will decide to continue his original plan of publishing parts of his research. In the meantime, or as a companion piece, I’d recommend the three-part CityLab series Laura Bliss wrote earlier this year about the women who contributed to North American cartography over the past three centuries. One of the women featured, Emma Hart Willard, had the idea that teaching geography should begin local, with the area familiar to the student, and then expand out to the larger picture. I imagine she would have been pretty delighted by what’s possible with interactive maps today.