gender geography

GENDER GEOGRAPHERS, prominent in the discipline since the 1980s, focus their research on the differences between men and women in virtually all aspects of social, economic, and political life and the resulting inequalities that result. The sub-discipline of gender geography has grown dramatically over the past two decades and there is a specialty group within the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the main professional organization, which has gathered significant numbers of researchers: the Geographic Perspectives on Women specialty group (GROW). This organization is well represented at national and regional AAG meetings and it has its own newsletter and website.

Gender geography has its roots in the compelling women’s rights movement of the 1960s and the emergence of feminist theory in the social science disciplines. Gender research examines the ways in which gender inequality has emerged. In particular, the focus in gender geography is on the oppression of women, as evidenced in the differences seen in the attitudes and behaviors of men and women in the traditional settings of home, workplace, and social situations.

gender geography

The capitalist economic system underwent significant changes in the 1980s. These changes brought about equally significant changes in the traditional relationships that existed between men and women. The workplace began to open up to more women and more women sought and gained political office. Women in middle-management positions began to strive for loftier roles in their organizations. In many cases, they encountered what is called the “glass ceiling,” a limit to how high they could rise in the leadership of an enterprise. Prior to the dramatic economic changes seen in the 1980s, women’s roles were clearly identified. The work world predominantly found in urban places was the realm of men, while home and a neighborhood or suburb were the places for women. As such, women were marginalized with limited access to opportunities outside the home.

A woman with preschool-age children was even more restricted. In order for her to engage in the workplace, she needed to find adequate day case for her child and ensure that she had an automobile for the trip to and from work. If the family had only one automobile, tradition held that the man would have preference for its use. The male workplace in the city in many cases was in a building that was unsafe for women to approach and enter. Relatively inaccessible entries and long, unattended corridors put women in a position of perceived danger. The work of gender geographers focused on these situations, brought them to light, and advocated for change.


Gender geography is concerned with the oppression of women and inequalities that are found in their treatment in the economic and political sectors. The approach of gender geography, however, is not to be limited to the development of geographies of women but to bring about changes within the discipline of geography itself and, where necessary, to challenge the existing theory and practice within the discipline and bring them into line with gender findings. Challenges have been made as well to current research practices and methods of teaching that are perceived to reflect a strong masculine bias within geography.

The aim of the gender geographers, then, is to ensure that their perspectives inform all of cultural and human geography. Cartography is a case in point. Research suggests that a strong masculine bias exists in maps and that little mention is made of women in the discipline. There is compelling evidence, it is contended, that the role of women in geography and cartography has been far more extensive than has been reported to date. There is further evidence that abundant information on the status and experiences of women is available on existing maps that have remained relatively unused in geographical research.


The 1990s brought forth a number of significant studies on the status of women in the world. Some of the most heart-rending outcomes of these studies point to the deplorable social and economic conditions experienced by women in the developing regions of the world. These studies provide an abundance of evidence to support the claims of the gender geographers centering on the oppression of women and the clear dominance of masculine bias. Rates of illiteracy are much higher among women in developing countries, a direct reflection of the generally lower number of years of school attended by women in these regions.

An extreme example of the plight of women was exposed during the recent war in AFGHANISTAN. Under the Taliban regime, women were not allowed to go to school, they could not gain employment, and they were required to wear a burkha, a garment that covered them from head to foot. Other studies have pointed out that far more women are malnourished worldwide than are men. Ironically, women grow 50 percent of the world’s food. In some African countries the figure approaches 80 percent. Perhaps the most telling indicator of male bias is the practice of female infanticide. Many regions of the world have such a strong bias toward having male offspring that female babies may be destroyed in hopes that a subsequent pregnancy will yield a male child. This practice is especially favored in CHINA and INDIA.

In 1979, CHINA instituted a national policy dictating that families have only one child. As expected, female infanticide increased dramatically into the early 1990s, when the Chinese government relaxed this stringent policy. The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (1994) in Cairo drew attention to the plight of women worldwide. Policies were instituted that aimed at giving women more control over their own lives through the achievement of economic equality and opportunity, a greater voice in reproductive decisions, and increased access to education. These policies marked a departure from previous pronouncements, which were limited to the implementation of population control measures.

In September 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. A strong declaration of women’s rights and equality marked this event. Topics addressed included sexuality and childbearing, violence against women, discrimination against women, and the assurance of women’s equal access to opportunities in the economic system. Specifically, these included access to land ownership, availability of financial credit, vocational training, information, and communications.


The United Nations (UN) set of Human Development Indicators (2003) contain two compilations directly applicable to gender geography. These are the UN Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the UN gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). The GDI is a composite index measuring achievement in three basic dimensions: a long and happy life, knowledge, and standard of living. The actual measure of these goals is gained from data on life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, and estimated earned income.

Gender differences are greatest in the developing world. Estimated earned income strongly favors males, even in the developed countries, in some cases, double that of women. With few exceptions in the developing countries, adult male literacy rates are significantly higher than that of women. The only category that favors women is life expectancy. Throughout the world, women on average tend to outlive men. The GEM measures gender inequity using three basic dimensions of empowerment: economic participation and decision making, political participation and decision making, and power over economic resources. In all three dimensions throughout the world, women significantly lag behind men.

In the category of seats in government held by women (as percent of total), the highest figure is 45.3 percent in Sweden. The remainder of the developed countries report percentages ranging from 10 to the mid-30s. As would be expected, percentages in this category in the developing countries are much lower. The percentages of women occupying professional and technical positions (as percent of total) are more equitable. In fact, some countries (ICELAND, UNITED STATES, CANADA, DENMARK, NEW ZEALAND, and ISRAEL) have more women than men in these categories. Surprisingly, a number of developing countries also have more women than men in these roles (NAMIBIA, MOLDOVA, HONDURAS, and BOTSWANA).

However, the category of earned income is decidedly in favor of men. AUSTRALIA, FINLAND, and LATVIA have the highest ratios of female to male earned income: 0.70. All other countries in the world are below that figure, with some as low as 0.30. Clearly, earned income is a category worldwide that strongly favors men. The GEM ranked only 70 of the world’s countries mainly because sufficient data either was not available or was not submitted.

Some of the GEM data have been transformed to map form. The map of managers and administrative positions shows the highest percentages of women in North America, AUSTRALIA, New Zealand, SOUTH AFRICA, and several European countries. The lowest percentages are in the MIDDLE EAST, over half of the African countries, and the Indian subcontinent. It is clear that women remain a distinct minority in the exercise of economic power and decision making. It would appear likely as well that the goal of equality for all people in the world would not be realized soon.