No, Women Can Read Maps

Received wisdom is a dangerous thing – just because most people believe something to be true, doesn’t mean that it is. In the 1950s, most doctors believed smoking to be harmless. Indeed, many physicians advertised their favourite brands, although that may have been an attempt to ensure that they didn’t run out of future customers!

Another urban myth that has grown up over time is that men are much better at reading maps than women. I admit that as a child, I believed this one to be true. I had to, based on the experience of watching my parents. My father could glance at a map and after three hours of flawless navigation, find his target destination in the depths of the countryside, whilst my mother would frequently get lost on her way to the car.

Of course, I’m exaggerating for comic effect – mum could always find the car. Just not always the house on her return journey. We once found her in cul-de-sac which she had driven into because she was following ‘someone who looked like they knew where they were going’.

Before I am (rightly) taken to task by the loyal and growing feminist section of my readership for my stereotypical view of the spatial capabilities of the sexes, I am happy to publicly state that science has punctured another received wisdom – women can read maps just as well as men can.

A recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science, says the cultural belief that I have just described is also the cause of the problem itself – that is, women believe that they are bad at reading maps because it is received wisdom that they are and so they read maps badly.

The study’s researchers Margaret Tarampi, Nahal Heydari and Mary Hegerty postulated that it wasn’t inherent inability but received wisdom that led to this belief. So, they didn’t mention any perceived difference in ability during their tests. Instead, they simply told participants that the goal of the tests was to help other people. In the subsequent task, men and women performed equally well.

All technical subjects including geographical-based disciplines are attracting more women but progress is slow. In 1904, two of the original 48 members of the American Association of Geographers were women (~4%); in 1972, that number had risen to 14%; and in 2015, it stood at 38%.

The figures are more encouraging if we look at the current US student population, where 42% of geography graduates are female. This seems to suggest that the trend will continue.

And so it should. Received wisdom is nearly always idiotic. African-American people can’t swim because they’re too heavy? No one told Olympic medallists Cullen Jones, Enith Brigitha, Anthony Nesta, Anthony Ervin, Maritza Correia, Lia Neal and Simone Manuel. Possibly a lack of access to swimming pools has more to do with that list being so short?

Social pressures and the impressions that they create, combined with restrictions of opportunity, lead to a lack of ambition and self-belief. Once those are removed, someone’s gender influences their ability to read a map as much as their hair colour does. Long may women continue to discover that that’s true.

Not you Mum, you’re beyond help.

Written by Alistair Maclenan, founder of Quarry One Eleven