This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.
Greater use by men than women is common across mySociety services. Looking just at people who had gendered names (78% using UK data from OpenGenderTracking), 38% of FixMyStreet users were women. However, because women are less represented among super contributors (users who make many reports), only 29% of reports were submitted by women. There has been a consistent year-on-year increase in the proportion of reports made by women (34% in 2018), which at the current rate will reach parity in 2025.
But what are the impacts of this? Where crowdsourced websites have a gender disparity and different genders participate differently, this leads to a difference in outcomes. For OpenStreetMap, Monica Stephens (2013) found that in discussions around proposed new categories of locations, strong distinctions are made between “swinger club, a nightclub and a brothel”, while a 2011 feature of “childcare” was debated and rejected on the grounds it was too similar to the existing “kindergarten”. If contributors are on the whole “very aware of the complexities of sexual entertainment categories, but oblivious to the age specific limits of childcare providers”, this makes the map less useful to the large potential group of users with differing priorities.
This is not an unfixable problem (and in this specific case, quickly was – childcare was added to OpenStreetMap as a category in 2013) but reflects that crowdsourced websites and datasets reflect the interests of the people who volunteer their time towards them. In an article for CityLab about efforts to increase the number of female cartographers working on OpenStreetMap, Sarah Holder writes that:
Doctors have been tagged more than 80,000 times, while healthcare facilities that specialize in abortion have been tagged only 10; gynecology, near 1,500; midwife, 233, fertility clinics, none. Only one building has been tagged as a domestic violence facility, and 15 as a gender-based violence facility. That’s not because these facilities don’t exist—it’s because the men mapping them don’t know they do, or don’t care enough to notice.
However, as an Open Street Map contributor noted below the original version of this article, shelters for those escaping domestic violence present a particular challenge: openly mapping their locations make them easy for everyone — including the perpetrators — to locate. As such, refuges themselves may not want to be listed. While some services predominately used by women are under-mapped, others are ill-suited to an open, map-based form of discovery. For a more detailed exploration around issues of providing information for victims of domestic violence, see the Tech vs Abuse research findings.
Zoe Gardner, Peter Mooney, Liz Dowthwaite and Giles Foody (2017) found that as well as differences in the scale of activity, men and women also behaved differently in the kinds of ways they added to OpenStreetMap, with men more likely to modify existing features and women more likely to add new data in a few categories. Specific categories of label had different rates of contribution, with women more likely to add labels in the ‘building category’ (67% for women vs 35% for men), while men were more likely to make modifications to the highway category (39% for men vs 23% for women).
For FixMyStreet Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama (2018) found a similar difference in behaviour in terms of the categories of reports submitted by men and women and found a rough “driving vs walking” divide:
On first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter).
This was replicated with non-anonymous data internally. The methodology used in this paper is applied through the Explorer minisite to a wider dataset, and the gender difference in categories can be seen here. This uses an analysis that derives likely gender from first name, which is not 100% accurate and cannot derive a gender for all users. However, for broad differences, the data is sufficient – a comparison to a group of reports where reporters disclosed gender found that the derived ‘male’ group contains around 4% misallocated women, while the derived ‘female’ group contains about 1.5% misallocated men. The unknown group splits roughly 50/50, but leans towards containing more women (53%).
As women are still minority users of the site in general, categories are noteworthy if they have a greater proportion of women than the site as a whole — even if this is below parity. For instance, women make up 40% of reports of overgrown trees, which means more are reported by men — but this is higher than use of the site as a whole by women. Women make fewer reports (and account for more first time reports than repeat reports), but these reports are focused on different categories to categories that are more reported by men (such as potholes, 74% of which are reported by men).
When men and women are moving through the world differently, they are encountering different kinds of problems. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women. Given this, it’s not unreasonable for men to be encountering and reporting many more potholes.
Surveys in Scotland and England suggested higher rates of littering by men and lower acceptance of littering by women — which is reflected in a slightly higher than expected number of reports of litter from women. Women make more walking trips (269 to 240) over a cumulative longer distance (10 miles more per year). Given this it would not be unreasonable for women to be encountering slightly more littering, pavement defects, dog fouling and other walking problems.
This difference is especially true for women aged 30-39 as “women in their thirties make four times as many escort education trips [school runs] than men of the same age, and walking is the most common mode used to make these trips”. Looking at reports of littering in England – reports by women are on average 154 meters (95% confidence between: 138, 171) closer to a school. This isn’t saying that all reports of littering are made by women doing the school run, but possibly enough that it shows up as a difference in the data.
In 2018 women made up 36% of reports related to rubbish — but this is masking different gender balanced on different kinds of waste. While there are very few reports of ‘discarded syringes’, three-quarters of these are made by women. Reports related to ‘leafing’ and ‘litter/litter bins’ are near parity (49%, 46%).
In 2016 there was an experiment on the homepage of FixMyStreet.com to see if changing the prompted categories from a focus on road problems to a prompt on parks and open spaces and changing the imagery on the homepage (happy families rather than the default “B&Q” colours and spanners) led to an increase of reports by women. There was no difference found, suggesting that the problem was more complicated than women being put off by the design. This did however change the distribution of various categories (fewer pothole reports and more reports of issues with street lights) with no shift in the gender ratio.
For reports made by co-branded websites (instances of FixMyStreet running as part of a council website), reports by women are better represented, making up 42% of reports. This is a reminder that more than the technology is important, the perceived “officialness” and discovery routes are also important. Certain kinds of users may be more willing to use a third-party tool than the official website.
What does this mean?
If civic tech makes certain kinds of government contacting easier to do, but those forms of contact are more likely to be problems experienced by men, this may have the effect of shifting the provision of services. In the longer run, uneven reporting may entrench perceptions of public interest and respective budgeting for different areas of service.
That men and women experience their environment in different ways and so experience different problems makes this problem both important and difficult to resolve. Understanding FixMyStreet as a bundle of services gives a framework to examine the problem. Viewed this way some services (Report Potholes) are performing about as you’d expect, while others such as Report Litter are lagging. This suggests a different set of experiments to investigate the problem than a generic ‘women use FixMyStreet less’ problem suggests.
It also suggests that reaching greater gender balance in services may involve seeking out different kinds of problems. The issue is less getting more pothole reports from women but that there are neighbouring services that fulfil the same ‘ease contact with government’ role that women would be far more likely to use.
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