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A person studying a map.

Women navigating the GIS world

Nanet Pagsanjan | August 2022

You may have heard that there’s a skills shortage especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields.

It’s a global issue.

Adding to this problem are the numbers that indicate females are woefully under-represented in the STEM discipline. This includes the geographical information systems (GIS) industry.

Now, this isn’t just anecdotal hearsay. There’s supporting evidence everywhere like this report that indicates women make up only 16 per cent of Australia’s STEM workforce while every other industry enjoys nearly 48 per cent. This means the female gender is being underused which is adding to the skills shortage issue in our industry.

Evidence of this underutilistation is easy to findjust do a search on the internet and you’ll find articles, data and papers.

Another example are the stories the ABC churns out with monotonous regularity about female achievements in the field. Why would they do that if it wasn’t newsworthy, such as this article about 15-year-old Cadence Taylor who wants to change the world using science.  And this one about university student Jayde Crowe who wants to become a physicist.

It’s clear that women entering this field are doing so against the odds, but they’re still doing it, like my two colleagues, Michelle and Nina.

These two ladies work in the GIS field and are poles apart in terms of timing, and life stages. They both successfully embarked on their GIS careers organically without being prompted by a multitude of programs or people pointing them in that direction, but under very different circumstances. One started almost 17 years ago, and the other is a recent ANU graduate.

Like salmon swimming upstream, they’ve done it despite the system and the elements working against them.

I talk to Michelle, raising three young boys with her husband. She was inspired by her high school work experience with the Royal Australian Navy in the field of hydrographics, specifically surveying the ocean floor.

“I’ve always enjoyed the idea of the Navy and studying on the job—that decision has led me to where I am today,” Michelle said.

Michelle started her career in 2005 when she cut her teeth on CAD applications as an apprentice architectural draftsperson before moving into the local government sector as a GIS officer.  

“I then started doing a Diploma in Spatial Information while I worked and I was able to step up into a GIS analyst role, and eventually a GIS admin role once I had more experience,” Michelle said.

This was a 10-year journey of working fulltime and studying part-time for Michelle.

Michelle says she often tells her mum that she could be a doctor now seeing as she’s studied the same amount of time as a GP!

Now, 17 years on, she’s working for Onneer, a large-scale Enterprise GIS systems specialist. She uses GIS in the management of an ArcGIS enterprise platform for the Australian Government.

Michelle works closely with Nina, who kick started her GIS career by accepting her first ever fulltime job with Onneer as a graduate in just February last year.

Nina has a humanities and arts background and graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Development Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in 2020. Initially she signed up for an IT and Development Studies degree where she got to enjoy maths and coding—components she continues to appreciate in GIS.

It was here in this broad learning program that Nina took a land management course and found inspiration towards a GIS career.

In this course she was introduced to a case study of a native title map that visually communicated areas where a mining company was committing native title breaches in relation to an Indigenous community and it allowed everyone to view it. It was these two aspects that appealed to Nina.

“The map gets people together to look at information that had otherwise been ignored,” Nina said.

“But more than that, maps communicate what can be hidden behind numbers.”

Nina and Michelle are also bonded through this love of maps in the way they communicate information easily and quickly, regardless of scale or location, and in some instances, language.

Michelle recounts a time when she mentioned to a friend, a Chrohn’s disease sufferer, about an app created with mapping software that could tell you the location of the nearest public toilets.

“It changed his whole outlook, because the app meant he could plan his outings,” she said.

And it did. Armed with this map app of public loos, Michelle’s friend was able to plan his activities in relation to the location of amenities making for a more enjoyable life because he wasn’t isolated at home.

No doubt we've all used Google maps or perhaps the GPS system in our cars. Using these tools has meant that we could work with scale, direction and distance, unlike a one-dimensional address.

Without these tools, those of us who are geographically challenged would be stuffed. But the moment this GIS data becomes part of a visual map, isn’t it so much easier to navigate, pun intended.

There’s no arguing that maps are handy.

Unlike Michelle’s natural progression into GIS, Nina’s start in the industry was different and was, as she describes, “lucky”. A family friend heard about a friend who was looking for a recent graduate with the nouse and inclination to work in the GIS field. After a chat with said friend of a friend, Nina was asked to apply for the job and got it.

“As a recent grad, finding work in GIS is hard and knowing people in the small industry seems like the only way to do it,” Nina said.

Her advice? Find that someone who will give you a chance to learn on the job, then, prove you can learn and learn quickly.

Nina continues to learn about GIS, including web GIS, GIS data analysis and GIS consultancy work and she’s loving it.

When she’s not making GIS technology proof of concepts for clients, she is interpreting the quick wins GIS technology enables for those unfamiliar with GIS technology.

“My work is about demystifying GIS software for desktop and powerful GIS websites by using it,” Nina said.

As her career progresses, Nina aspires to develop her expertise in data management and wants to eventually be seen as the technical lead in devising client solutions.

“I want to be able to pinpoint the GIS data solution to a client’s problem to then be able to segue into much larger complex problems,” she said.

For Michelle, she wants to continue to enjoy GIS enterprise systems including the satisfaction of knowing she can improve them, and then improving them. She also aspires within the year to be as expert in her current role as she was in her previous role.

Both have studied and worked hard to get to where they are now and have had the usual hardships when it comes to juggling studies and a career, or, in Nina’s case, trying to find a job that used her love of coding and maths.

It’s clear, though, that these two have bucked the trend of women not entering STEM careers. They’ve side stepped discrimination, sexism, socialisation, stereotypes, social convention, language, opportunity, misperception, personal biases, lack of role models, harassment, family and cultural expectation, and lack of understanding of STEM career options, to thrive in their respective roles.

It’s a breathtakingly long list of reasons why females aren’t in or staying in STEM. In fact, after all I’ve read and the miserable numbers I’ve seen, I’m impressed that these two GIS professionals are as happy, thriving and successful as they are in the GIS world.

So, just how did they do it? How did these two women enter this STEM ecosystem to develop healthy solid careers in GIS?

In their own words, “it just happened”. Perhaps not realising what they were up against made the journey easier.

Thankfully, academies, governments, organisations and the like understand that females won’t always have the inspiration or the opportunities Nina and Michelle had so plans, programs, and strategies are out there to increase female representation in this area.

Let’s hope that this movement addresses the issue on two fronts: that STEM uses an under-utilised resource and that this leads to a bolstering of an industry experiencing a skills shortage, but in the meantime, you can expect other women to find their own way into the STEM world, because clearly, they can.