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Lindsay Short: The Ins and Outs of Being a Young GIS Professional

Historically, jobs in GIS were few and women in these roles were even fewer. While there are a growing number of women entering the industry, they are still a minority.   As recent graduates, two of my fellow graduates and I share our experience as being women in the GIS profession.

Colleen is an environmental scientist at a private engineering firm. She is one of two women in her department of six.  Amelia, a GIS technician for Agriculture Canada, is one of two in a department of 14.  As for myself, I’m the sole GIS technician at Environment Canada for my project, but I am not alone—the head of GIS technical support and many members of the team are women.

Today’s employees, especially those just starting their first careers like us, are looking for mentors and role models in the industry who have faced our challenges and succeeded. We want to see that our passion can actually be the job we envisioned when we started our program. Looking around, it is inspiring and encouraging to find women in technical and managerial positions who can help us reach their level. However, as in other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries, GIS struggles in encouraging and enrolling women into academic program. Our 2012 graduating class, for example, only had 6 women among the 18 students. While this is a good proportion, why are more women not enrolling?

Geography is integrated into the humanities in elementary and secondary school,  but GIS as a subject is often not introduced until post-secondary school.  Despite its application to a variety of industries, the importance of GIS is not encountered until university, college, or when searching for jobs.  This late introduction prevents many from considering it as a potential path, however this does not explain the uneven enrollment. GIS technicians come from a variety of STEM backgrounds and, due to what should be outdated stereotypes, many women still shy away from as they perceive them to be male dominated. Subsequently, they believe they will be discouraged from excelling and talked down to by their male colleagues.

Interestingly, this is not the case. None of us experienced any resistance entering the field and our male colleagues treat us like equals. In fact, even the women who have been in the industry for longer than us say the same thing. The GIS industry is welcoming to women and having more women in higher-level positions will surely inspire others to join the field. The root problem lays not in gender, but rather the way in which GIS and its pre-requisites are promoted within the education system. Let’s not forget that we are part of a relatively new industry that is rapidly growing and evolving. It takes time for curriculums and academic institutions to catch on, but once they do we are sure to see more female applicants and more women in GIS jobs.

To conclude we wanted to give some advice for women who might be interested in entering GIS. GIS is a women-friendly industry and it is an exciting one that is constantly advancing. If possible, find someone who can be your mentor and coach. The first year or two in any role can be challenging, especially in an industry like ours where you need to have a wide array of knowledge. Having someone who can help you will improve your chance for success. We cannot stress the importance of continuously challenging yourself and keeping up on current trends as much as possible. I often find myself wishing I had a stronger graphic design background, while others may wish for stronger programming skills or more knowledge of specialized programs. Given the still rather limited number of positions available and the number of candidates to fill them, competition is high. Having additional knowledge and staying fresh is key in separating yourself from the pack. Finally, if paid jobs are not available, internships or volunteer positions are a great way to gain experience and many have the potential to turn into paid careers.

Lindsay is a GIS analyst with a BA in Geography from the University of Ottawa and a Graduate Certificate from Algonquin College.  When she is not making or looking at maps she enjoys snowboarding, baking, and traveling.

Check out other Canadian Women in Geomatics for International Women’s Day 2013 articles and interviews.

3 comments on "Lindsay Short: The Ins and Outs of Being a Young GIS Professional"

  1. Fiona says:

    I used to teach GIS in a technical college, and my classes tended to be gender balanced, or if anything biased toward women. The same was true of my own GIS course in 1994.

    During a recent time at the Geography department of a major Canadian university, I noticed the older profs were mostly men, the younger profs were gender balanced, and the grad students were mostly female! Interesting trend.

    Finally, I am now working in a forestry consulting company where for the first time I am in the minority as a woman in GIS and the company as a whole – however I’ve noticed a lot of the recent hires have been women.

  2. Lucie says:

    I completely agree with the positive message of this article. I am a marine geomatics graduate from COGS – 2002, and have been working in various geospatial careers ever since. I have yet to be treated differently for being a woman in the field… and that would include the 3 years I spent working offshore (if you disregard the kind party chief in Russia who insisted in giving me a weekly chocolate bar allowance – I can certainly handle that kind of preferential treatment!) I currently work in a GIS shop of 18; 7 of which are women, including a member of the management team. While it’s not a 50/50 gender balance, we all work very well together and are equally recognized for the skill we bring to the team.

    That said, I also agree that we need to “plant the seed” of a geospatial career earlier than at the university level. GIS is a wonderful multi-disciplinary tool that lends itself to countless university applications, but it could certainly be just as applicable in the high school and junior high school grades. In Nova Scotia, we have a wonderful not-for-profit organization called “Techsploration” that provides young women from grades nine through twelve with opportunities to explore science, trades and technology occupations, while creating awareness about the critical role of work in their lives. It also helps them understand the significance of high school math and science for their future careers. I’ve been volunteering as a role model since 2003, talking to several groups of young women about my experience in the three geospatial careers I’ve held to date. They love hearing about my time spent surveying offshore, seeing the map products I’ve created along the way, and learning about the multi-disciplinary application of GIS. Just yesterday, I showed six grade nine female students how to use ArcGIS Online to map survey points we collected in the parking lot. It was actually shocking how quickly the students picked up the online tool, and several of them were ahead of me in the tutorial… it’s a new age when it comes to computer awareness and GIS lends itself well to such a technically savvy generation. Armed with their new online accounts, my hope is that they continue to use the ArcGIS Online platform to support school projects and perhaps even consider a career in geospatial technology in the future.

  3. Valerie says:

    I too agree with the article; from my experience in GIS there has been no gender biases and anyone getting considering into the field should not be intimidated by the stereotypes of engineering and the related disciplines as a specifically a man’s career. Great writing Lindsay, thanks for sharing!

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