Next week’s GIS-Pro 2013: URISA’s 51st Annual Conference for GIS Professionals in Providence, R.I., will feature a discussion new to the event.

Diana Maties, a GIS specialist at CDM Smith, Vanguard cabinet member and NEURISA Board member, organized the Tuesday afternoon session called “Women in GIS: Moving the Profession Forward.” While discussing opportunities for mentoring with the conference planning committee, she realized a conversation to discover and listen to women’s experiences in GIS would be interesting and, to her knowledge, had not been done before.

But Maties hopes men also will join in the discussion. “We don’t want to exclude men,” she said. “I really hope the title doesn’t make men not want to come and join in and have a discussion with us. It would be fairly interesting to see what their perspectives are on the subject.”

Co-facilitator Hilary Perkins, AICP, GISP, said women are still under-represented in the GIS world. “By encouraging women in the field, we are strengthening the field though diversity. Further, even though women have become ubiquitous in the workforce, there still have not been fundamental shifts in the way business is done. Encouraging women to network and mentor other women also has the benefit of creating a workplace that better benefits everyone.”

Perkins, a planner with the City of Maryland Heights, Mo., believes getting women into GIS careers must start at a young age. We need to “find a way to nurture natural curiosities in how the world works and why things are where there are to get young women curious about spatial relationships and why maps are important in understanding things. As professionals, we need to look for opportunities to do this nurturing though volunteering in schools and mentoring.”

The six moderators are women in various stages of their careers.

Panelist Rebecca Somers, GISP, a GIS management consultant based in Washington D.C., who has been active in GIS and URISA for more than 20 years, said, “Women face the same challenges in GIS that they face in many other fields, and the real challenges are those that women face in those other fields, not in GIS, per se.  For example, the challenges that a women might face as a GIS analyst or PM in an engineering firm have more to do with women in engineering and GIS in engineering than they do with women in GIS.  The challenges usually relate to the intersection of gender and non-GIS factors, like age, industry or organizational culture.  The GIS field is actually pretty welcoming to women.”

Maties said she has a strong interest in mentoring, which is where the idea for the session stemmed from.

“I think it’s extremely critical whether in GIS or MOD, whether you’re starting out in the field … you need that support and guidance,” she said.

Perkins agrees. "We also face a lack of mentoring—men mentor men, they don't mentor women; and women don't mentor women— and struggling with work/life balance, etc."

The Women in GIS session will be broken up into smaller groups where participants can share their background and advice. Each group will then discuss topics such as what challenges they face, whether there are differences in success for men and women and how to become more efficient, Maties said.

“The goals for this session are to come together as a group to identify issues in the GIS profession as a whole, not necessarily women-specific. The discussion topics are specifically a learning experience for us. My personal take is GIS is an organic career development,” she said.

“We want to learn from these women’s experiences and be able to identify traits that have helped them expand or create through URISA to help implement them. The main focus is: How do we change URISA to help women in the GIS profession.”

Maties said she really doesn’t know what could be done to encourage more women to pursue GIS careers. “A lot of it has to do with personality and the specific individual,” she said. “One thing I was afraid of when I started out was the hard coding, the cartography approach. Will I have to know how to code, do application development? There are things you don’t really learn in school or with the GIS certification.

“Connecting with others who are more experienced can help women achieve what they want to achieve: Help develop skills to navigate and advance your career in GIS.”

Perkins said she doesn't think women are encouraged to write code: "There's a real dearth of women coders in general—but because, early in our careers, most of us are expected to be the GIS technical experts, a general knowledge of coding is essential."

However, Somers said there are more women in the field now.

“The situation has progressed so much over the years.  The original surfeit of men in the GIS field was due largely to the characteristics of the fields from which people came to GIS, and a time when most professions were dominated by men,” she said. “Now that people are entering the GIS field directly, we see more women.  (And there are more women in other fields from which people come to GIS).

“There are still factors in the GIS field, as in any field, that favor the majority.  But women change this situation, one by one, through their own abilities, accomplishments and values, until we eventually reach a tipping or balancing point.”

Maties said the discussion she hopes to start Tuesday is necessary to learn the issues specific to women.

“Yes, we’re different,” she said, “but I don’t know specifically in the profession what the challenges are, and hopefully this session will highlight that and we’ll have an audience and pull from the experiences of a wide variety of people and panelists.”

Somers said: “Another challenge is that the qualities that traditionally (and still) define leadership, management, competence and influence are mostly male.  So that’s an uphill battle for women, but not just in GIS.

“Opportunities are where the greatest unmet needs intersect with your strengths.  Obviously, people have different strengths, but there are certain strengths that women are generally recognized for, such as collaboration.”

Somers said the challenges she has encountered are not necessarily due to being a woman in the profession.

“I was once a young American woman in an engineering-dominated field in western Canada promoting the new technology of GIS.  In another situation, I was the only woman PM in an engineering firm that didn’t accept GIS,” she said. “Being a woman didn’t help, but the other obstacles were larger.  And it was the intersection of gender with non-GIS factors that brought challenges.”

Perkins said she's "had quite a few" challenges being a woman in GIS: "I was dinged on a performance review for being too aggressive and sharp-tongued (yes, those exact words) in meetings—could you imagine a man being criticized for that? I've been told I am smarter than I looked—by a male boss. Once in a job interview I was asked if I was going to 'go off and get pregnant' right after they hired me. I had a female boss tell me she would ruin my career if she could."

It's because of stories like Perkins' that Maties decided a discussion was needed among women in GIS, and she hopes to begin a valuable conversation Tuesday.

Maties also is involved with many of the social events at the conference, such as Sunday’s geocaching activity and Maptionary and Ignite on Monday evening. Also new to the conference this year is the formal launch of URISA’s mentoring program, which Maties helped coordinate. It’s open to both interested mentors and mentees, she said.

“We’re trying to create programs at URISA for those who are new and haven’t attended other events, and help them speak to people who have been in the business for a long time. Those without as much experience, outsiders, may have a difficult time approaching people and joining in conversations,” she said.

Maties said connecting with others in the profession as well as meeting up with people from all over the world who come together each year at the conference is a big part of the event.

“The things I love learning about is new technology, methodology you apply throughout the country. I think it’s important and interesting to meet people and the random conversations you have at the conference; making connections is great in addition to the sessions themselves,” she said.

“It’s hard to describe what we do—I make maps—and when we describe what we do, people tend to move on from the conversation. People who do GIS talk the same language and get excited about what we’re interested in.”