Ruth L. Trujillo Rodriguez, PLS, was in her senior year of high school when she heard the term “land surveyor” for the first time. Primed to become an engineer, she weighed her degree options at local universities in Puerto Rico. “Listening to the description of all the engineering degrees this university offers, I kept reading the term ‘land surveying’ in their brochure, but the counselor did not talk about it,” Rodriguez remembers. “I was curious, so I asked.” 

There are only two universities in Puerto Rico that offer a land surveying degree: the public University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus and the private Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, with a main campus just a couple of blocks from where Rodriguez grew up in San Juan. Rodriguez chose the latter.  

“It seemed perfect,” she says, finding appeal in a surveyor’s life in the field. “I went home and searched more about it on the internet. I asked my mentor for guidance and got his approval.” 

Graduating from Polytechnic with a degree in land surveying and cartography, Rodriguez is now the president and CEO of her own land surveying business and the only woman-owned land surveying corporation in Puerto Rico. “My focus is mostly boundary and cadastral surveying,” she says. Explaining, “Many women overlook the opportunity because when you hear — if you hear — about land surveying, the image you see is an older man ‘looking though a camera.’ Universities and professional associations need to promote the career to everyone, regardless of age, sex or race.” 

Ruth L. Trujillo Rodriguez in the field. Photo provided by Ruth L. Trujillo Rodriguez.

With professional paths shifting beneath their feet, many more women like Rodriguez are finding stability in leading land surveying and geospatial work — where they can steer the focus of their careers and challenge the status quo of traditionally male-dominated professions. What follows is not only her-story, but the story of so many women who find themselves fighting for a place to do the work that they love.

When Hurricane Maria devastatingly hit the northeast Caribbean in 2017, reconstruction work for land surveyors skyrocketed in Puerto Rico. However, there are still to this day not enough licensed land surveyors for the jobs. The Puerto Rico Association of Land Surveyors estimates that there are around 330 professional land surveyors to the island’s population of 3 million. A much less portion of that number of land surveyors are women. 

In Rodriguez’s experience, seeing is believing when it comes to recruitment. “Most of the time people do not think about the importance of having role models, to see someone who looks like you do what you dream of doing,” she explains. “Who better than women, who bring a superlative attention to details and a human -and skilled- approach to the profession? A couple of decades ago, maybe I would not have been recommending another woman to join the profession because most, not all, older engineers and surveyors did not see women as their equals.” But times and generational attitudes are quickly changing, says Rodriguez. “I have had no issues with younger generations. They have always recognized me and treated me with respect.” And with each new door she opens in her own career, she is laying the groundwork for more women to come after her. 

Surveying might have once been a man’s world, but women are here to stay, says Rodriguez. “I believe that the stereotype of the profession being a career for men needs to end once and for all,” she says. “When younger women who are still studying or have recently become surveyors come to me and say, ‘I want to be like you.’ Or, ‘thank you for all your help.” I feel like I owe it to them to be the best surveyor I can be.” Her advice to women thinking about starting a new career: “Do not think about it for another minute. You have the skills, the abilities, and the talent to achieve anything you put your mind to and focus. Do not be afraid.” 

Tammy Peterson’s career path into GIS was anything but intentional — “It wasn’t something that I was familiar with or looking for”— but there always seemed to be a place for her skills in the industry. Earlier this year, she joined CompassHoldings to lead their strategic marketing and business development initiatives for their suite of companies, which include CompassCom Software, CompassData, Inc. and CompassDrone. With previous tenures at SOLV3D Inc. and Valtus Imagery Services (now HxGN Content Program), she brings more than 20 years of experience in strategic marketing and business growth to her current role that she says is the result of everything “falling into place.” 

“I told many people this. I wanted — to quote, unquote the analogy — Mr. Right. Not Mr. Right now,” says Peterson. “I wanted to find a place where I knew I would not only be challenged but I would also make a positive impact, that I could go in and truly help an organization grow and achieve their objectives.” 

Peterson considers herself more of a professional working in GIS than a GIS professional, but she has been able to stake a claim in the industry by leaning into feelings of imposter syndrome. 

“I think the only way you overcome it is by being engaged and seeing how you’re making a positive impact on an organization. Because if you’re just someone who talks a good game, but there is no follow through, then that’s all smoke and mirrors,” she says. “But if you believe, you truly believe in what you are saying to people and you are able to take action on that and achieve results, that’s how you get over that feeling.” 

GIS consultant Julia Wagemann created the Women in Geospatial organization (womeningeospatial@googlegroups.com)
 in 2019 to help women in GIS around the world combat imposter syndrome and professionally connect through learning and career advancement opportunities. Like most things today, everything started with a tweet about creating the discussion group. 

“I was not actually very upset that day,” says Wagemann, who has a background in physical geography and conducting work based in Europe. “It was just maybe an accumulating frustration from years of work.” 

In no time, she had 300 responses from women in GIS expressing interest. “This was basically the starting point,” she explains. Today, the group is over 2300 members and pursuing nonprofit status. Because it is a virtual group, Wagemann says the coronavirus pandemic has only increased its demand. 

“At the moment it’s still a grassroots organization, I would say,” she says. “I think now looking back we did quite well. We are already an online community, and we are global.”

Kimberley Denney

Entry to the group is by invite-only, and its members include GIS students, educators and industry professionals from around the world and close to home, such as Atlantic executive vice president Kimberley Denney. 

Denney is celebrating her 10th year in the GIS industry after being recruited by her father Steve Denney, chairman and founder of Atlantic, into an entry-level position.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Denney says. “He shared with me that an entry-level account manager position was open at Atlantic and if I had any interest in learning more about what he has devoted his life career to all these years. I remember him saying, ‘If you end up loving it, wonderful. If not, no strings attached.’” The decision was “one of the best decisions I have ever made,” says Denney. 

Green to GIS, her training started on the job. “Like many in our profession, my education in GIS, lidar, photogrammetry, remote sensing, etc. began on day one at Atlantic,” she says. “I always felt the expectations for me were higher than for others at our company (men or women) — right or wrong. Rather than focus on how others felt about me, I decided to turn that ‘burden’ into a strength for my growth. I felt like I needed to show up every day, work hard to learn this profession, and to earn the respect of others. My focus has always been on the positive aspects of our business and our professional community.”

She adds, “I did not know that I would be entering into a male-dominated industry, but it did not take me long to recognize there was certainly a lack of women in the field or at least on the forefront attending conferences.” 

Although Denney admits that she did not have many female figureheads to look up to going into her GIS career, the industry carries a sense of awareness now that will benefit from more diversity.

“I think awareness is key component of diversifying our industry. It has been amazing to witness in more recent years not only the steady increase in women joining our field, but also the increase in women earning and taking on leadership roles within their organizations,” she says. “As a profession, I think we really need to explore why certain racial minorities are not pursuing careers in STEAM, specifically GIS and geomatics fields. It does not seem to be enough to continue to promote just how inclusive our profession can be for everyone. What is important is that we are conscious and aware of what draws curiosity to our field while also identifying what deters (others). I do hope that it leads to something even bigger for our profession because there is so much to love and so much work to do.”

Now Playing At POBonline.com

Watch our exclusive interview with GdB Geospatial president Christine Gayron on leading as a female executive:

“I’ve always looked at it as an opportunity to stand out. Honestly, I don’t feel like I was held back at all because I was a woman. There were a few occasions where I was mistaken for being the marketing person or secretary, and I was able to spin those conversations into a discussion about what it is that I really do and what I’ve learned and how much experience I have.”

Watch now at pobonline.com.