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Spotlight on Women in Geomatics: Sarah Dunnewold

23 Oct 2019 5:25 PM | Laura Olsen (Administrator)



Sarah works for the Province of Nova Scotia at the Geomatics Centre as a GIS Administrator. She coordinates the activities involved with Data Distribution, the Map Library Services including cartographic projects and the fascinating topic of Geographic Names. She graduated from COGS in 1995 with a Diploma in Cartography; her education was spent partly in the darkroom, making maps by hand shortly before everything became primarily computerized.

"I worked at numerous places where I was able to use GIS for different purposes which expanded my knowledge and thought processes.   I like to create, so in my personal time I mix cartography with craft and I make rugs using of special places using open-source software and open data."

In this Q&A, Sarah discusses where her interest in geomatics stems from, how it got her to where she is today, and the challenges and rewards that she experienced along her way:

Q: What made you choose a career in the geomatics sector?
A: Like a lot of people, I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life when I was a teenager.  I thought I wanted to be a farmer and a mother the most but didn’t see either happening in the short term.  I was accepted at four universities/colleges for completely different programs at each and I chose cartography because the tuition was the cheapest, which would then help me out when I decided to become a struggling farmer.    

Q: As a woman, did you recognize the barriers you faced in getting your career started? How would you describe them? 
A: In my early twenties, I was told that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a leader of people because I was a young woman.  I had to “follow the rules” a lot more rigidly than any counterpart who was not a young woman.  Another “barrier” that I experienced was being a working mother.  Some people felt  that a woman that takes a maternity leave is less valuable to a workplace than someone who is doesn’t take the time off. Taking time off work also means you fall behind on your knowledge of technology advancements, which is key to keeping up in this field.  Most of the other barriers messages from society of what a woman should be like, such as: to be successful you should look a certain way, or the questions of my dedication to my children if I went back to work, or that I should be passive.  As I have gotten older, I eliminated those perceptions:  I am who I am, proudly.

Q: How did you manage to overcome the major challenges in your career and end up where you are today?
A: Growing up in 4-H, I “learn to do by doing”, and my personal motto is “I can do anything”.  Both of those concepts require time, and a belief in yourself and you cannot take failure or mistakes personally.  My curiosity about people and data has helped me more than “waiting for an answer” ever would.  I try to stay involved so that I can always relate a new technology to something I have heard about.

Q: Do you think the geomatics sector needs to change to be more inclusive? How?
A: I think there is always room for any sector to change, whether it is to think outside the box about education and look more at competencies, to be encouraging and welcoming of all under-represented groups of people.  Whether you must understand people and data, understand the client and data restrictions or understand your co-workers and learn from each one, we are all engaged with each other. 

Q: What advice would you give to women and girls who are facing gender barriers in their careers?
A: It’s probably advice that would depend on the person and situation, but if you want to do something and you feel passion for doing it, always try your best, work for a company you share values with, learn the ins and outs of what you want to do, and be comfortable with who you are.  I would say the same thing to any person entering any profession, hobby or sport.  If there are discrepancies in how one is seen (perceptions of knowledge, skill and suitability) because of gender, my advice is for those in charge or anyone working in a team environment:  Treat people kindly, openly and ready to learn from them, regardless of their name, age, gender or appearance.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone facing challenges in their geospatial occupation, or entering the geospatial sector?
A: Learn, always learn.  Find a mentor, be curious and explore the challenges that others face as well.  It may bring you on a clear path to a rewarding career in Geomatics.

Q: In your experience, what can you say about the progress that has been made in the geomatics sector, and where it will go in the future?
A: The sector is limitless.  Progress is fast, don’t blink!  From everything in the sky, everything under water and the composition of where we stand, geomatics can easily cross-reference with any field of study or profession to come up with solutions, hypotheses, discoveries and good fun! 


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