Let's Rally for GeoWomen!

By Bill Johnson  |  June 22, 2017

I’ve been thinking about the NSGIC GeoWomen initiative quite a bit since its inception at the Midyear. It feels really important. The more I think about it, the more I am recognizing both the incredible impact that so many important women have made in my life and career, and the potential for more women to be leaders in our profession.

I didn’t think much about it in my formative years, but my grandmother was a fantastic role model. She was a first-generation American from Swedish immigrants and unlike nearly all women of her era, she did not marry as a late teen and settle into a life of limited domestic boundaries. Instead, she earned a 2-year college degree and quickly worked her way up to being the administrative assistant (in the title of Secretary) to the mayor of Worcester, MA. Knowing how driven and organized she was, it’s easy for me to speculate that she had a strong hand in running the city while the mayor did the glad-handing work. She didn’t marry until age 26 (a true “spinster” in 1918) and later ran my grandfather’s homebuilding business, his lumberyard, and also a summer boarding house at Moody Beach in Maine. Anna O. Johnson was the undisputed matriarch and center of the extended Johnson family when I was growing up.

In graduate school at Michigan State I had a wonderful academic advisor, Dr. Judy Olson, and the grad student with whom I had the closest competitive bond (though she always out-competed me, with aplomb) was Cindy Brewer. Cindy stayed for a Ph.D. and went on to become a GIS faculty member at Penn State and the creator of the ColorBrewer.org site that so many GIS people rely on to select appropriate choropleth color schemes.

In my 31 years of GIS work for the State of New York, there were many terrific women who worked in our shop. I could rattle off names, but I will cite just one here, one who will be instantly familiar to everyone in NSGIC, Cheryl Benjamin. I worked with Cheryl for more than 25 years and I knew early on that she would go far. Whenever we had an especially difficult or demanding assignment, one of critical importance to the organization, and especially if it required building support with local government officials across the state, Cheryl was invariably the one we asked to lead it.

More recently, it has been no surprise to me to watch as she rose in prominence with NENA and took on a national leadership role in crafting GIS standards for NextGen 9-1-1. I am not aware of anyone who fails to recognize her leadership talents when they have worked with her. In March, 2016, when I relinquished my NSGIC Board seat upon retirement from the state, I was gratified to see Cheryl appointed to fill the remainder of my term. She was elected to another term at the NSGIC Annual last fall. To my mind, she is the “poster child” for NSGIC GeoWomen.

NSGIC has a rich legacy of pioneering women in the GIS profession. It’s fair to say that NSGIC would not exist at all without the unflagging efforts of Lisa Warnecke as the catalyst to create a national organization of state GIS reps. Other important women were involved in the early years of NSGIC. Nancy Tosta became the most prominent and articulate advocate for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), around which NSGIC crafted many components of our advocacy agenda over the years. Anne Hale Miglarese was the Director of the NOAA Coastal Research Center and later went on to leadership roles in the private sector. Three women served as early Presidents for NSGIC: Karen Siderelis from North Carolina, later the GIO for the US Department of the Interior; Sheryl Oliver from Illinois; and Susan Carson Lambert from Kentucky, who later earned the John Wesley Powell award.

NSGIC continues to have women serving as leaders in the organization. I was very pleased to see that the slate of candidates for the Board of Directors in 2016 included three women among the six candidates. We currently have three women in board or officer roles, and of course we have our incredible new Executive Director, Molly Schar. But we can do more, and that’s why I believe the GeoWomen initiative is so important.

I would like to see NSGIC be the national leader for this movement. GeoWomen could well be one of the most important things NSGIC pursues, with lasting consequences and major benefits to our profession. We have some great women members who are naturally drawn to GeoWomen, but what about the rest of us? How can we help? Surely we can all see the gender gap among leaders in the GIS profession. There’s plenty to do to help develop the channel for more women to seek out careers in GIS. And once they do, we need to be creating a pipeline to leadership roles. We all have a role in shaping the culture of our workplaces, and we all need to be deliberate about creating opportunities in a way that is fair and open to women. GeoWomen can shine a light on this and show young, aspiring women that they, too, can climb to the top roles.

This is something important to me personally. Did I fail to mention that I grew up in a family with four sisters and now I am the father of three daughters (and no sons)? I want my daughters to have opportunities without boundaries. I am sure I am not alone in that sentiment. Here’s a call to everyone in NSGIC: let’s all get behind GeoWomen. It’s right for the profession, it’s right for NSGIC, and it’s the right time for action.

learn more about GeoWomen