Inclusion for innovation in spatial and surveying

By on 8 March, 2022

Roshni Sharma

Boosting diversity and inclusion can be a win-win for your organisation and the industry as a whole.

Tobler’s First Law of Geography states that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. As surveyors and geospatial professionals we tend to interpret this in a geographical sense; however it applies just as much to the ways in which we work. When the groups we work in or peers we surround ourselves with are similar to us, we are subconsciously more inclined to think in similar ways… but also to miss certain other perspectives, ideas or potential ways of doing things.

For a small industry such as ours, we need now more than ever to be able to capitalise on diverse thought to facilitate innovation to access the business benefits this brings. With technological advances rapidly escalating, other industries are also increasing their ability to replicate our processes and methods, but without the deep understanding of data quality that we do… making it even more pressing for us to be able to retain our niche within the global context.

Diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging are fundamental issues that affect the surveying and geospatial sectors across the world, in the global north and south, across country borders and at all scales — from small sole traders to multinational organisations. Diversity describes the amount of ‘sameness’ in the composition of a group — and within our global surveying industry, from a demographic basis, this sameness tends towards males who are on average fifty years or older.

As the world has become more globalised over recent decades, an increase in access to education as well as cultural shifts in many countries have inspired more people from various cultural backgrounds, genders etc — who might differ from the ‘average’ surveyor — to step into the surveying and geospatial industry. These people bring with them perspectives, knowledge and life experiences that help to create a broader, more diverse culture within our industry, including new ways of innovating and creating business benefits.

Diversity and power

There are many features that can make up a person’s identity — gender, age, sexual orientation, cultural background, race, class, worldview, (dis)ability and so on. Some of these tend to be visible (such as gender) and others invisible (such as worldview or Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander background).

Additionally, the impact of these attributes may vary according to context. For example, in some situations being a young professional might place you in a context where you inherently hold greater power (such as when speaking to undergraduate students looking for tips on getting into the industry), and other situations you might hold less power (for example, sitting in a meeting room with many experienced colleagues and clients).

The third aspect of diversity as linked to power is that these dynamics can occur at three different levels — interpersonal, institutional and systemic. Institutional power imbalances spread within an organisational culture, influencing the norms for treating people in different ways based on their different identities. Systemic power imbalances occur across countries and generations.

These matter because the world we live, work and play in is a social one, and social structures contain social dynamics. Within the workplace, these manifest as unconscious undercurrents of access to opportunity, recognition and fair treatment through power (the level of access to influence or control over others) and privilege… the experience of having access to power as a result of our identity, which provides us with benefits or rights that others may not have as a result of their identity).

The leaky pipeline

The concept of the ‘leaky pipeline’ tells us that diversity is not the whole story. We need to develop inclusion on an industry-wide level if we want to retain those coming into the industry, and attract more people as school-leavers or from other industries.

Picture a hundred girls in primary school. They hear subconscious societal messages that science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine jobs are more for men rather than women. During subject selection in high school, the weight of these subconscious societal messages impacts their subject choices, influencing their choices after finishing school.

After school, ten girls are studying at TAFE and 70 at university. At TAFE, only two women are studying STEM-related courses and only one is doing surveying. At university, only 30 are doing STEM-related courses, with five related to surveying and geospatial. Upon graduation, we have one completing her TAFE qualification and three graduating university within surveying and geospatial — the other two have transferred out of the degree they started in.

As these four women start working in geospatial, we find that within the first ten years of their career, two of them transition into careers in other fields, finding that the workplace was too isolating for them. The remaining two women are thriving in their careers, however both experience challenges in receiving similar opportunities compared with their male counterparts, and neither of them have ever received the same salary as their male counterparts, despite holding similar or senior positions.

One of these women chooses to start a family with her partner, and finds it challenging to return to work after maternity leave without the flexibility to take on the caring responsibilities that come with being a mother, alongside caring for her and her partner’s elderly parents. She experiences discrimination and micro-aggressions from her colleagues, and is never able to make it to the management-level position for which she once held aspirations. The other woman is able to gain a position on the executive of an organisation, and finds herself making a positive impact on the industry she loves. Despite this, she still experiences a lower salary compared to other men at her level.

This story illustrates the leaky pipeline in a very simplified way, not considering other visible or invisible aspects of diversity. It does, however, start to show us how the compounded effects of a lack of diversity translating into inclusion affects our industry’s workforce… something that is of concern as we consider how to retain talent and be able to grow as an industry within the global context.

Business benefits

Drucker’s famous statement, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” highlights that the quality of your workplace culture can elevate your business outcomes much more powerfully than your strategic planning.

Having diversity within your workforce or team does not automatically bring benefits. Sometimes, it just creates more friction or greater staff turnover. For diversity to translate into business benefits, it requires the culture of your team or workplace to embrace inclusion to create a sense of belonging. Inclusion is a less-easily measured feature than diversity, and refers to a person’s experience within the culture of an organisation, industry or other group. As Verna Myers is often quoted as explaining, “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one is watching”.

Signs of a diverse, inclusive culture include:

  • Better decision making through a variety of perspectives, giving rise to robust, respectful discussions
  • Greater ideation and debate, leading to thought leadership
  • A culture of belonging, leading to higher employee engagement and greater retention of talent
  • Greater levels of innovation as a result of psychological safety allowing for failing fast, making mistakes and learning from them, and the ability to try new things together
  • Making better decisions, faster, leading to increased profits and business results
  • Increased organisational brand due to healthier and safer culture, attracting top talent more effectively
  • Stronger ability to respond well to disruptions.

The Gartner Inclusion Index identifies seven statements on inclusion — the more that employees agree with these, the higher the level of inclusion in a workforce:

  • Fair treatment: Employees at my organisation who help the organisation achieve its strategic objectives are rewarded and recognised fairly
  • Integrating differences: Employees at my organisation respect and value each other’s opinions
  • Decision making: Members of my team fairly consider ideas and suggestions offered by other team members
  • Psychological safety: I feel welcome to express my true feelings at work
  • Trust: Communication we receive from the organisation is honest and open
  • Belonging: People in my organisation care about me
  • Diversity: Managers at my organisation are as diverse as the broader workforce.

Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one is watching. — Verna Myers


Four ways to create greater inclusivity in your culture, as outlined in greater detail in the Harvard Business Review article “How to measure inclusion in the workplace” (May 2021), are:

  1. Listening — Hearing from the people who experience exclusion or marginalisation (formally through focus groups or anonymous surveys, or informally) can provide insights into where gaps in inclusion or diversity might lie in the recruitment process, development and recognition process, leadership and culture. These insights can be used to create a plan for change.
  2. Self-reflection — Culture trickles down from the top, so creating space and accountability for executive and management to reflect upon their leadership behaviours (conscious and unconscious) can contribute towards positive changes in supporting team performance and growth, fostering accountability, conflict resolution, communication and showcasing integrity.
  3. Vigilance — Through leaders at various levels within an organisation maintaining vigilance in calling out unacceptable behaviours, and setting the standards for what inclusion and belonging can look like. Calling out micro-aggressions (unconscious but still damaging comments or attitudes around gender, race etc), micro-assaults (discriminatory remarks), micro-insults (demeaning remarks), micro-invalidations (dismissive remarks) and other micro-inequity can hold the employee body to account and shape a culture that’s more welcoming and psychologically safe for all employees of all backgrounds and identities.
  4. Process changes — Leaders within an organisation are in contact with diverse groups across the business, enabling them to propose and implement process changes that promote inclusion and belonging.

So I pass over now to you, dear reader. I invite you to reflect over a cuppa. How will you try to be aware of your unconscious biases and blind spots? What might be some ways you could influence your workplace culture towards greater inclusivity? How can you help others in our incredible industry to feel a greater sense of belonging and help stem that leaky pipeline?

With a background in environmental science and management, human geography, palaeoclimatology and business, Roshni Sharma is a graduate of the Homeward Bound Women in STEMM leadership program, facilitator of the Locate Hub, and Convenor of the Space, Spatial and Surveying Diversity Leaders Network (SSS-DLN). At FrontierSI, Sharma is making it her life’s work to harness location intelligence to create tangible, positive change for society.

This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2022 issue of Position magazine.

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