Q&A with Mary-Ellen Feeney

By on 5 April, 2018

Mary-Ellen Feeney is Asia Pacific Technical Director of GIS at Jacobs, and a passionate advocate for STEM education, who is actively involved in promoting women in the surveying and spatial information professions. Feeney will be working to move the industry forward at GeoSmart Asia – Locate ’18 where she will be running a session on diversity and innclusion in the Interaction Zone.

Feeney is on the Board of Surveying and Spatial Information for the NSW Government, Chairs Jacobs’ Diversity & Inclusion Committee in Sydney and is an Ally Champion for Jacobs’ Colours-LGBTIQ+ Network. She believes spatial enablement and digital transformation offer such opportunities to undertake our global stewardship more effectively. She sits down with Position magazine ahead of her session on Women in the Spatial Frontier in the Interaction Zone at Locate ’18 – Geosmart Asia ’18.

Mary-Ellen, you have been actively involved in promoting diversity and female representation in your professional field of surveying and the spatial sciences, and in STEM more broadly. Has the experience of being a woman beginning her career in a technical, male-dominated discipline informed these activities?

It has, but not in a negative way — it has inspired me to fill an informal leadership role I think our industry needs. What is important is a collective effort and recognition that balancing gender and other forms of diversity will only strengthen our workforce and teams. Men and women both have a role to play as champions of change in this space.

And these days, have things moved on from there? What do you think are the main challenges that young women entering STEM careers — particularly in spatial sciences and surveying — face currently?

Visibility of role models, career paths, mentors, sponsors and champions are primary challenges for many young professionals in the STEM professions. Networks of similarly-minded people amongst whom you can share experiences, knowledge and questions are valuable places to identify, nurture and develop talent. Our formal and informal industry associations have a great deal to offer as communities of practice so long as our young professionals feel welcome there and like they have a voice – they have as much to teach us as we have to offer them in terms of cross-generational exchange.

You are involved in a range of initiatives that intend to promote inclusion, and recognition for diversity within our industry — the Diversity and Inclusion committee and Colours LGBTQI+ Network of your employer, Jacobs, and more recently a group of 20 female industry leaders that is developing an inclusion-focused agenda and roadmap. In your view and experience, what are the most successful approaches for helping to overcome challenges for those who are underrepresented in this field?

The motto for Homeward Bound is ‘Stronger Together’ which encapsulates an approach that recognises you can draw strength, support and build a network of influence from many different people in your immediate and extended networks. While you might be alone at work social media and community networks often allow us to draw strength from the knowledge and experiences of others when facing your own challenges.  Visibility, executive sponsors, business and community champions make such a difference when tackling challenges of under-representation. They provide examples of others facing similar challenges, and provide multiple voices to speak on behalf of your cause or promote support in different arenas to your own – all of these increase representation and consideration.  The diversity dividends for companies and communities are tremendous.

I understand you will be leading a panel on this topic in the Interaction Zone at the upcoming Locate ’18 – Geosmart ’18 conference in Adelaide. What can participants expect and what do you hope to achieve?

Yes, I’ll be involved in a fantastic session about Women at the Spatial Frontier, being hosted by Allison Hornery, with Shelley Fitzgerald and Mary Lewitzka in the Interactive Zone. The Interaction Zone aims to bring to GeoSmart Asia – Locate 18 an experiential, participatory and engaging form of open interaction. It is hosted in an interactive media space in the conference exhibition hall as a rolling series of interviews and discussions with leading thinkers and practitioners on a wide range of sector issues, innovations and challenges.

You were recently selected for the Homeward Bound program, one of 80 women in STEM from 23 countries, and the only participant from a geoscience background. I understand you’ll be embarking on a trip to Antarctica in the near future. What will you be doing there? What should our readers know about the program and how can they get involved?

Homeward Bound is a year-long leadership program aimed at developing strategy, visibility, science communication, planning and transdisciplinary science/engineering skills, set against the backdrop of Antarctica. It is open to Women in STEM careers at all different stages of their leadership journey. The selection for 2019 spans from women with careers at the UN and World Bank through to primary school teachers, civil engineers, all sorts of academics and researchers, a local council employee from Britain, some doctors and an artist.

The education programme is delivered remotely prior to the voyage, on-shore in Ushuaia and on-board the ship in Antarctica. It comprises lectures, exercises, personal coaching, team and personal presentations and extensive open discussion – in forums, in thematic team, and in triads (learning teams of three). The majority of this gets delivered face-to-face over three weeks in the midst of icebergs, penguins, whales and women!

Lastly, do you have any advice for young women and gender-diverse people who are considering a career in STEM, and the spatial sciences specifically?

A career in STEM is a path to the future, where you will be involved in the technological evolution of our society, an understanding of the impacts of human endeavours, and be engaged by the directions and opinions of our communities – their challenges, successes and needs. I could not have chosen anything more interesting! Come join me.

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