From The Council

I Won’t Deny it. Fostering DEI in the Workplace  is No Easy Task: Olivia Powell 

Discover the unspoken hurdles of diversity in the geospatial industry through Olivia Powell’s eyes. Dive deep into her interview to grasp the intricacies and explore pathways to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future.
Olivia Powell, WGIC DEI Trailblazer Awards 2023 Winner interview

WGIC: Olivia, congratulations on your remarkable achievement as the WGIC DEI Trailblazer 2023 Individual Champion! What does this recognition mean to you? 

Powell: I was genuinely surprised and overwhelmed with joy when receiving this award. I am grateful to those who nominated me and saw me as an ambassador for diversity and honored to have been chosen amongst other worthy candidates.    

I see advocating for fairness and justice a “normal” thing to do. However, this recognition holds significant meaning for me, as it is a validation of the work, I have been engaged in. It reinforces the notion that my efforts to raise awareness and uplift others are both valued and appreciated, highlighting the importance of advocating for women in spatial endeavours.  It also serves as a source of encouragement for others. 

Olivia Powell receives WGIC DEI Trailblazer Award at INTERGEO 2023
Olivia Powell receives the 2023 WGIC DEI Trailblazer Award – Individual Champion 

Like many other women in the industry, I juggle a full-time job, my involvement in Women+ in Geospatial to advance diversity in the geospatial industry (to name a few) and support my family as a mother of two children. The timing of this recognition was therefore very welcomed as it coincided with me taking a short-term step back to “recharge my batteries”. It however gave me the encouragement and affirmed that the hard work and dedication was worth it, and taking a moment to rejuvenate was justified and supported.  

Having had the chance to rest and reflect, I am eager to explore what more can be done. The award has fuelled my enthusiasm to contribute to making the industry more diverse.  

WGIC: What is your core philosophy around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) that motivates your active involvement in this domain? It seems to go beyond your scope of responsibilities at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of the United Kingdom (UK). Could you elaborate on the underlying motivation that propels your commitment to this cause?  

Powell: My journey into this field has undergone an evolution. When I initially got involved with Women+ in Geospatial, I was working in a predominantly male environment within law enforcement (a local police force in the west of England). As the only person (let alone a woman) working with GIS, I often felt isolated and “lonely”. That’s when I began following people on Twitter, observing other women making strides in the geospatial sector.  

It became clear that numerous women were doing impactful work but lacked visibility. I wanted to create a movement, be part of a community, foster connections, share learnings, and have mutual support among women in geospatial. The focus expanded as I delved deeper into this initiative and co-founded Women+ in Geospatial with Julia Wagemann and Sabrina Szeto.  

In this process, my involvement broadened beyond the confines of gender representation. I found myself increasingly engaged in DEI conversations. This expanded perspective shaped my evolving philosophy — it’s not just about my individual experience as a woman; it’s about recognizing that the geospatial industry, as a whole, does not adequately represent the diversity of our world. This realization fueled my commitment to contribute to a more inclusive and representative sector, acknowledging the need for broader conversations and actions that transcend individual experiences. 

This evolution has led me to advocate for diversity actively, challenging the status quo when necessary. We can drive positive change by asking questions and diplomatically challenging existing norms—like questioning the composition of panels or suggesting diverse perspectives. This philosophy of continuous growth and inclusion has become the backbone of my approach to diversity in the industry. It has been a transformative and eye-opening journey, prompting self-reflection and a commitment to influencing positive change for everyone. 

WGIC: What, in your view, are some of the DEI challenges in the geospatial sector? How do you see these challenges impacting the sector’s growth, and what is your prescription to overcome them? 

Powell: We have initiated a crucial conversation about diversity and inclusion within the geospatial industry, with key players such as the WGIC actively addressing this global issue. There is a noticeable surge in interest, with many individuals expressing a genuine desire to contribute positively. However, our main challenge collectively is sustaining this interest and converting it into tangible actions. I have observed a growing enthusiasm at various events where people express their eagerness to make a difference. Yet, this initial interest may wane if we fail to respond effectively by providing tools, practical tips, and concrete strategies for implementing a more diverse workforce. There is a risk that individuals might disengage when faced with perceived difficulty, leading to a missed opportunity for meaningful change. 

My concern is ensuring that diversity doesn’t become a trend that momentarily captures attention, only to fade away later. We must avoid a scenario where, once the trend subsides, people revert to old ways. This is neither sustainable nor ethically sound. 

While the benefits of diversity are evident—bringing a wealth of perspectives, ideas, creativity, and products that resonate with diverse clients—the real challenge lies in the journey to achieving this diversity. Critical components include sustaining efforts, fostering a supportive environment, and overcoming obstacles. 

Olivia Powell at Geospatial Women Networking Event    
Olivia Powell at Geospatial Women Networking Event    

As an example, I noticed an early sign of a dip in interest during the transition from virtual to hybrid work post-pandemic. When we were all online, it was easier to facilitate diverse representation of speakers and in participation, especially for groups like women who could join virtual events from home. However, as we shift back to a hybrid model, we risk losing the gains made during the pandemic. Barriers that were momentarily lifted could resurface, potentially discouraging participation and interest. 

To address this challenge, we must actively work to maintain momentum. This involves inviting diverse voices to events and actively removing barriers hindering their participation. By showcasing diverse perspectives in magazines, events, and other platforms, we can serve as role models for the younger generation, creating an environment where diversity becomes second nature. 

WGIC: In your role as the Head of Geography and Geospatial at ONS, how are you incorporating the principles of DEI to foster a more inclusive environment? Given that you likely embody these principles in your workplace philosophy, could you share some of the best practices you have implemented to promote a culture of diversity and inclusivity? 

Powell: I won’t deny it: fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace is no easy task. Despite a huge willingness to improve workforce diversity, sometimes circumstances that are out of our control can hinder progress.  

Within the British Civil Service, including at the office for National Statistics (ONS) where I currently hold the dual roles of Head of Geospatial and Diversity and Inclusion Champion, the recruitment process is commendably inclusive. It anonymizes, ensuring that names, genders, and ethnicities are undisclosed during candidate evaluations. However, the real challenge lies in attracting and retaining talent, especially when governmental salaries are comparatively lower than those in the private sector. The retention hurdle becomes pronounced as individuals may join briefly before seeking higher-paying opportunities elsewhere. While salary constraints are beyond my control, they significantly impact the ability to sustain a diverse workforce. 

Government organizations, including ONS, often face the challenge of a predominantly white workforce. While there are ongoing efforts to diversify, budget constraints and recruitment freezes can hinder progress. For example, favoring internal recruitment only during such freezes presents an additional challenge to achieving increased diversity. 

In the face of these challenges, my guiding principle is inclusivity. While achieving diversity may be challenging in specific contexts, fostering an inclusive environment is always possible. It involves being curious about others, demonstrating genuine interest, and maintaining approachability. For instance, I actively engage with young conference attendees, encouraging them to consider future job opportunities when they arise.  

When I collaborate on events, I avoid criticizing a lack of diversity but rather present it as a shared challenge. I strive to assist in making events more diverse by offering suggestions, recommending speakers, and providing constructive input. 

Currently faced with rebuilding a small team, I confront the reality of limited internal recruitment options. However, I aim to create a workplace where people want to contribute and thrive by maintaining an inclusive mindset, welcoming diverse perspectives, and involving teams in decision-making processes. Despite the uncertainties, embracing an inclusive approach will contribute to the long-term success of building and sustaining a diverse team. 

WGIC: Turning back our focus to Women+ in Geospatial, can you expound on the various programs under this initiative? 

Powell: Women+ in Geospatial originated as a grassroots movement, taking shape on Twitter in 2019 and evolving into a global community with approximately 5000 members worldwide and over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn.  

Recognizing the need for peer support, especially when members felt a lack of it in their day-to-day roles, we identified three key activities that define our values: Inspire, Unite, and Empower.  

The ‘Inspire’ aspect focuses on representation and the need for more role models in the geospatial industry. This involves active campaigning on social media, event attendance, and suggesting speakers for various events. To enhance this, we created a unique speakers’ database, a valuable resource for event organizers to find expert women speakers in geospatial, and for Women+ to promote their expertise! 

The ‘Unite’ pillar is centered around bringing the community together and fostering a sense of support. Networking is a key element, facilitated through platforms like Slack, enabling members to connect, ask questions, and share insights. We organize networking events during conferences to break the ice and build confidence, recognizing the daunting experience of being at a conference without knowing anyone. 

Lastly, the ‘Empower’ aspect is about providing tools and resources to support women’s career progress. This evolves based on the needs of our members. One flagship program that has been successfully running for the past 4-5 years is our mentorship program. This program pairs mentors and mentees, offering valuable guidance and support to those seeking career advancement. 

In addition to mentorship, we offer support groups for coding and other skills, providing practical tools to our members. The goal is to empower individuals and create a supportive environment that encourages them to stay and thrive in the geospatial industry. This is crucial, especially considering the documented trend of women in their 40s dropping out of the industry globally. 

In essence, Women+ in Geospatial operates under the motto of INSPIRE—fostering role models, UNITING the community for peer support, and EMPOWERING individuals with the tools they need to grow in the geospatial sector. 

WGIC: Within the framework of Inspire, Unite, and Empower, could you provide specific examples illustrating how these principles have led to positive changes in representation or empowerment for women in the geospatial sector?  

Powell: I have observed a noticeable shift from the pre-pandemic era to the present in the conference representation and the burgeoning interest in diversity and inclusion trends. In my view, a standout example is the evolving representation at conferences, with a diminishing presence of what my colleagues humorously name ‘manels’—panels dominated by men. 

Events such as the Geospatial World Forum (GWF) are compelling examples of embracing diversity initiatives. They have proactively organized diverse panel discussions, including sessions featuring young participants strategically placed in the plenary for maximum visibility. This shift aligns with the advice provided to them. Other conference organizers are following suit. For instance, Esri UK hosted a well-attended panel discussion for women, and their conference saw overwhelming attendance, with attendees even having to be turned away. 

Noteworthy efforts extend globally, as evidenced by the United Nations (UN) World Geospatial Information Congress (WGIC) in India in 2022. The event showcased a remarkable level of diversity, featuring panel discussions on various aspects, including a session I collaborated on about diversity. Additionally, an inspiring session showcased incredible and inspiring geography work by school children, providing a platform for diverse voices from the Global South and beyond. These instances are excellent examples and best practices, setting a benchmark for others to emulate and perpetuate.  

WGIC: What are your top three recommendations to geospatial organizations to enhance their diversity and inclusivity parameters? 

Powell: I would like to get practical with my three recommendations. First, I always believed in not reinventing the wheel. There are existing impactful schemes that companies can leverage. Take, for instance, the UN Women Empowerment Principles. It is a global initiative led by the United Nations, which brings together signatories from employers all over the world; major tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft have signed up – but very few big geospatial companies. Seeing geospatial companies signing up for these principles would be fantastic. It is a concrete step with a structured scheme already in place. 

Second, companies must incorporate diversity and inclusion into their leadership strategy. Many organizations focus on having a diverse workforce, but often, the leadership remains untouched. This creates a disconnection. Embracing inclusivity at all levels is vital for holistic change, even if it brings discomfort at the outset. 

Last, though it might sound like a plug, but financially supporting organizations like Women+ Geospatial is instrumental. We operate on a volunteer basis, and funding is critical for sustaining and improving initiatives. Becoming a partner or sponsor would immensely contribute to developing resources like our speakers’ database. This support ensures that the efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive geospatial community can be sustained and enhanced.