To mark International Women's Day 2021, the Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group (DRM PPG) asked Vanessa about her experiences of working in Disaster Risk Management (DRM), the challenges women working in this field face and what advice she would give to other female geographers.
How did you get to where are you are today and what advice would you give to young female geographers looking to get into Disaster Risk Management (DRM)?
I have been passionate about geography since I was inspired by a fantastic teacher, Mrs Dover. As a result, I decided at 14 years old, I wished to work as a geographer. I graduated in geography and later undertook a Masters course in Satellite Earth Observation and its applications.
I emerged onto the employment market at a time when there was high unemployment for graduates, and I was bitterly disappointed that I could not get a job involving geography or satellites; but eventually I received an offer to be a graduate trainee in international banking.
A few days after I received the offer, I gave what I thought would be my last talk at a technical geographical conference. Thankfully, someone in the audience contacted my professor to invite me to an interview to be the Geography, Geology, Agriculture and Veterinary Science Publisher for the Higher Education Department of Longman Group - a leader in educational publishing at the time. I realised I could be a geographer in this role and in addition I also would receive an excellent business training, as they were part of the Pearson plc empire.
All my subsequent roles have used my geographical knowledge, developed my skills and for most of my career I have had roles that have taken me to every part of the globe. In 2011, I was invited to be the founding co-chair of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) - a role that I undertook for nearly five years. In that role, I learned a great deal about fragile areas of the globe and communities who live with the constant threat of natural and man-made disasters.
Today, I continue to work in DRM through the work I undertake via the World Bank and through my own company, in supporting nations in their planning and operational delivery of their National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDIs). The NSDI is of course a very important part of a country’s infrastructure that needs to be in place to support both the planning for Disaster Risk Reduction and for operational use when sadly, a disaster occurs.
My learning I should like to pass on is that throughout my career I have kept in mind my dream ‘to work as a geographer’. Not always has the road been smooth but I have learned to take every opportunity and to see where each journey takes me; and I always have in my mind how the opportunity could contribute to meeting my dream.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for leadership roles today and how can we promote gender equality?
Leadership is always challenging as, however consensus driven you are as a leader, you are accountable for the outcome. But to be a successful leader it is vital that you spend time gaining insight from many others in your team and those in your stakeholder landscape.
Today’s leaders face so many challenges. Often the stakeholder landscape in which they are operating is so much more complicated than in the past; there will be both formal and informal stakeholders and all need to be consulted. Each stakeholder also has a significant voice via modern technology which is clearly empowering for everyone and is overall a good thing. But for a leader, it often means unravelling the complicated mixed messages and helping each stakeholder to resolve their differences and move them towards reaching a consensus decision; this can be very difficult, complicated and time consuming.
It is widely recognised that many women have the skills to juggle these complicated landscapes if they are given the opportunity to lead. However, too often women themselves do not consider that they can take on such positions. I urge all senior women and men to seek out both men and women who can lead in these ‘new times’ but being mindful all the time that they must create encouraging conditions for women to realise that they personally could take a significant role in leadership.
What do you see in other females that inspires you?
The females who inspire me have a sense of purpose and a drive to get things completed, but they also take their team and their stakeholders with them, whilst undertaking the leadership challenge. At the same time, it is important that everyone in the team develops during the leadership challenge and that everyone learns many new skills whilst undertaking the activity.
Finally, what is your message for fellow women in Disaster Risk Management?
Some years ago, I found myself in the situation of leading 5,000 people who had never had paid employment before. It was a daunting task and one that I felt I did not have the ability to complete successfully despite the job being vital to the future economic and political stability of a country.
A wise person gave me the phrase: ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’ and these are the words I should like to pass onto fellow women working in Disaster Risk Management. The phrase helped me to rise to the leadership challenge in spite of the massive issues we faced - still today, when faced with a difficult challenge, I remember it. It did, however, take me many years to realise that the wise person had not coined the phrase… It was first used by Walt Disney but clearly it is a totally transferable statement, to encourage everyone in their important work.
* This interview was undertaken in 2021 and was correct at the time of publication. Please note that the featured individual may no longer be in this role, but the profile has been kept for career pathway and informational purposes.