Congratulations to the young women who have started the Women Geoscientists in Canada group! I find the discussions and posts from this group thoughtful and insightful. I hope I can add something of interest by writing about my career, in particular relating to being a woman in our industry.
First, a few words about our company, Sander Geophysics (SGL). SGL was founded in 1956 by my father, Dr. G. W. Sander and has grown to 150 employees, including geophysicists, software and hardware engineers, aircraft maintenance engineers, pilots and administrative personnel. SGL is based at the Ottawa International Airport and owns and operates thirteen aircraft: , two helicopters and eleven fixed wing aircraft. We provide airborne geophysical surveys worldwide for petroleum and mineral exploration, and geological and environmental mapping.
Given that SGL is a family business, I have been involved in geophysics more or less since birth. However, it was never really my plan to work in geosciences. I studied Applied Math (BSc from Carleton University, 1979) and Computer Science (MSc from McGill, 1990).
If you exclude when I was paid $1 per page for adding up rows and columns in the SGL accounting books at age 10 and my job as a cook in an SGL field camp at age 16, my first real SGL job was operating our computers and plotters in the evenings and during the summers while attending university. In the 1970s, computer operator was actually a job; it included initiating different programs on our mini-computers, changing 9-track tapes and cleaning plotter pens. I can still remember the stress of that job, the feeling of being involved in a process that I didn’t fully understand. I use that memory when dealing with inexperienced employees who are struggling with the complexities of our systems.
I worked for one year as a computer programmer for a consulting firm in Ottawa, then I joined SGL permanently in 1980. I went directly to Rwanda, where I stayed for nine months, QCing and processing radiometric and magnetic data. That was the first project that we brought computers to a field location. The work stream was very different then, with poor telephone communication, no internet and no GPS.
Upon return to Canada, I worked in the office, developing much of SGL's original data processing software. I also performed data processing in other field locations in Canada, Central America, Asia, Europe and Africa. In 2002, my father stepped down as company president and my brother, Stephan Sander, and I became co-presidents of SGL.
I have been very lucky that my personal and professional life have been intertwined. My husband, Reed Archer, also worked for SGL and we were able to work on many field projects together. When our three children were young, we brought them along with us to field projects. Sometimes we brought a nanny along with us and sometimes we were able to find child care in the field base. This was a wonderful lifestyle for our family. The children were able to experience different places like Saskatoon, Portugal, Norway, Costa Rica and Panama and we were able to occasionally spend some family time and take a bit of a break from the 24/7 schedule of a field project.
As the children grew older, it wasn’t as easy to take them out of school for longer periods, so usually I stayed behind while Reed continued fieldwork. This was a more difficult period as I functioned essentially as a single mother with three children and a challenging career. I remember noticing that I had to miss out on many breakfast or evening meetings and functions that would have been interesting and beneficial to my career, but I could not attend due to commitments with my children. As it turns out, children grow up and this problem eventually solved itself!
The biggest career challenges due to my gender have occurred while working on field projects outside of Canada. When our company had some large contracts in Saudi Arabia, I was able to visit our crew and client in Saudi Arabia only because my husband and my son were working on the project and they were available to accompany me. I was required to wear a black floor length abaya covering my clothes and a black head scarf. I felt very odd in that outfit, while the rest of the crew (all male) wore their usual North American clothing.
In many countries, it is common for a female crew chief to be ignored during discussions with local authorities. This is especially true if she is relatively young. It is easier for a more mature woman to be accepted as a person of authority and of course in my case, having the same last name as our company name does help. Often the most mature-looking male crew member is assumed to be in control, even if he is less senior in position. Some female crew chiefs in our company have experienced very strange three way conversations, where the local authority would never address them directly, instead only addressing the male pilot.
That being said, I have usually been treated with respect by clients and authorities in most countries. It may have even been slightly easier to operate in a foreign environment as the relative rarity of a woman in charge of a geophysical project may have brought out a more cooperative attitude from local authorities. However they may not change their view of a woman's place in the world, even if they come to accept that one particular foreign woman is able to competently hold a position of authority. I remember one client who said to me, "You aren't anything like our women. All they want to do is lie around the house and then go shopping." While I am sure that statement was not accurate, it is an indication of the attitude that we may find ourselves up against.
A few years ago, I asked some of SGL’s female employees to describe their experiences as field crew. Here are a few of their responses:
From a senior pilot at SGL: I have been flying for over twenty years and have countless stories of being treated differently because I am a woman. The most important thing is that “differently” means sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes just differently. I believe that it is not necessary for others to respect you if you respect yourself. No matter what your objective, if you allow others to define where the end of the road is for you, your path will always be chosen by others. If you look for gender issues, you will find them but a more effective strategy is simply to learn to navigate effective pathways.
From a senior geophysicist at SGL: Despite the challenges involved with being a woman in the field, it also helps to shape a person. The women who work at SGL are among the toughest women I know. This is because we can't be weak, vulnerable, or lack confidence when we are meeting with officials in other countries who may automatically treat us differently because we are women. I have always found that initially I may be treated differently, however after speaking with officials and showing them that I am strong, knowledgeable, and confident, their attitude toward me changes and any initial discrimination quickly disappears. Although men might sometimes be given a certain amount of respect right away when meeting people in power in other countries, we women have to earn it. It may not be fair, but that's why the women at SGL aren't just ordinary women.
From a senior geophysicist at SGL: I had an interesting experience in Libya. The first crew chief (female) had a very negative introduction, being told outright that a woman could not be the manager of a group of men. I later took over as crew chief and by the end of the project was invited to pay a visit to the client, accompanied by our local agent. He gave a grand speech about how SGL management had initially told him we would have two female crew chiefs. Apparently he had said that was unacceptable, to which SGL management replied that that is how we do business. The end to his tale was that between the two women, he had learned that women can manage a crew of men, and possibly better than any man could. It was quite a thing to listen to, as his opinion had been completely changed.
I have learned that it is really important for everyone from our company to show respect for the cultures wherever we work. Even though I may have felt awkward in my Saudi garb or covering my head in Mauritania, respect for local customs goes a long way towards building mutual respect, good communications and good relations. In the end, I have benefited so much from my interactions with people from many different cultures.
I followed a normal career progression, with my position changing from a technical position (programming, data processing) to a management position. I am happy that I have the technical background to understand and deal with technical issues, however I now find a lot of satisfaction in dealing with our employees, our clients and many other people in our industry. I enjoy my involvement in the geophysical exploration community, as the current chair of the SEG gravity and magnetics committee, as a director of the KEGS Foundation, as the organizer of the KEGS Ottawa presentations and through presenting at symposiums and conferences. Aside from the benefits of getting to know many amazingly knowledgeable experts in our field, I believe my visibility in the industry has actually been helpful to our company. A few years ago I was awarded Ottawa Businesswoman of the Year. It was difficult (but kind of fun) to put myself out there in front of the Ottawa business community and in the end winning this award opened the door for me to a number of interesting community groups.
I would encourage young women to make an effort to get involved in the geoscience community whenever they can. Even though the number of young women in our industry seems to be increasing, women are still a minority in many committees and conferences. The extra visibility through your involvement will undoubtedly be helpful to your career.
Thank you for reading through this long document. I would be happy to answer any questions or comments that anyone has. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.