Not only is Narelle Underwood the youngest NSW Surveyor-General for 200 years, she is the first woman to hold the position, a major role which is responsible for regulation of the land and mining surveying profession.
Since her appointment in 2016 she has led a number of technical modernisation projects on behalf of the Government and has worked to lift the public profile of surveying to encourage more young people into the profession.
Mrs Underwood’s achievements were recognised at the 2019 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards, when she was named as co-winner of the ANZSOG-sponsored Emerging Female Leader in Government or Public Sector.
She was named as joint winner with Macquarie University academic Amy Thunig who won for her work in revolutionising settler-colonial approaches to education and building bridges between academia and the broader public.
Mrs Underwood said winning the award was valuable recognition of the work she is doing not only to lead the surveying profession but also her work as Chair of the Geographical Names Board to support Aboriginal language revitalisation through the use of traditional language in place naming.
“This award also highlights what the government and public can achieve, all of the finalists are achieving amazing outcomes in their chosen field. At a time when we hear lots of criticism about public servants, this award showcases that we can attract and retain talented professionals in the public service who contribute so much to society and that we do a lot of good,” she said.
She said that surveying was a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) profession with low numbers of women, that needed to have open discussions about diversity to ensure its future.
“Only three per cent of registered surveyors in NSW are female which to be honest is pretty atrocious in today’s society. In the broader surveying and geospatial industry this rises to about 15 per cent,” she said.
“These discussions are important for equity and because we have a documented skills shortage in surveying. In NSW the average registered surveyor is 52 – we have more surveyors over 60 than under 40 - and we are in a world where there is continual change in technology, and where being in a profession doesn’t have the same prestige – we need to attract and retain as many people as possible.”
Mrs Underwood is one of 60 women on the Superstars of STEM program run by Science & Technology Australia – aiming to smash gender assumptions about scientists and engineers and provide role models for the next generation of girls coming into STEM professions – and she also acts as a mentor to men and women in surveying and leadership.
She worked in the private sector as an undergraduate but after graduation, with a young family, was attracted by the public sector’s flexible work arrangements and also the opportunities for ongoing training and development.
She said she has stayed in the public sector for opportunities to use her skills to contribute to society.
“Surveying underpins so many aspects of our economy. Banks lend people money against their property because they trust the integrity of property boundaries due to the work of registered surveyors,” she said.
“We also have an unprecedented investment in infrastructure in NSW including bridges, roads and tunnels - and surveyors are involved in all of those projects, quite often from start to finish.”
She said that technology was changing the role of surveyors but would not mean the end of surveying as a profession.
“New technology means that the art of measurement has been democratised. Anyone can use a drone to measure but what is harder is knowing if the measurements or data is fit for purpose.
“There are some situations where you only need an accuracy of a few metres, but others where you need to be accurate to a few millimetres, this is where you need a professional surveyor to provide you advice on whether the technology and the data it produces is fit for the intended purpose.
“From a regulatory perspective, we make sure that legislation is technology agnostic, setting accuracy specifications and standards to allow for the adoption of new technology and innovation in the field.”
Mrs Underwood said that the public sector needed to do more to encourage and support female leaders. While many areas of the public sector have majority female employment at graduate levels, but not amongst senior leadership – in tech-based areas like surveying women are under-represented at all levels.
“Within the public sector unconscious and conscious bias is still impacting on career progression, because people still prefer to have people like themselves in their team and are not appreciating what different points of view and experience can bring,” she said.
“This is especially the case in STEM fields. In this area there are also people who have been promoted in the past on the basis of seniority without really analysing whether their leadership or management skills match their tech skills.
“It’s important to remember that not every person, whether male or female wants to lead, so it is an unrealistic expectation to have 50/50 leadership without increasing numbers of women at every level. We need to be part of the effort to attract more women into STEM.”
She said that a key barrier to female leadership was a lack of acceptance and availability of flexible work arrangements.
“We need to normalise flexible work arrangements, in practice as well as in principle, and this also means we need to support and encourage men to utilise flexible work arrangements,” she said.
“Currently there are very few part-time or flexible leadership roles in organisations, and we need to have those if we want to remove barriers and encourage flexibility at all levels of our organisations.
“It is also a lot easier to shift down to a part-time role than to apply for one because we are not advertising or offering enough part time roles.
“There is also still an expectation that those who work part-time will deliver as much in four days as others do in five, yet a sense they are not fully part of the team, which works against them.”
“There are still a lot of managers who are not comfortable with the new paradigm, and things like flexible or remote working. They still want to see their staff every day.”
Mrs Underwood said many women still lacked the confidence to put themselves forward for leadership positions, and needed to change that mindset.
“I'm guilty of it myself, when the role of Surveyor General was advertised in 2016 I was originally not going to apply because I felt I could only confidently demonstrate experience with 75% of the position description,” she said.
“It wasn’t until others encouraged me to apply for the role that I gave it serious contemplation and decided to apply, even if only to get experience of interviewing at that level and to get feedback from the panel on what I needed to work on for my future development.
“I guess I saw the role description, knew the history of past appointees and thought that I was not what they were looking for. It turned out that they were looking for someone like me.
“A lot of women don’t put themselves forward for the roles that are out there, because they feel that they can’t deliver 100 per cent of the role description. It’s important to coach women to focus on what they could bring to the role that is valuable and to apply other skills and experiences to the capability framework.
“As a generalisation men are a lot better at looking at the intent of a role and not letting one or two dot points stop them applying. But I also think we need to look at what we put into role descriptions and how we advertise roles if we want to attract a broader more diverse range of applicants.”