July 26, 2020

What does it take to be a “Woman in Data”?

Sophie Hiscock
Sophie Hiscock Graduate Consulting Analyst

Business challenge:

Equality and Diversity
Women in data

Sophie Hiscock, a Graduate Consulting Analyst at TrueCue, reflects on the current state of the Tech industry, some misconceptions on who can be part of it, and how she became a “Woman in Data”. 

In many ways, the Tech industry defines the 21st century. From the use of AI to automatically ‘evolve’ scientific theories to smart fridges that can look out for our elderly relatives, so much that was unimaginable only a few years ago is now possible.

However, despite being a hub for innovation, diversity in the Tech industry remains a serious issue.

“Women currently make up only 17% of Tech specialists in the UK and this ratio has not improved in 10 years.”

Source: Equals, Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Digital Equality

Why does this matter? 

There are many reasons. One is that it indicates that the industry is not as meritocratic as it claims to be:

In the US more than 40% of women leave tech companies after 10 years compared to 17% of men.” 

Source: Harvard Business Review, Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem

Research shows that they aren’t leaving for family reasons or because they didn’t enjoy their work, rather because they are repeatedly passed up for promotion and have their projects dismissed. Furthermore, women are not equal in this inequality: women from under-represented ethnic groups may also experience stereotyping at work, with 24% citing this in their decision to leave. This systematic bias suggests that the industry is missing out on a wealth of new ideas as the women that come up with them are not being supported well enough.

Another reason why diversity matters is that when women are left out of decision-making processes, we end up with tech that fails to meet people’s needs. Margaret Mitchell, a Senior Research Scientist at Google, described this as the “Sea of Dudes Problem”  – companies are left in a state of “myopia” and produce, for example, smartwatches too big for women’s wrists and map apps that fail to account for the desire to know the “safest” as well as the “fastest” route home1

If the issues of fairness and poor design weren’t enough, there is also a strong commercial case for why diversity matters.

Research from McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are 25% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median for their country.

More diverse companies perform better in terms of decision making, employee satisfaction, recruitment and customer orientation which leads to a “virtuous cycle of increasing returns”. 

It is clear that a lack of diversity holds the Tech industry back, so why is it still so behind?  

Part of the reason is that women are not applying for these roles.

According to research from PwC only 27% of female students across A-Level and University would consider a career in technology, compared with 61% of male students

The main causes for this include the lack of information and encouragement provided to girls from an early age as well as the perception that because tech is male-dominated, they would not “fit in”. 

This leads to misconceptions about the industry that can cause women to overlook the opportunities available to them. For example, that you can’t work in tech unless you studied Computer Science, or that the industry is solely concerned with driving profit.

My own experience can show that both of these ideas are completely untrue.  

The tech industry employs people from a wide range of backgrounds, and as in my case, they do not necessarily include STEM degrees. Nicola Anderson, CMO of EdTech firm MyTutor, says that women tend to undervalue their transferrable skills and will not apply for roles they don’t feel 100% qualified for – this issue is compounded if what it means to be “qualified” for the industry is misunderstood. In reality, most people in tech aren’t engineers or coders, there are a wide range of roles that suit different skillsets. Moreover, the community has created many high-quality, free resources to help people upskill so as long as you are interested, and have a drive to learn, this industry is open to you.

I studied Economics and Philosophy at University and came to love data analysis through the applied statistics modules I was able to take, as well as through studying logic. Although somewhat ‘unconventional’, I feel I strongly benefit from this background in the work I do daily as both these subjects demand rigorous thinking and the ability to apply theory to real-world problems. Before I started working at TrueCue, I underestimated how important the process of learning about the client’s context is – regardless of how sophisticated the thinking is behind the scenes, if your solution does not account for the subtleties of the situation, and is not accessible to the user, it will be useless. Aside from the coding I learnt as part of my studies, I also sought out courses outside of University to grow my skills. One which I would highly recommend is Code First Girls. This organisation offers free coding courses to university students, taught mostly by women, for women. It was a great opportunity not only to learn Python (among other languages) but to meet women in the industry and others interested in tech.

Having female role models can be an important factor in inspiring young women in their career choices. There are many incredible women in this industry, including Amali de Alwis, former CEO of the aforementioned Code First Girls, now Managing Director at Microsoft for Startups in the UK. If you are looking to find someone to speak with and learn more about their work, I would recommend joining a collective or a career-based society at your University. (As a founding member!) I would also recommend Lean Further, a network of students and recent graduates working across different industries that aims to support and empower women in their careers. Another group worth looking into is Data + Women, which hosts monthly talks from women doing amazing work in tech.

Another misconception women might be held back by is that the industry is amorally profit driven. Research shows that women tend to place higher importance on making a “positive difference to the world around them” when choosing a career. With a multitude of scandals gaining mass media attention, it is easy to form a negative impression of the industry and to miss out the many ways in which data is being used for good, which is not reported as widely, or often taken for granted. For example, in the fight against climate change big data is being used to develop tools that optimise waste management, improve water conservation, reduce energy consumption and supply chain emissions. This is not to mention the advances made in predictive climate modelling, which have underpinned policy decisions on an international scale for decades.

An example of a “data for good” project I have worked on was one of my first at TrueCue. I built an app to help doctors across the UK plan out their resourcing for patient initiations on a particular course of treatment. Speaking directly with stakeholders working in the hospitals helped me appreciate how, beyond improving business performance, the work I was doing could improve people’s lives. TrueCue has worked on a number of data for good projects including analysis of the drivers of deprivation across England, you can read more about it here.

So what does it take to be a “Woman in Data”?

To become “Women in Data”, girls and young women must be provided with more information about the range of amazing work available to them, and already done by, women in the tech industry. Once interested, these women must develop the skills they need to pursue their chosen career path through their academic studies or with the wealth of resources that are publicly available.

To play our part in this at TrueCue, we are running a campaign to provide hands-on experience, advice and information for women looking to get into data. Our first event will be a Hackathon on a COVID 19 dataset where participants will have the chance to grow their skills and meet others interested in analytics – for information on how you can participate, stay tuned to TrueCue’s LinkedIn updates.

The current “Women in Data” must be supported by their companies and have their work recognised – as we know, when this doesn’t happen, product quality falls and commercial performance is weaker. Moreover, they must have faith that they absolutely belong in the tech industry, even when they might be the only woman in a “sea of dudes”. As Google’s first ever female employee, Marissa Mayer achieved incredible things – thanks to her work as lead developer we have Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Gmail… the list goes on.The industry still has a way to go, but the fact that companies are openly working to address this is only a good sign for the future.

Technology is for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, wealth or age and we must do all we can to not just share this message, but to realise it.

1 Perez, C.C., 2019. Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Random House, p176

Business challenge:

Equality and Diversity
Women in data
Written by Sophie Hiscock Graduate Consulting Analyst

Sophie is a Graduate Consulting Analyst at TrueCue. She is drawn to analytics for the opportunity to do good that big data in skilled hands can offer. Working with clients in Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals, among other industries, she has employed her academic background in Economics and developed her expertise in methods of data preparation, analysis and visualisation. When she's not working, you'll find her walking around London with an old film camera or with her head in a book.

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