Women in analytics: Promoting inclusivity

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

For the first Women of Analytics panel to be held in Europe, four panellists discussed diversity. Suggestions were made and experiences were shared about understanding, accommodating and make the most of differences in the business intelligence and analytics workplace. Ultimately, the point was made that a diverse workforce makes good business sense.

Although the luncheon panel at the Alteryx Inspire conference in London was organised by the Women of Analytics initiative, this untitled session could have been given a distinct name. "Welcoming everybody to work" seemed to be the theme, under host Olivia Duane Adams, Alteryx co-founder and chief customer officer.

This is because the panellists discussed diversity through many lenses, not just that of gender diversity. The issues of being inclusive of different religions, races, abilities and of people with caring duties were also brought up, as was the business case for having a diverse workforce.

Women of analytics luncheon panel, Alteryx Inspire, The four panellists looked at different stages of the employee journey, including the way an analytics company advertises its positions, as that will affect the type of people that will apply and thus the affect diversity within the company. Sean Adams, who works for a global financial services company, has found that highlighting the flexibility of being an analyst means that he can draw candidates from a wider talent pool.

He is responsible for an office in India and has found that Indian workers of both genders will have caring responsibilities, either for children or for elderly parents. “We’ve found we get a more interesting and diverse set of candidates by being explicit about this job allowing flexibility,” he said.

When screening and interviewing candidates, it is essential to remove bias from this process as well. Two panellists revealed that the best way to do this to look at the work the candidate can produce, rather than their qualifications and credentials.

Emily Chen, Tableau and Alteryx BI specialist at The Information Lab, said that her company uses blind recruiting because resumés can contain a lot of implicit, identifiable information and could lead to the recruiter being biased in favour of or against a certain candidate. A person’s name can identify their gender, the university they attended could identify their socio-economic status. So, The Information Lab prefers to get candidates to build a piece of work for them.

"It’s a lot more about merit and a lot less about cognitive biases.”

Chen said: “We’ll take a look at it. If we find it intriguing and we think there is potential there, then we’ll have a conversation. That’s really great because it’s a lot more about merit and a lot less about cognitive biases.” She said that, as a result of taking this approach, whereas The Information Lab's Data School programme used to have one woman for every ten to 15 men, now the gender split is 50:50.

Adams said that he wants to know how passionate a candidate is. So, if someone is already in his team and wants to extend their responsibilities into new areas, he has a certain way of seeing who is up for the challenge. “The way you show me your passion is you read a few things I send you and learn something about the job, and then we have a conversation. What your undergrad is in or where you come from is not a big predictor of success in this job. It is more about how your brain works.”

When cognitive biases colour a person’s view of another, the effect can be very detrimental. Samantha Hughes, analytical systems developer at Sainsbury’s, remembered from her time working in local government that it was very difficult to get her point across.

“I was talking to very old, white men and they couldn’t think anything clever could come out of my mouth at all,” she said. She found it a real struggle to get both junior and senior people to come on board with the idea of making use of spatial analytic data, and even had the problem of colleagues speaking to her chest. “I’m up here. I am a woman, but I have something interesting to tell you. Let’s talk eye-to-eye,” she said.

Chen said that looking young works against her as she is often spoken to in a condescending manner. “I often go out to clients and I look like I’m 20. An analyst, generally an older guy, talking to you like you don’t know anything is really tough,” she explained.

To avoid being talked down to, Chen tries to give out cues that show her level of seniority. When sitting down, she’ll lean back and try to look as relaxed as possible to give off the air of someone who is very confident in themselves. She also has an iPhone 7 as she thinks it is the type of device a director would use.

Something that is more of an annoyance than a problem for Chen is analysts who doggedly avoid asking for assistance when they need it from her. “Oftentimes, we’re building a report together and they’ll be struggling and time goes by and they don’t want to ask me for help. I just let them suffer it out for a little bit and then I jump in,” she said.

“Every week, Sainsbury's brings a new challenge to think about, like unconscious bias."

Utilising a process of name-blind recruitment in the early stages of employment is a great start in eliminating bias, but efforts must be made to stamp out bias in all areas of the business. Hughes said this happens at Sainsbury’s as there is diversity champion in her division. “Every week, they bring a new challenge to think about, like unconscious bias or how to understand people with different physical or non-physical disabilities,” she said.

Women of analytics panel luncheon, Alteryx audienceAccording to Adams, at his company they do a lot of training internally about to be vigilant of “blind spots” such as “mansplaining.”  This is the habit men sometimes have of explaining to a woman something that she knows a lot about.

Training has been effective and the culture of inclusion at the financial services company is now so instinctive, that others will flag up instances of exclusion. When Adams was having a recent meeting in India with three senior people and two of them started speaking Hindi to each other, the third person interrupted them and alerted them to the fact that they were excluding him.

As well as being vigilant about blind spots, analytics companies and their employees can take action to make the workplace more accommodating and welcoming to people of different abilities. Hughes said that Sainsbury’s has done this for her by making a few adjustments.

She has bilateral hearing loss and so the supermarket retailer has made sure that people who work with her know to face her front-on to speak to her, and that to catch her attention visually if she is “in the zone” and working with her headphones her. The company has also utilised technology and provided Hughes with specially-adapted telephones.

Companies will not always know what to do to make a workplace more comfortable to people, and Adams said it is important to ask about the physical obstacles to their workday and what can be done to remove them. He said that he interviewed a person with limited mobility of his left arm and leg and asked, should he be employed, what would need to be put in place to accommodate him. The interviewee responded that the access readers around the building were too high for him to reach and that the toilet door was too heavy for him to open on his own.

Adams also asked his staff how he could make workplace activities more accessible to them. His Muslim staff said that they felt excluded when the rest of the office went for drinks after work because many of them do not drink alcohol. As a result, office drinks were swapped for pot-luck lunches. Those with caring responsibilities said they felt excluded from work activities that took place after work because they were not able to stick around for them. And so, some after-work activities were swapped for breakfast time activities. The first step is asking ‘what do I need to do for you to bring your whole self to work, irrespective of any one of your axes of diversity?’" said Adams.

The panel stated there are many benefits to employing a diverse range of people. Adams revealed that he has what he described as a “broken brain” as a result of having too little serotonin and so suffers from anxiety, attention deficit and depression. However, he said that people with his condition are high-velocity learners and are incredibly curious and, as such, are an asset to the company.

“Yes, I have hearing loss, but actually, I work hard to understand and listen more than anybody else.”

Companies that allow timetable flexibility for workers with caring responsibilities – like Sainsbury’s and Alteryx – reap the benefits of having the working day extended. Amy Holland, vice president of customer support at Alteryx, is a single mother of three and really appreciates that the analytics company encourages its staff to attend school plays and music recitals in the middle of the day. Workers are simply trusted to pick up where they left off later in the day.

This flexibility is also offered by Sainsbury’s which allows Hughes to leave the office at 2pm on the dot and take her daughter to after-school activities. Hughes added that the flipside to her hearing impairment is that she strives for perfection. “Yes, I have hearing loss, but actually, I work hard to understand and listen more than anybody else,” she said.

Women of analytics panel luncheon, Alteryx InspireAdams stated that having people of different religions is beneficial for him as it means the working week is extended during religious holidays. “I’ve got four different religions working for me. Some would say it’s difficult to manage. I love that because the days when I’ve got my Hindus out, my Muslims are working. The days when my Hindus and Muslims are out, the Sikhs are in. And the days that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are out, I’ve got some Christians working. So, religion becomes a strength, not a conflict or a weakness.”

"Bias doesn’t work. It’s a bad business idea.”

The overarching message seemed to be that the companies that make it harder for certain types of people to work for them will miss out on talent and be poorer as a result. Not hiring people with parental care responsibilities excludes 20% of the population. Not hiring people with colour-blindness excludes 15% of males. Not hiring women excludes 50% of the potential workforce.

Adams made a synopsis of the subject, in light of the skills shortage in data and analytics. He concluded: “Fundamentally for us, the difference is access to double the talent. We can’t afford to be throwing away great people because they don’t match some arbitrary criteria that we have previously been prejudicially biased towards. It doesn’t work. It’s a bad business idea.”

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