Yes, Women in Data is still very necessary

David Reed, knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ

Check your privilege, mate. That is the very minimum that should be said to the man who aggressively challenged one of the founders of Women in Data during Big Data Ldn. Picking a verbal fight over the rights or wrongs of perceived positive discrimination in a public space is not a good look.

Yet there are plenty of others like him - nearly all men, but some women, too - who believe it is wrong to have a gender focus when it comes to issues of recruitment, career development, workplace culture and how to find and keep talent in the data and analytics sector. Clearly, they do not have a good grasp on the facts of the situation and/or are experience some personal or professional challenges that they really ought to process.

Across the data profession, women make up only 26% of the workforce.

So let’s put some of those facts on the record. Across the data profession, women make up only 26% of the workforce. That compares to 46.6% of UK employees as a whole, although women in full-time work are only 27.1% of the British total since 42% of working women do so part-time compared to just 13% of men (source: “Women and the Economy,” House of Commons Library). We will return to that point in a moment.

In some respects, the data and analytics sector is doing better than others, given that only 12.8% of the overall STEM workforce are women. During the Women in Data panel which I was privileged to be asked to chair, at Big Data Ldn, Lynn Pope of St James’s Place Wealth Management noted the gender imbalance when studying information systems 20 years ago. As recently as 2017, only 15.1% of engineering undergraduates were female. That makes data look like a progressive sector, but only in comparison to underperformers.

Does our industry have a recruitment problem when it comes to women, then? Rosin McCarthy, manager of DataTech and Women in Data co-founder, pointed to the 80/20 rule. “Women who have 80% of the skills listed in a job ad won’t apply, whereas men who have only 20% will,” she said. One solution is to check ad copy for potential gender bias using a number of online tools. After the event, one major bank told me it is doing just that. It is also capturing data on every recruitment and promotion event and modelling out the impact on diversity.

With just 29% of FTSE boards being female, there is a top-down issue.

Having an evidence base is important as a bullwark against the short-sighted prejudice of some people who are against overtly encouraging and supporting women. With just 29% of FTSE boards being female, there is a top-down issue that can still result in women being the sole representative of their gender around the board table, an experience more common in sectors like banking, but less so in retail, for example.

Women in Data not only advocates better understanding of gender issues - both male and female - it actively promotes female role models as a way of drawing more candidates into the industry or supporting them on their journey. Its 20 in data and technology list, due to be unveiled at this year’s conference, is central to that mission.

But there is more to do in order to make the workplace appealing to women. This is where the data and analytics sector should be in the vanguard, since smart working is a core principle. Supporting remote workers is already accepted - as happens where there is an offshore division for example - with video conferencing and regular staff touch days to bring the team together.

Women will be away from the workplace more than men as a result of choosing to have a child, which four in five are likely to do. One of the biggest fears they have, expressed directly to me by one practitioner, is of losing touch with the business and current techniques. That is an easy fix given digital platforms and information sharing.

The impact of pregnancy on women’s earnings is hard to break.

Harder is to overcome the inherent bias among employers when it comes to maternity leave and productivity. Yet Rachel Keane, managing consultant at DataTech and Women in Data co-founder, pointed to an example of a business promoting one employee to a director position while she was on maternity leave because it recognised the value of her domain knowledge and took a long-term view of her career.

The impact on women’s earnings and their ability to return to work make this a circular issue that is hard to break. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that women still bear most of the burden of childcare, so tend to work closer to home, while men do long-distance commutes. 

Changing that would require men to commit more to parenting and being willing to sacrifice their status as the bread-winner. Perhaps that feels like a threat, one the man getting angry at an exhibition may have been responding to.

Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.