Look around your data and analytics teams - do you see fewer women than men? Across the industry, not as many female practitioners apply, stay and thrive compared to male candidates. David Reed talks to leading women in the data industry about their own experiences and how they would shift the gender balance.
Back in the late 1980s, that was how Fedelma Good’s career started and it was not an uncommon experience to be the first women into a business and to find it wasn’t set up to support them. More than two decades after the Equal Pay Act, the gender divide was still written large in employment, especially in the emergent technology sector.
Since then, technology has expanded to be a dominant sector, spawning the data industry as a result. As is well known, it now faces a challenge in recruiting enough skilled employees to support its growth. But could a blind spot towards women (at best) or a distinct disposition towards men (at worst) be reducing the potential flow of candidates?
Now director of information policy and strategy at Barclays, Good is one of the reference points for any woman considering a career in data. “Things have fundamentally changed,” she says. “One of the reasons I came to work at Barclays and what I see here now, is that there are not those biases. It is great to see an organisation living that, rather than just nodding towards it.”
She argues that the notion of hard-wired, gender-oriented skills is a myth and that there is no reason for women to steer away from working in this industry. “To work in data and analytics, you have to be ‘multi-lingual’ with the ability to communicate with stakeholders in the business as well as with the technical staff,” says Good. That creates a space in which both men and women can thrive regardless of where the balance of their abilities sits.
Good does recognise that more needs to be done earlier on to remove the perceptions that might deter women from entering the industry. “One of the things I hope education will do is enable every student to understand how cool maths is,” she says.
If you were looking for a working environment that was likely to be both male-dominated and also highly-competitive, you would probably identify the White House as a prime example. Lauren Skryzowski, senior strategy advisor, analytics, at IBM, certainly recalls that, “it was a baptism of fire. But it also gave me a ten-year head start on my peers because it made me look at everyone as equal. President Clinton was open to that and listened to everyone in the same way,” she calls.
The legacy of her formative experience has been what she describes as a “Millennial trait”, even before that cohort existed. That willingness to talk to anyone in the business without waiting in line or showing undue deference is rapidly transforming working culture and it certainly has no place for gender biases. “It has raised my levels and made me push myself. For me, I have become more collaborative and open, seeking feedback in order to find out how to do things better,” she says.
At IBM, the presence of a female CEO, Ginni Rometty, might be expected to ensure gender is not a factor in how this blue-chip technology business operates. But like Good, Skryzowski acknowledges that, “in engineering, the UK government is having to look at how to increase the number of women going into STEM subjects. The proportion coming to IBM tends to be similarly lower, but we have got a higher ratio in our workforces than is general in the industry. I think the message has got out that IBM is a great company to work for.”
She believes that the way women have had to behave in the workforce, especially in historically male-dominated environments like technology and data, has evolved. “There used to be a sense of ‘act like a man, but be a woman’. The two generations before me couldn’t be 100 per cent women - they had to adapt to succeed,” says Skryzowski.
Nonetheless, biases continue to exist. On Kaggle, the online data science resource, 75 per cent of the membership is male. “Why is that? It is a big question and one I don’t have the answer to. For myself, I was raised to be the best I could be - that’s just part of the US culture,” she adds.
It is one of the puzzles faced by this industry that major employers do everything in their power to encourage women to join, yet there remains a perception among female candidates that data is not for them. Recognising this paradox, recruitment specialist Datatech linked up with University College London to run a conference on 26th November called “Women in Data”. With a line-up of leading women practitioners, it aimed to demonstrate the opportunities and also debate any female-specific obstacles to data careers - it sold out within days of being launched.
Roisin McCarthy, manager of Datatech, recalls the enquiry that led to the decision to run the conference. “In the HR function at two key clients this year, they have set a priority to achieve a balance of genders and they needed help,” she recalls. That demand came off the back of a survey her company carried out last year which revealed a very significant gender gap at the senior level - among data practitioners earning more than £100,000, only 2 per cent are women.
“At graduate level, the gap is not there - if anything, we see more women candidates. But as soon as they become more senior, it appears and increases year-on-year. Female salaries spike around the age of 30 - after that, the salary gap increases,” she says.
She became determined to get under the skin of this issue and try to identify the root cause of any problems, as well as raising awareness that women are not progressing as well as men in data. This is not just a political choice, it is also a hard commercial one. “The more women we place, the more business we generate,” says McCarthy. “But some of the stories we hear from women are toe-curling.”
If there is one clear gender difference which most of the interviewees for this article agreed on, it was that at interview, female candidates are much less forward than their male peers. They may well have the same or better qualifications or experience on their CV, but it is often down to the interviewer to draw this out of them.
Rachel Keane, recruitment consultant at Datatech, says this underlines the importance of initiatives by companies to tackle such problems. “Aimia developed an Analytics Academy three years ago to help its people develop their skills, include confidence and presentation. A lot of analysts need to work on that - not just women - in order to get the roles they want to pursue,” she says.
Jackie Clayton, the global director at the academy, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Notably, she was joined by Gabrielle de Wardener, culture and CSR director EMEA for Aimia. One of her goals is to increase the proportion of women in senior positions within the business.
There is plenty of evidence that a better gender balance in business leads to better decisions - the FTSE 100 routinely reports on the make-up of executive boards in recognition that all-male boardrooms are not a good thing. It has so far seen women become 12.6 per cent of executive directors, up from 9. 6 per cent last year, but still far short of the 25 per cent goal set by the former business secretary, Vince Cable.
Kim Nilsson, CEO of data science consultancy pivigo, recognises that this puts a degree of obligation on women in the data industry. “I am a role model and that has a positive effect. But there are times when I feel I have been disbelieved because I am female. When I go to meetings with male colleagues, all the questions go to them and I get ignored as if I am a secretary,” she says. Technology events tend to reveal the degree of male-domination that still exists. Recalling a visit to IP Expo, Nilsson said the response from delegates to discovering she was CEO of her own business was that this was an exciting concept, as if it was unexpected (or possibly challenging).
But she believes women have recognised the potential for interesting careers in data. “Thirty-five to 45 per cent of the applicants we see to our Science2DataScience courses are female, which is amazing. But somewhere along the line, that can get lost. We have learned a lot about what women can do better and where they drop off, but I am not sure I have got the whole answer,” says Nilsson. One of those drop-off points is the job interview, as noted above. For Nilsson, this was initially a surprise. “It is partly down to culture and there is a difference between Sweden and the UK in encouraging girls at every stage. Here, from a young age, boys are encouraged to boast about what they have done while girls are taught to be humble,” she says.
A recent McKinsey study quantified this difference in confidence levels. A man can be 100 per cent confident even when he only has 50 per cent of the skills to back that up. A women will not feel confident until she has 80 per cent of the skills required.
If gender plays one undisputable role in career paths, then it is at the moment of parenthood. That post-30 salary gap is explained (although only partially) by the decision of many women to take career breaks when they have a child. Returning to work, women can find they have fallen behind not just their peer group, but also in their skills. For that reason, Claire Thompson, head of customer analytics at RBS, called her presentation at the conference, “Oh, you’re a mum?!” “A key thing for me is to look at diversity when I look at our team and what skills we need. We get better results if we have a good mix,” she says. Even so, she still sees fewer CVs from women than men when hiring, which is puzzling. “The skills and techniques needed in data are generic, not down to gender, but it can still be seen as a masculine task.”
As a working mother herself, she struggled to find a role model at the time. “I couldn’t find one - either they didn’t have kids, they had a house-husband or sent their children to boarding school and I didn’t relate to any of those choices. So one female boss told me, ‘you just have to do it your way’ and I figured out what worked for me,” says Thompson. She now acts as a mentor to women in data who are facing the same decision. One of the major changes in recent years has been the growing acceptance of flexible working, such as working from home one day each week or altering start or end times to fit around the demands of having children. “Having the ability to work from home one day each week makes a big difference and allows for a greater work/life balance. I’m able to get more work done because it gives me back the three hours I would normally spend commuting and also means I can get the kids ready to go to school.” she says.
Data and analytics is ideally suited to this type of arrangement since much of the work is screen-based and can be done remotely as effectively as in an office (assuming data security protocols are in place). With mobile devices and reliable high-speed broadband, productivity need not suffer. Indeed many companies have reduced their provisioning of fixed workstations on the assumption that a percentage of their workforce will always be out of the office.
Stacie Maxey is another notable woman in data who has broken the glass ceiling to become director of database marketing at Domestic and General. “Things have got better - I have now got director in my job title, which wouldn’t have happened in the past. Women moving into leadership positions is important and hopefully things are going to change even more. I always wanted a senior position, but I actually never thought it would happen,” she admits. She is no longer unique in making that breakthrough, but there is still a dearth of women making it to the top table and problems getting enough women to apply to the data industry in the first place. With a growing number of initiatives aimed at changing these perceptions, however, there is every reason to be confident that data and analytics is sorting out its plumbing.