Data is seen by those working in it as a rewarding and worthwhile career and one that should be well suited to women. As Jennifer Holt, head of pricing and analytics at Hastings Direct, said: “Data lends itself towards female qualities because you’re much more at the coal-face of the business and that’s where women’s intuition or personalities can really flourish.”
Unfortunately, men outnumber women in the IT and telecommunications industries - within which tech and data sit - at a ratio of roughly five to one. This is despite evidence that having a diverse workforce is good for everything from sales cycles to customer retention to win rates.
The issue was discussed during a panel debate on The Importance of Women in Data and Technology at last week's Big Data LDN conference. Payal Jain, DataIQ’s most powerful data professional of 2016, underlined the importance of gaining a well-rounded understanding of your customer base. “Data by itself is just information, but with insight, you then monetise that and make a difference,” she said.
Edwina Dunn, chief executive of Starcount and chair of The Female Lead, a new initiative aimed at highlighting high-performing women across industry sectors, said that companies must bear in mind the power of the female consumer as, “they are often the shopper in the household.” She recognised this fact decades ago and so DunnHumby, the company she co-founded in 1989 which grew to 1,500 people, was 50% female.
Celia Wilson, a consultant for the data and insight team at Conde Nast, suggested that one of the reasons for the low numbers of women in the current generation of tech workers was the way the home computer was marketed when it was first introduced to the consumer. “It was all about games and they were heavily targeted towards boys and they created a gamer culture which was then carried through into technology companies which is quite intimidating to women,” said Wilson.
"Technology has been more challenging for women to get into."
She added that this phenomenon has made the path to a career in technology more difficult for women, though this is not the case for those wanting to work in data. She identified herself as a data person and said that data professionals can come from a range of backgrounds, equipped with a range of degrees.
“Technology, on the other hand, has been more challenging for women to get into.” She said this is because you have to have more of a scientific degree and possibly have studied to a higher level - female representation in STEM subjects has historically lagged behind males, with 2017 the first year to see more women than men take mathematics degrees.
The paucity of women in data and tech can lead to feelings of isolation, especially at more senior levels, as Jain has experienced. She remembered a time being the only woman in a boardroom with 50 men. “That’s quite intimidating even for a confident person,” she said.
Wilson heard an anecdote from a data professional at a fast-growing tech company who told her of an atmosphere of intense competition and male posturing, which can contribute to less-than-pleasant environment for women to function in.
"That is so common, making a point and having a man repeat it."
Wilson and Dunn commented that they had a shared frequent experience of a particular micro-aggression: making a good point in a meeting, only to have the same point repeated by a man to a better reception. This action has been recently been dubbed “hepeating.”
Dunn said her response is to see the humour in the situation. She said: “You learn to have a laugh about it, and not to resent it but as women we have to find our voice. We have to find our way of communicating our ideas and actually getting them across.” Dunn added that she doesn’t think men do it on purpose but, much in the way people are likely to hire in their own images, they are more likely to listen to and pay attention people to look like themselves.
Perhaps instead of encouraging women to try different techniques so that their words do not get drowned out or fall on deaf ears, it may be a better course of action for companies to implement anti-bias training. That way men become aware of their own implicit bias and how that affects the way they react to women and then can work on becoming more receptive to ideas from people who do not look like them.
"The more we big up ourselves and other women, we won't have this culture where women always have to be modest."
Wilson said that women can often suffer from a lack of confidence and a feeling of inadequacy that is often known as imposter syndrome. This is where someone feels they do not really know what they are doing or what they are talking about, even though they are competent in their job and are respected by their colleagues. “Almost all women feel like that at some point,” she said.
To combat imposter syndrome, Wilson said it is important that women have a word with ourselves and remember that if we feel like we are blagging or faking it, other people probably feel like that, too. She also said that it is important for women to recognise that they are more likely than not a role model to other women in their team, company, sector, community and family. Therefore, we should recognise our achievements and “big up ourselves”.
She said: “The more we do that, as well as bigging up other women, the more it will be acceptable and we won’t have this culture where women always have to be modest both to themselves and outwardly.”
"Women are brilliant at maths, they are brilliant at physics and they are brilliant at technology."
Jain agreed, saying that having diverse panels interviewing candidates as well as having women in visible leadership roles, can be a way of signposting to women that they would be welcome at a company. To that end, Jain is one of the conveners of the Women in Data conference, set to take place in London on 30th November, hosted by Datatech Analytics.
At this event, 450 female data and analytics professionals will network and share their experiences. In partnership with The Female Lead, Women in Data will be revealng a list of its 20 most important female practitioners in the data industry.
Dunn, an industry veterean, was dismissive of the notion that tech is not female-friendly. “I think women are brilliant at maths, they are brilliant at physics and they are brilliant at technology. What they don’t like is dead-end jobs and geeky language.”
The panel was speaking at the Big Data LDN conference in November 2017, moderated by DataIQ’s director of research and editor-in-chief David Reed.