If we look at data and analytics practitioners as falling into the realm of IT and telecommunications professionals, data has a big gender problem. Between April and June 2016, according to data from the ONS, approximately for every two women in the industry, there were eleven men, or 173,000 to 777,000 to be precise.
Within the context of this woeful under-representation, DataIQ invited two data industry veterans to share their experiences as women in the industry on stage at the DataIQ Summit 2017 last week. Robbie Burgess, global data privacy programme manager at RELX entered the industry during her placement year at university, working for a large oil company, manipulating and making sense of sales figures.
“It wasn’t called data then. It was reporting and analysis,” she explained. She managed to land the job despite an error of judgement in the interview. When asked what her ideal job would be, she responded that she wanted to be in the SAS so that she could abseil down the side of a building and storm an embassy, all while wearing black.
Fedelma Good, director of information policy and strategy at Barclays, on the other hand, started in data by loading punch cards as a junior programmer at the Bank of Ireland. “We were given the scripts for the current accounts, then the scripts for the loans, then scripts for the mortgages and we were repeatedly creating records for customers,” she recalled.
When Good’s suggestion that she get involved in the process design to avoid repetition was brushed off, she quickly left the bank and went to an insurance company. There she “hooked up, very luckily,” with the marketing director and together they implemented the first touch-sensitive quotation system for insurance products in Europe.
Good currently works for Barclays and recently announced that her team would be focusing on information governance and strategy, rather than simply policy and control. Burgess at present leads the GDPR compliance programme for RELX Group. Both had many positive things to say about working in the data industry.
According to Burgess, the demands of the sector are “as broad as medicine” and it requires workers that have a wide range of talents. “It draws on many skills. You need to be a really good communicator, you need to be very logical, [so] there are opportunities whatever your background.”
Burgess also said that people expect women to be good at multi-tasking, which is a great asset in the data industry where you have got to understand more than one thing. She said: “You’ve got to be able to bring things together, such as bringing the business and the data together. You’ve got to be technical enough to understand, but at the same time have good enough communication skills to be able to paint a picture.”
Good highlighted flexible working as an advantage the data industry has over others. “I think data is a fantastic opportunity for flexibility because it can be done anywhere - with the capabilities we have of working remotely, it can be done at 10 o’clock at night if that suits someone,” she said.
Working in a male-dominated industry has led to both Burgess and Good being mis-gendered, with correspondence often being addressed to Mr Burgess and Mr Good. Burgess said she gets it “all the time” on the phone as well, but has learnt to use those situations to her advantage. “If anyone asks to speak to Robbie Burgess and I say ‘yes, speaking’ and there is a silence, suddenly they’re on the back foot and I’m on the front foot,” she said.
They also both had some disheartening experiences in the early years of their careers. In her first job, Good worked with one other woman. Although they were personally welcomed and congratulated by a director from the bank’s head office, a large oversight was made. Just like in the film about NASA’s early years, “Hidden Figures, there were no ladies’ toilets at the end of the building in which she worked. Burgess experienced somewhat of a lad culture at her first workplace, as there was a topless calendar on the wall and she couldn’t say or do anything about it.
However, they both feel that things have progressed since then. Burgess said there has been a shift and that she is seeing more women in general at industry events, but “there is still some way to go.” While Burgess said that it is important that there are campaigns and events, such as the UN’s HeForShe and DataTech Analytics’ Women In Data exist, it is essential that the gender diversity not be thought of as a box to tick. She said: “You really have to live it. You’ve got to weave it into the fabric of your organisation.”
Good believes that getting more women into data begins in the classroom when girls are likely to turn away from science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at an early age. “They are still blind-sided in the educational environment to think more towards some of the historical norms for girls. There still isn’t enough activity to drive that interest in subjects that would lead subsequently to them flowing into the data environment,” she said.
There are several initiatives attempting to encourage school-age girls to consider careers in STEM. Stemettes puts on events, schools trips and organises mentoring for young women to inspire and support them to enter STEM careers. WISE aims to do the same with consultancy, membership, training, awards, conferences and projects. And management consultancy company Accenture hosted five Girls in STEM events across the UK in February 2017.
While these initiatives are commendable, it will take years for the interest they have sparked to translate into female graduates and school leavers willing to enter the data industry. According to Good, this is imperative: “Anyone in today’s environment who actually has an inherent understanding of data is gong to be the CEO of the future.”
Burgess recognised her own luck with having a role model at home. Her mother worked in STEM, as a science and IT teacher who had a BBC Micro. “For me, it was totally normal to think about going into science. I just automatically assumed that that these opportunities were open to me,” she said.
Good’s choice to become high-performing data practitioner has had a strong impact on her own family. In a telling anecdote she shared with delegates, she said that she overheard her daughter one day playing in the garden with the boy next door. The girl informed the neighbour that she was the mummy and so she was off to work. Her daughter then told the little boy, “I’d like chicken and rice for my dinner.”