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Why we should all be pro-women in data

It was International Women’s Day on 8 March so there is a strong focus on celebrating female achievement and pushing for more barriers to be broken down. And I have to make a point. Being pro-women does not mean being anti-men in data.

 

I’ve been to a fair few women in tech and women in data events during my time as a tech and data journalist where I’ve heard murmurings to that effect. Invariably there will be someone who says something along the following lines.

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“I don’t like anything that encourages separation or division,” and “it felt really anti-men,” as well as “I didn’t see the point of that.”

 

As we are witnessing growth in the number of female-focused initiatives, drives and events, unfortunately it seems to trigger this is mindset of some people, men and women.

 

My point against the first argument is that there is already separation and division. It is just a lot more subtle, tacit and pernicious.

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Separation and division exist when meetings are carried on by men in the gentlemen’s toilets, excluding and undermining women who were present at the official meeting, as described in the book, The Glass Wall.

 

Separation and division exist when men are the first people turned to for thought leadership and to speak on panels. Men make up 68% of speakers at conferences, trade shows and events.

 

Separation and division exist when organisations have grossly inequal parental leave policies. Say two colleagues one male and one female at the same company have a child at the same time. The man can be back at his desk in as little as two weeks whereas the woman can be off for up to a year. (I am not advocating for maternity leave to be cut but for paternity leave to be extended. When a heterosexual couple have child, the career of one of them is going to take a hit and it is variably the woman’s career.)

 

Separation and division exist when upon returning from parental leave, women are much more likely to be made redundant or have their role changed to such a degree that they cannot continue at that workplace. 77% of working mums say they have received negative or discriminatory treatment at work and 44% of employers say they would avoid hiring a woman of child-bearing age.

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Female focused events and initiatives simply shine a light on those who have been in the shadows. To put it another way, they give a microphone to those voices that are usually drowned out, interrupted or spoken over.

 

Yasmin Hinds, a consultant at Sopra Steria and a first-time panellist at November 2018’s Women in Data conference, said: “[It] clearly provides a platform for the messages of data to be cascaded in a quite a large pool, so it enables those who didn’t have a voice to have a voice.”

 

To address the second comment, it surely can be unsettling to those who are used to taking centres stage and having their voices heard loud and clear, to be asked to take a step back for a moment or to pipe down for a while. But that is not the same as being silenced. Observers have to be careful not to confuse someone calling for equality with someone promoting misandry (hatred of men).

 

Having said that, those calling for equality have to be mindful of the language we use not to vilify anyone for problematic behaviours if they are unaware that their actions are harmful.

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If you don’t see the point of initiatives and events that promote the voices and achievements of women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups, perhaps just take a moment to step back and look at the people in the data landscape. It doesn’t accurately reflect the society that we live in but we need that to be the case for the people handling data.

 

Currently between 17% and 26% of data professionals are female, depending on the level of seniority. How much innovation can be generated from a group of people working in a bubble of homogeneity?

 

Data has the power to change the world. And with great power, comes great responsibility. The data and analytics industry has the responsibility to make sure that that change is positive for all. One of the ways of doing that is having a diverse workforce. That’s the point.

 

The situation is not a zero-sum game whereby for women to get ahead, men will have to be held back. Two birds or 2,000 birds flying in the sky won’t crash into each other. There’s enough space in this industry for all.

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