Emily Chen is an experienced business intelligence professional who has worked in Canada and the UK. She learnt to use Alteryx and Tableau at The Information Lab’s Data School and, when she graduated in 2015, she sought to join a community of fellow female data professionals. She was pointed in the direction of the London chapter of Data+Women, a global network of meet-up groups for women in the data industry.
“What I needed didn’t exist, so I literally had to build it.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very active group, so Chen set about changing that. “I wanted that community to tap into. I realised what I needed didn’t exist so I literally had to build it,” she explained.
She wanted to foster an environment where people would want to speak about their projects and feel comfortable enough to share their knowledge. And she has done so - while the first event drew a grand total of five people, the most recent meet-up in January had 60 attendees.
There, dozens of women (and a few men) listened to two speakers. One talked about using Tableau visualisations to work out how many days she had been out of the UK with passport stamps as her data source. The second discussed the process of liaising with clients when creating visualisations.
However, speakers can discuss a range of topics at the meet-ups, which take place every six to eight weeks. Chen said that attendees have heard about everything from machine learning to creating maps and spatial analytics, as well as querying APIs and using R and Python.
Chen only has two requirements of speakers at a Data+Women London event. The first is that they be a woman and the second is that they talk about something technical that they are learning or have learnt through one of their projects.
One of the things that motivated Chen to re-energise the Data+Women group was hearing the story of Tracy Chou, a programmer and activist in Silicon Valley. Having been born to software engineer parents with PhDs, studied Computer Science at Stanford University and interned at Google and Facebook, Chou was seemingly destined for a career in tech.
"Confidence gap - women underestimate, men overestimate their abilities"
However, her career was almost derailed before it had started. Chou said that she felt side-lined by male classmates at university and that she experienced a confidence gap - the phenomenon whereby women underestimate their abilities while men are prone to overestimate theirs.
Chou has gone on to be a software engineer at Quora and later Pinterest and is now a founding member of Project Include, a community that encourages diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Seeing that a woman who was almost tailor-made for the tech industry could also experience imposter syndrome pushed Chen to create a space where she could share ideas with other data professionals in a supportive environment.
Of particular importance to Chen is the creation of a space where a data professional can honestly say that they don’t understand something, without being looked down upon. She said has noticed a difference in the way that men and women in tech react when they are stumped. Chen herself is vocal when she doesn’t understand a concept and, after speaking to other women, realised they often are a bit more open in that respect.
“But that will be really challenging if you are the only woman in the room saying, ‘I don’t understand’, and six other people are silent. It can be quite isolating when that happens,” she said.
"Data+Women London is for all of us to upscale our skills.”
Therefore Chen has positioned Data+Women London as a “knowledge -haring community for all of us to upscale our skills.” Chen sees her action in organising the group as a local solution to a much wider problem - the gender gap in tech and data. According to Chen, the women in tech issue is really complicated but we have to start somewhere when it comes to addressing the imbalance.
She said: “We do something simple - share some stories and have a good time. This is the contribution that we’re trying to make. It’s not miraculous, it’s not big, but at least it’s some form of giving back and hoping that we get to a better space. Sometimes the only way in which we can make some contribution is making small steady steps."