It is November 2015 and 125 people are sat in a marquee in the courtyard of UCL. Rain on the roof nearly drowns out the speakers as they tackle the subject of women in data. For the first time this conference had been run, both the turnout and speaker line-up were impressive. Also notable - and a complete reversal for virtually every tech event - was the fact that I was one of just four men in the audience (with the other four either being AV technicians or owners of the company organising the conference).
Scroll forward to 28th November 2019 and the setting for the fifth Women in Data UK event will be dramatically different. It is being held in the Aurora Ballroom at the Intercontinental beside London’s O2 arena, the largest space of its type in Europe with a capacity of up to 3,000. WiD is taking over the entire location.
“When we started in year one, we had a vision of the community, but didn’t understand what we were creating. We got 125 people, but always had the ambition for more,” explained Roisin McCarthy, co-founder, Women in Data and business lead, Datatech Analytics.
Each year has seen a scale-up with a move first to the Connaught Rooms and then Westminster Hall last year, but even the 1,000 capacity there was not sufficient. “Feedback we got from the conference last year was that it was not enough to around - we turned away 4,000 people,” said McCarthy.
"There are still not enough women coming into the industry. There is still so much more to do.”
To meet that demand, 14 WiD meet-up events have been run during 2019 at partner offices and in locations outside London. In the five years since launching, the registered community has grown to 25,000. As Payal Jain, who chaired the first Women in Data UK event and continues to act in that capacity, told me: “One of the highlights is that members are driving the network, not us. They are coming up with ideas, speaking on our behalf, organising meet-ups.”
But she adds: “As much as it feels good, there are still not enough women coming into the industry. There is still so much more to do.”
In response, the organisation is looking at another significant upshift by focusing its PR and marketing efforts beyond the heartlands of the data industry. Rachel Keane, co-founder, Women in Data, and managing consultant at Datatech Analytics explained: “When we started the 20 in data and technology annual list, it was about highlighting different levels of seniority, not just the C-suite - offering role models who are accessible to everybody.” Those in the list practice across all areas of the industry, although Keane points out that there is a dearth of data engineers and data architects to nominate.
“In 2017, one of our ambassadors on the list was featured in Stylist. This year, we are particularly focusing on getting profile outside of the data sector and hope to be featured in broader press avenues this year and would welcome coverage from lifestyle, tech, education and business press to reach a far wider audience,” she said.
This may be helped by the coup WiD has pulled off in getting a video shot by RANKIN with director Aella Jordan-Edge and a ten-strong production team. “The shoot was mind-blowing. It tells a story about a 15-year-old girl who is a high achiever in maths and double science at GCSE level and is thinking about which A-levels to take. Along a journey to visit her grandmother and featuring previous ambassadors, she is shown the impact STEM has in everyday life via the BBC, Facebook, Royal Mail, Sainsbury’s, Transport for London and TechNation,” explained Keane.
Keane met with an executive producer at RANKIN who had picked up on WiD via social media and straight out asked if they would shoot the video. Or as she describes it, “it was about leveraging my network. People would rather be asked and say no than not be asked.” The impact of having such a high-profile director in terms of media exposure could help with the initiative to get more girls to study STEM.
“I’m extremely passionate about equal career opportunities for girls and women, so when Women In Data approached me, their mission to address the massive gender imbalance in data and tech roles, really struck a chord with me,” said Jordan-Edge.
“Targeting girls choosing their A-levels was where we felt we could affect the most change. Making the right decisions about A-levels can affect what doors are open both at university level and after. We thought if teenagers could hear advice from women in high-up roles in some of the most digitally ground-breaking companies out there, hopefully it would encourage them to think big about their own futures,” she added.
A schools outreach project is trying to address the issue that there is an equal balance between boys and girls who say they love Maths in Year One, but by Year Six only 15% of girls say they do. In China, that figure is 100%. According to Jain, “for the UK to be a centre of technology and innovation, that is a challenge. We have to solve the problem of getting more girls into STEM.”
From there, gender issues get hardwired into this sector. The event will be unveiling new research into the gender pay gap across the data industry (which McCarthy estimates involves up to 120,000 practitioners in the UK).
“These are the facts. What are you going to do about it?"
What it reveals is shocking. According to McCarthy: “Men and women are entering the industry at different rates. For every four men, there are just 0.68 women. We have even identified that the pay gap is getting bigger, despite an increase in women taking up top roles.” She estimates that 28% of the WiD community are in leadership positions, with 13% in data engineering roles. For other roles, there is even less diversity. One of WiD’s partners has struggled with this specifically - 98% of the candidates it saw for data science positions were male. “It is almost impossible to hire women for that role unless you use quotas, ” commented McCarthy.
“These are the facts. What are you going to do about it? That will be a massive takeaway from the conference. Some there may feel they are fairly paid, but they may look at our findings and realise they are not,” she said, Part of the problem is that women do not demand more. McCarthy recently took a candidate out of a £90,000 position and into the same role elsewhere, but with a £140,000 salary.
Part of the answer is women empowering themselves to ask for higher pay. To help with that, the event is featuring a Speakers Corner which offers a blueprint for public speaking and then a stage to use to try it out.
Another barrier for women can be working hours, especially when they are in the family stage of life. According to McCarthy, there are virtually no part-time data roles, which works against women. In recognition of this, the timing of the conference agenda has been deliberately squeezed to allow for delegates who need to do the school run.
Jain is considering how to further influence changes in diversity. “The biggest thing in organisations at the moment is where organisations, like those in the FTSE 100, have graduation recruitment initiatives, but few of them are STEM-oriented. We are having that conversation about how to solve that,” she said.
“I definitely see positive changes, but there are still challenges we need to solve around diversity. There is also a lot of noise around bias in AI and ML - to solve that, you need diverse teams. The way it is going with technology makes that a win-win.”
With high-profile speakers and its new 20 in data and tech, WiD also seeks to influence by creating role models, something Jain herself knows about, not least having been number 1 in the 2016 DataIQ 100. “It feels unreal when someone tells you that you are their role model. But everybody is a role model for someone,” she says, offering the following advice to other women in the industry: “Put yourself out there.”
Since launching in 2015, the issue of gender at work has exploded across multiple sectors, most visibly through #metoo and #timesup. While bullying and sexism in data are less overt, they do exist. The very existence of Women in Data itself can act as a trigger, McCarthy revealed: “We are constantly challenged on being female-focused by a minority, usually from a specific demographic. But until there is gender pay parity, there is a need for WiD.”