Imagine you have been summoned to a high-level business meeting, flown 3,500 miles and shown into the biggest boardroom you have ever seen. Dauting enough in itself, but when the room fills up, you find yourself facing 50 senior executives, none of whom looks like you.
Welcome to an experience which is all too common for women, regularly in data, routinely in technology and the default in financial services. That particular example was shared by Payal Jain at the Women in Data Conference 2016, organised by DataTech, about one of her first engagements as a consultant. The investment house in question was top-heavy with male executives, leaving her as the only woman present.
Hearing her talking about it, I found myself - very unusually - in the completely reverse position as the only man in a conference room filled with 200 women. But unlike most of those present (and many more in the data industry beyond), there was nothing about being the exception that made me feel uncomfortable. No gender-based comments on my looks, status or value. No inappropriate behaviour or sense of threat.
Could the same be said for women in our industry? Whether in their own department, across the organisation they work for, when engaging with data industry events, or exploring the wider technology and business worlds, no woman will go unremarked-on in a roomful of men.
That matters because it is part of a culture which can be offputting to those currently outside of it. So when encouraging young women to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), they need to know there is a solid career path. If all they can see ahead is a wall of men judging them on their non-professional attributes, it is little surprise if they choose other professions instead. Academia can be a friendlier place to dig into data than brandland.
Yet data and analytics are prime territory for the skills and personal qualities that STEM-qualified women can bring to bear. Without accepting that some of those are hard-wired into gender, the truth is that women generally work better in teams, which suits the development of insights and outputs, and are often better communicators, which means they can get those ideas across to the business.
What can you - if you are a male reader - do personally and within your own organisation to help remove some of those obstacles? The first step is to check your privilege. Are you making assumptions and demonstrating behaviours that block input from female colleagues, such as always leading conversations or looking to male team members first? Has your company put in place policies that make the workplace more female-friendly, such as flexible working hours for school run mums? If so, are they lived, or do male eyebrows still get raised when a woman starts work later than a man, or leaves work earlier? It all adds up.
Among those 200 conference delegates, I sensed a strong sense of enthusiasm for data and analytics, as well as optimism about their careers. The vast majority were in the early stages and have yet to hit the upper levels as heads of department, directors of even C-suite. When they do, let’s hope it brings about a rebalancing that will make this industry’s growth sustainable by becoming attractive to both halves of the population.
(Note: as Women in Data broke up and delegates made their way out into the early evening of Covent Garden, they ran into crowds of dinner-suited men on the pavement coming from two different directions. The first were masons leaving their male-only lodge in the Grand Temple. The second were boxing fans arriving for a bout in the same hotel venue used by the conference. Business as usual was being resumed…)