Female Data Scientists are the future, but who were the trailblazers?


Women in Tech, Data Science

Ada Lovelace. Jean Jennings Bartik. Grace Hopper. Adele Goldberg.

Never heard of these women? You should have.

The computer or phone you're using right now exists because these women made it possible. Before there were computers, calculators or programming languages, these women laid the technical foundation for our digital lives.

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer, known primarily for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine back in 1842. She was the first to recognise that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is sometimes regarded as the first to recognise the full potential of a “computing machine” and one of the first computer programmers. 

Much later on in the 1940s and 50s, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, which was used by the government in the final stages of World War II. In 1952, she created the first operational compiler and proved that computers could do more than just arithmetic.

I could go on to talk about all these incredibly talented and inspiring women, and others, but I’ll let you do a quick google search if you’d like to find out more. My point is, women have always been instrumental in technology development. Yet, according to a report by the National Centre for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the number of women in computing occupations has steadily declined since 1991, when it peaked at 36%. 

This raises several questions - do women now have a general lack of interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) positions? Is there a bias inhibiting women’s success in these roles? Are there cultural elements causing the decline? I suspect the answer is ‘yes’ to all the above.

The gender gap in technology and data science has grown significantly over the last two decades, raising global concern about the state of open-mindedness of the information and tech industry. We often point the finger at industry stereotypes as a key reason to why we don’t see more women in technical positions – but have you ever wondered when and where this stereotyping came from?

A NPR news article, When Women Stopped Coding, states that the “share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.”

The article goes on to say that computers, which weren’t capable of much more than playing simple games, were marketed as a toy for young boys, which became the narrative for “techie culture.” Heavily influenced by branding, families at the time were more likely to buy these “toys” for boys than girls, even when girls showed interest. This meant boys grew up with plenty of computer experience and were more likely to study the subject at college and university. Women on the other hand didn’t have this experience and were left feeling exiled by the culture surrounding IT.

We’ve now got our work cut out to undo the stereotyping that has continued to plague the industry for decades, but this needs to be a global effort.

Leading organisations are also acutely aware of the need to encourage more women to pursue careers in technology, and particularly data science. According to a new study from MHR Analytics, 80% of UK companies are planning to hire data scientists or seek data consultancy in 2019. At the same time, a separate study found that 47% of UK company leaders feel their workforce lacks the digital skills necessary to compete in the next decade.

Thankfully, many organisations and countries around the world have woken up to the urgent requirement for more women to fill these highly demanded roles. Let’s take a look at what initiatives are in place across the globe.

US – Stanford University Global Women in Data Science Conference

Global Women in Data Science (WiDS) highlights the growing representation of female data scientists. The event series takes place across the world, but the anchor event took place in March 2018 at Stanford University and included a live-streamed conference that an estimated 100,000 people watched. WiDS 2018 encompassed over 170 regional events in more than 50 countries.

Statistics from past events of this kind revealed a third of participants were industry professionals, while the others are professors or students.

Algeria - Code 213 

Algeria is one of the largest countries in North Africa. The majority of its residents are under 30, and it has a higher-than-average unemployment rate compared to other nations in the region.

Code 213 is reportedly the first coding school in the country, and it aims to reduce the unemployment route through youth education. The educator offers four different tracks, including one in data science.

Each student will be immersed in a six-month programme emphasising a “learn by doing” approach. Then, they complete six-month internships. Code 213 also hopes to train at least 50% women through its programs.

Saudi Arabia – Introducing Data Science degrees in the world’s largest university for women

At the university level, Saudi Arabia recently made history by training its first group of female data scientists through a partnership between Dell and Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University (PNU). PNU is the world’s largest university for women, and the program saw 57 students complete degree programmes in data science or big data analytics in 2018.

France - Data Science summer school

The Data Science Summer School is co-organised by the Data Science Initiative of Ecole Polytechnique and DATAIA Institute and is hosted on the outskirts of Paris.

The primary focus of the event is to provide a series of courses and practical sessions covering the latest advances in the field of data science. The event is targeted at students, postdocs, academics, members of public institutions, and professionals. Although the event isn’t marketed as a female only event, in the past they have received up to 40% female attendance.

UK – Microsoft Women in Data Science Bootcamps

On international women’s day 2019, Microsoft announced they would be offering a number of free to attend bootcamps around the UK, designed to make careers in data science accessible for women who have taken a career break or looking at moving into a new role.

The Microsoft Professional Programme in Data Science will teach the basics of the subject, which particularly suffers with a gender imbalance, before participants continue their studies at home via the internet. Those who complete the other nine courses, which must be paid for, can apply for certificates that can be used to further their career.

Interest in the programme has been phenomenal. And as hosts of the Manchester-based bootcamp, we’re really excited to help Microsoft deliver the programme in May.

Even though these global initiatives are helping to breakdown the gender stereotypes and open up a new world of opportunities, we’ve got an awful long way to go to close the gender divide. But by sharing stories and participating in community-driven experiences, women of all ages and career levels can get a better sense of how to tackle barriers to personal growth and success. They can find creative ways to leverage their unique skills, mentality, and natural abilities ranging from a collaborative style to nurturing sensibilities such as humility, insight, intellectual curiosity, and empathy.

Over time, these interactions will build on each other – eventually giving women the courage to rise up, take risks, and perform at a level that meets and exceeds corporate expectations. And one by one, every woman who takes up this challenge plays a part in enabling future generations to collaborate, innovate, and compete without bias and with full equality.

To find out more about what a career in data science could mean for you, read our recent blog, “Where are all the data scientists?” here.  

Posted by Helen Thomas