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Only 1/5 of female students are looking at data professions

The benefits of a diverse workforce have been proven time and again, but improvements must continue to be made as new data shows only one in five female students are looking at data careers. Alex Roberts finds out what can be done.
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Skills confidence 

Upskilling teams is an important part of any data office, particularly for organisations with immature data capabilities, but how can potential employees find confidence in their skills before they can participate in on-the-job training?  

48% of the respondents felt they did not have the confidence with maths or science skills to become a data professional.

Sanjeevan Bala, group chief data and AI officer at ITV, noted that more than 75% of transformations fail and this is due to the programmes focusing heavily on maths, science or technical skills – 48% of the respondents stated a lack of confidence with these specific skills. “Delivering data and AI transformation requires a wider range of skills and experience, as success is not just about delivering new data capabilities,” said Bala. “It also depends on embedding data-driven thinking and new ways of working into the business.”  

Bala described how ITV has introduced new roles to improve skills confidence in data teams, including data strategy leads that are responsible for thought leadership, product ownership and measuring data value, and agile delivery managers that work alongside data strategy and data tech leads to ensure teams are working effectively to deliver data products. 

“Often a lot of nervousness around science and maths comes down to it seeming overly complex and abstract,” said Natalie Cramp, CEO, Profusion. “It can be difficult to envision how learning about chemical reactions or the diameter of a circle will apply in our daily lives and future careers. Businesses need to work with schools to show better how different subjects influence the career options that are open to students.”  

Cramp explained how misperceptions about the tech industry leave many feeling it is just about learning code, rather than examining the day-to-day tech roles of streaming services or apps to see how data has tangible, real-life impacts. “Providing real life business case studies that support the curriculum, working in partnership with teachers can help change this – many of us learn better in an applied setting,” said Cramp. 

Businesses must also take the initiative to lead by example when it comes to encouraging female applicants.

“If you’re a young female student and you see women in positions of power in the data industry making breakthroughs, building companies and earning good money, you are much more likely to see this as a realistic and attractive career choice,” added Cramp. 

Promoting data professions 

Only 31% of those surveyed at degree level said they had noticed ads for data-related roles and 30% said they were inspired by someone they know working in the data field. Businesses are thriving thanks to data developments and new technologies, but they can only be as effective as their data teams. What can be done to promote data to a diverse audience of future talent? 

“One of the reasons data sciences can feel like a closed shop is that businesses constantly look in the same place for recruits,” said Cramp. “Unfortunately, it has been well documented that unconscious bias often results in those recruiting inadvertently favouring people that look and act like them – that includes everything from their politics, race and educational background.” To break this cycle, businesses must actively broaden the experience or qualifications required for a role and advertise in different places to reach new audiences. 

As Cramp explains, the language used in an advert can also impact potential talent. “Using techie jargon or needlessly complex terminology can put people off or even result in them not realising they are actually qualified for a position,” said Cramp. “There is no place for linguistic gatekeeping; keep ads simple and clear, no one needs to read a list of programming languages. An advert should be something creative and compelling.” 

 

Bala stated that businesses should invest in advertising data professions across the widest range of social media channels possible, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Tik Tok to increase its presence in the marketplace as an innovative and diverse place to develop a career in data. 

“Our resourcing team has objectives to provide a diverse shortlist of candidates across all data related roles,” said Bala. “Each candidate brings a mix of background, skills, experience, values and more and these are measured against the minimum criteria to perform the role. This ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to apply, to be considered, shortlisted and interviewed. A diverse interview panel is also key to ensure that the data team continues to champion diversity and embraces inclusion across the recruitment process.” 

When it comes to selecting data as a career choice, 36% of the respondents said they felt data professionals are paid better than the average salary – showing there is knowledge of the sector and an eagerness to be involved with a well-paying profession – but getting people to apply seems to be a barrier. 

What can businesses do? 

Yes, there is a need for modern curriculums to be updated to include the benefits of data and its capabilities (the use of data to help combat climate change was noted as one of particular significance in the survey), but data businesses need to shoulder the burden too. To change a curriculum takes a lot of time and effort, whereas businesses can directly intervene and start producing the change needed at the source.  

46% in A-Level or higher education said curriculums need to change.

“Demand for data professionals has tripled in last five years alone,” said Rachel Duncan, chief people officer, Experian UK and Ireland. “Despite this trend, there are still barriers to overcome and government, education institutions and businesses need to work together to develop key skills and raise awareness about how a career working with data can offer a great career path for young people, from all backgrounds.” 

According to Bala, businesses should, among other things, “focus on outcome metrics around diversity not ‘top of the funnel’ diversity, develop a fair hiring process that encourages constructive feedback, address pay equity and implement a gender decoder tool to create accessible adverts that appeal to all genders.” 

This was seconded by Cramp who added, “so often everyone starts this answer with a work with schools or grow your own – which is absolutely right, and I’m very passionate about it – but this approach takes time, and we need talent now.”  

Solutions such as data academies allow leaders from other industries to move easily, bringing transferable skills and new perspectives for data businesses. Cramp highlights that, “just by being a woman leading a data business, I have attracted talent my male counterparts wouldn’t, as they are excited to be in a female-led business and believe there is opportunity for them to get to the top.” 

Of the respondents, 46% identified curriculum updates as a necessity, but businesses need to do more to appeal to women while they are still in education and to actively advertise data as a successfully career opportunity. Furthermore, businesses need to participate in outreach programmes and events such as Black Tech Fest and other underrepresented industry events in person and online to celebrate inclusion and diversity, as well as promoting specific skills.  

“We are at the stage where concerted action needs to be taken,” said Cramp.

Women’s talent pipelines 

There is a lot to be optimistic about for female data employment and many DataIQ members are actively involved with female-centric data programmes and outreach projects, such as Girls in Data. These types of programmes not only promote the business to a key target audience, but they also highlight that businesses know they need diverse teams and there is a distinct need for women in data. At the end of 2020, just 15% of data scientists were women and only 26% of professionals occupying data and analytics roles were women in data science. 

“We are at the stage where concerted action needs to be taken,” said Cramp. “Businesses believe they are largely powerless to influence real change until the number of women that take STEM subjects improves; this simply isn’t true.” 

Businesses can be active by: 

  • Showcasing career options and providing work experience 
  • Providing a level playing field for hiring and promotion opportunities 
  • Improving team diversity through targeted training and recruitment 
  • Building a culture that is open and comfortable for everyone to work within 
  • Sending female representatives to events and speaking opportunities 
  • Collaborating with organisations like Women in Data 

Cramp described how, as a woman, she gets interrupted by men when speaking and these seemingly small actions can have big effects. “Even as a CEO I have experienced this significantly more times in the data industry than when I have been in industries with a more even representation – imagine what that feels like for more junior members of your team?”  

“Businesses need to create a diverse interview panel both to help candidates feel comfortable and able to see and interact with ‘people like me’ during the early stages,” said Bala.

Once employed and progressing in their role, mentor schemes led by women from the talent pipeline that are available to everyone should be implemented to share skills learnt by women, improve communication, highlight individuals and their skills and develop inclusion and diversity. 

“Businesses need to create a diverse interview panel both to help candidates feel comfortable and able to see and interact with ‘people like me’ during the early stages,” said Bala. “They also need to explicitly encourage and have conversations around adjustments that may be needed to help future talent be more productive before they even join.” 

In September 2022, Experian recruited over 100 graduates with 54% of the data related roles going to female staff. Experian is also sponsoring and delivering four coding courses to 180 women and placing ten women in programmes leading to full time data employment.   

Ultimately, there is a problem if only one fifth of a huge demographic is considering a career in data, particularly at a time where businesses are investing record amounts into data capabilities. More needs to be done to demonstrate the value of data as a profession, the diversity of where a career in data can take individuals, what the real-world skills for entry to the data industry are and the actual applications of data professions in everyday life.  

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