Women in data: damsels in distress?

The explosion of digital has brought changes in the marketing world, including creating roles for people with technical data skills. But in a male-dominated sector, how can women be heard and valued? TMW Unlimited’s Anna Foster shares her thoughts on how to overcome the challenges.

When I was hired as a graduate data planner, fresh-faced and eager to join the world of propensity modelling and response rates, there seemed to be plenty of women working in my area of marketing. Both my line manager and the head of department were female, and there was a 50:50 gender balance in our large team of data planners and analysts. Fast forward 12 years, with my slightly less fresh-faced self now challenged with multichannel customer journey tracking, and it seems that things have taken a step backwards.

Last year, I attended a prominent industry data event and was saddened to see only two female speakers on the 20-strong panel. From a glance around the audience, I could see that around 40% of the attendees were women, making the 10% representation on the panel seem a little incongruous. I took to Twitter with my thoughts and received interesting responses. For example, Dun & Bradstreet’s Patrice Bendon, one of the female speakers, replied that “there are great women in data” and that the issue could be a lack of self-promotion.

I found an alternative view after I joined the Meetup group Women in Data. Boasting more than 550 members, the group was set up in 2012 “for women who love data; big or small”. It isn’t restricted to marketers and includes female statisticians, visualisers, journalists, developers and analysts, amongst others. Yodit Stanton, the group’s organiser, responded to my question on the topic, saying that there are plenty of women in data in plain sight, running companies and working on interesting projects. For her, the question isn’t why there is a lack of women in this field but “why aren’t organisers engaging with them?”.

So is it because the industry doesn’t do enough to bring women to the forefront? Are we women simply too shy to shout about our successes? Or is the data dame a dying breed?

As a data practitioner, I’m most comfortable when looking at figures, so I gathered a few more:

  • Searching LinkedIn for the role ‘head of data’ gives 11 women in the first 50 results (22%)
  • The Data IQ BigData100 published earlier this year has 20 women: only one woman features in the ‘Power 10’, seven are included in the 32 ‘Data Titans’, but four of the five ‘Rising Stars’ are women – a positive sign of change
  • Four of the 17 judges (24%) on Marketing Week’s Data Storytelling Awards panel are women
  • The Open Data Institute shared its employee profile recently and it is 50:50 except for the board (which was 100% male until they invited Martha Lane Fox to join last year)
  • My data team of 22 people contains five women (myself included) and that is a record high of 23% in my time here
  • Women make up almost half of the UK workforce, but only a fifth of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce

It is clear that the STEM world is still a boys’ club; for example, only 9% of tech start-ups have female founders. However, it does seem the world has woken up to this.

Groups such as Geek Girl and Girls in Tech have been working to make STEM more accessible for women and there are significant improvements being seen in education too: 40% of Maths A Level entries were from females in 2012 (up 17% on 2009) and 43% of undergraduates and 35% of postgraduates studying mathematical science are women.

The STEM world is still a boys’ club with only 9% of tech start-ups having female founders

In 2012, the number of tech and digital companies grew by 76%, accounting for 27% of all job growth in London. So at least the increased numbers of female students graduating with maths and science qualifications have jobs available to them. But with stories such as Julie Ann Horvath’s forced exit from GitHub still making headlines, there is more to do.

I believe we need to mentor and support young women entering the world of data and make them feel both welcome and valued in this industry. At TMW Unlimited, I have implemented a mentoring programme for all members of my team. The aim is to give each person access to a wider range of knowledge and experience than they would get solely from their line manager, to provide a person to talk to or confide in outside of their day-to-day job role and to support them in any way they want across all aspects of their working life.

I would like to avoid resorting to crass gender stereotypes, but there may be something in the idea that women don’t self-promote enough. On canvassing thoughts from the other girls in my team, one claimed that she had found senior data positions to be more male dominated and suggested “maybe we just don’t make enough noise.” There are studies that have found women to be less confident about their own abilities than their male counterparts. For example, the Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half of the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.

For me, I find the change in the profile of marketing data people an interesting factor. I started my data career in a department full of data planners – a role that attracts people who are interested in the strategic side of data, who can tell stories from data and who enjoy using it to unearth insight into human behaviour.

Today, my department still boasts data planners, but also includes web and social analysts, database consultants, data campaign managers and other more technical roles. The explosion of all things digital has spawned changes in the marketing data world – from the sublime (APIs, connected devices, telematics) to the ridiculous (hello big data officers!). These in turn have marked a shift in the need for more technical data people to join the marketing army.

Technical data types tend to come from a scientific or maths-based background and, unfortunately, women are significantly under-represented in the STEM subjects from school-age onwards. Data planners, on the other hand, are highly numerate and logical but can come from a variety of backgrounds – my data planners have an eclectic mix of degrees in psychology, social science, philosophy, English, marketing and American studies – and that means they are less affected by the educational STEM bias.

In answer to my article’s title, I don’t believe that we data damsels are in distress. For a start, I don’t see myself screaming for help as the proverbial castle burns down around me. But there is clearly no simple answer to the question about why there aren’t more women featuring prominently in the marketing data arena. So instead of screaming, I would issue the following three challenges:

  1. Ladies – be more confident. Shout loud and proud about your achievements and don’t wait to be asked. You are succeeding in a male-dominated field. That deserves to be celebrated.
  2. Industry event organisers – look beyond the men who make the noise to find the women who are more than qualified to speak alongside them. They are equally capable of holding a conference audience’s attention and they’re likely to bring a new perspective.
  3. Everyone – take up the challenge and encourage young women in the area of maths and science. Inspire them to be interested and help us bust the stereotype of the geek before it takes root.

There are inspiring data women out there and we can’t let the men have all the data-driven fun. Do you think there are too few women in data? Are you one? Join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #datawomen.