Women in Data Science/STEM — [WBAA Women Data Scientists and Engineers share their perspectives]

Nicole Mpozika
Nov 28, 2018 · 9 min read

Starting this article it should be mentioned that playing the sex card is not fair to either men or women. People should go to work and be recognized for their qualifications and for what they bring to the table personally and professionally and not putter on gender stereotypes.

However, when it comes down to statistics and real-life scenarios, numbers tell a different story showing a significant underrepresentation of women in Data Science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) disciplines. 85 per cent of Data Scientists and 74 per cent of Predictive Analytics professionals are male, according to research from Burtch Works — an executive recruiting firm. According to a survey by the world-renowned data science crowdsourcing platform Kaggle on the State of Data Science and Machine Learning, females represented a slight 16 per cent of the respondents in total. A 2016–2017 data science salary survey by O’Reilly showed that women’s salaries remained stable in a one year span ($82–84.000) whereas men’s salaries increased from $88,000 to $93,000.

All these statistics prove a gender gap that might originate from various grounds like — a lack of STEM education for women early in life, workplace culture, lack of mentorship for women in data science and STEM, human resources regulations that do not work towards gender balance policies, inherited bias and low confidence levels — to name some. On the bright side, data science is a lucrative and promising field that drives innovation in all sectors with a growing importance within the STEM disciplines. Therefore, there is a lot of potential to narrow this gender gap and set a new bar for inclusion — even if this is considered a far-fetched challenge by many.

With these statistics in mind, we decided to ask the women of WB Advanced Analytics how they feel about the opportunities being offered in the data science/STEM landscape and on what can be done to attract more women. We also asked them to describe any “gender challenges” they might have faced, and their experience in their current role within WBAA — a diverse, multicultural team.

Rafah El-Khatib — Data Scientist WBAA

“I believe that there is an abundant number of opportunities for data scientists today, regardless of gender. In order to encourage more women to pursue such fields, I think that we must, as a society, make an effort to teach the youth in a gender-neutral fashion: namely, that gender should not be a contributing factor in any decision, including educational ones of course. Once we establish this belief among youth, I believe that DS/STEM will achieve a more gender-balanced equilibrium. On the shorter run, I think it is also important to provide female mentors and role-models for women and young girls, namely, a successful woman with more experience, with which a woman or girl can talk, share professional experiences with, and get advice from.

Due to the fact that the percentage of women in STEM is still painfully small, there is an unconscious (at best) gender bias in these fields. I don’t think that DS suffers from this problem. However, in both DS and STEM, I have seen women, including myself, sometimes face “indirect” challenges that do not stem from external discrimination. For instance, in many cases women tend to be more empathetic and/or less assertive. We interrupt less, we speak up less, we negotiate less. I am not sure whether this is due to latent societal effects or nature, but I do observe it as a difference that proves challenging for us. Such challenges are not only the result of women’s behaviour, but also men’s behaviour towards female colleagues. We have not yet recovered from global sexism, that exists in people’s minds and in gender statistics in these fields of study/work. This means that there is still the belief among many men that women are less intelligent or capable, that they are “emotional” and unable to make unbiased decisions. Besides this, there is also the challenge of sexual harassment that many women face in these fields, from equal male counterparts, or, sadly, from superiors. Another challenge that many women face in most countries of the world is starting a family: paternal leave is almost non-existent in most countries, which means that women inevitably have to interrupt their careers when they have children, while male counterparts have a continuous career, and if anything, have to work even harder than before in order to provide for a growing family. This naturally creates a bridge between the career path of a man and a woman, as the woman would have lost several months (at best) of works experience.

At WBAA I never felt like my gender played a role in my work, opportunities, or interaction with colleagues. I take part in the recruitment process at WBAA and have been positively surprised to see that we built a gender-balanced team organically”.

Xi Xhang — Data Engineer WBAA

“I think the opportunities are equal for both women and men in the data science area. However, it is true that there are more men than women in data science/STEM. In my opinion, the following steps can be applied to improve this situation:

1. Education is very important. Therefore, it will be very helpful if we can guarantee that girls and boys have the same opportunity to investigate in data science/STEM area. Every year, ING organizes a Girl’s Day (we introduce robotics, programming… during the event) which can help girl learn about this area earlier in school.

2. Parents’ opinions also play a key role. When I was a teenager, my parents would like me to learn languages, management or medicine. I think there also should be something, like Parents’ Day, to let them be aware of the face that girls can also do a good job in STEM area.

3. Treat men and women as the same during the hire procedure and in daily work. I know in some cultures, even though women are hired as engineers, they are hired to maintain the balance of the company. This kind of “benefit” will make women feel that they are not valued and their male colleagues might under-estimate their potential.

I think it’s still hard for women to prove that they are as good as men. I felt I was treated quite equal when I was in WBAA. And I didn’t have any bad experience during my four-year stay in the Netherlands. But I heard some stories like a woman won the competition because she is a woman when I was in academia. And I also heard some stories like some companies will low their requirements when the candidate is a woman because they want to keep a gender balance”.

EVA VAN WEEL — Data Scientist WBAA

“I strongly believe that (here in the Netherlands at least) opportunities are equal for men and women. I think the encouragement should already happen in primary or high school because not a lot of women are participating in the beta profiles (and thus eliminating the possibilities within sciences). I was for example not familiar with coding, if I would have known that earlier on maybe my decision would have been different ones. I don’t particularly think there are any challenges for women. At least not that I personally experienced. I’ve always considered myself a bit as ‘one of the boys’. I was playing soccer on the street when I was younger. Therefore, I feel very comfortable in an environment with men. When I started at WBAA there were barely any women here and that was fine. It did not change the way I felt about going to work for example”.

Ruoqing Sun — Data Scientist WBAA

“Data science can be applied in various domains, so recently the demand for data scientists is increasing. Having a mix of men and women enables analysis from various points of view. We shall be connected to data science community to let young talents aware of our diversified group. In the case of recruitment, leaders have to be aware of the gender ratio periodically and actively seek for the reason behind. I quite like WBAA because of its diversity. I just graduated as a computer science master student. A lot of classes are like “boys’ club”. Women are minority over there. It is still the same case in most of the IT department within ING. WBAA would like to invest in female talents and provide the same chances to everyone, which I really appreciate”.

Androniki Menelaou — Data Scientist WBAA

“I feel that there are equal opportunities for both men and women to pursue a career in data science. It is a great career path with many opportunities to expand your knowledge on different fields and it is dynamic and ever changing. Girls should get inspired to study maths and computer science, so from an early stage we should show the benefits of this career path. DS is not a boring job sitting in front of the computer all day. You need to talk to several stakeholders, understand the challenges and provide a data driven solution. It takes much more than coding. I had the chance to travel around the world by being a data scientist. I feel women at the moment are sometimes discriminated in the DS arena, both in a positive and in a negative way, which means women need to be confident of their skills and talents to go over this discrimination. “It’s good if you make this presentation, because also you are a woman” it’s a comment I get a lot and does not make me feel great. I challenge people to give me more than a sex chromosome reason why I was chosen. I have been in teams where I was the only female and I see that the WBAA is taking an active approach on making the team diverse in terms of nationalities, sex and skills which I believe is the recipe for a successful team. I do like the diversity and I only hope I see more of the diversity in all dimensions increasing”.

Summarizing thoughts and recommendations

All WBAA women identified equal opportunities in the data science/STEM arena but also a lot of challenges that have to be addressed in order to narrow the gender gap. These are some of their prevalent recommendations:

· Education and motivation early in life for women to gain confidence in their data science/STEM skills.

· Removal of societal gender stereotypes and adoption of a “gender-blind” mentality in life and in business.

· Equal work-life opportunities for both men and women.

· Ensure hiring rules that catch up to gender balance processes.

· Initiatives that fundamentally create a level playing field for all genders and do not just meet a quota or install symbolic figureheads.

· A leadership strategy that actively implements structural changes to include all employees in leadership roles and in diversity task forces.

· Need for female mentorship.

When it comes to their experience within WBAA, all women data scientists and engineers identified a diverse, collegial and open environment that offers equal opportunities and feelings of belongingness and authenticity regardless of stereotypes. There are still crucial steps that have to be taken to balance the gender gap in data science and STEM, but what is most important for leaders and modern corporations, is to work towards this direction with honest motivations. Doron Reuter, Head of Product Initiation in WBAA said:

At WBAA we strive to create an environment that is truly diverse and a safe place for all our people to express themselves personally and professionally. An environment that is an inspiration to other (technology) teams and companies”.

If you wish to know more about our people or projects please send an email to wbaa@ing.com.

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Nicole Mpozika

Written by

Communications @ ING WB Advanced Analytics

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Wholesale Banking Advanced Analytics team

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