Lessons Learned from a Woman in Data Science

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Read more about author Amber McKenzie.

While studies show that women currently hold about 28% of technology jobs, the total number of women in tech positions has actually decreased over the last few years. Gender disparity clearly still exists, and it is even more prominent in the field of Data Science. To make way for more women in Data Science, it’s important for me to share the lessons I’ve learned as a woman in a male-dominated space.

When I look back on my more than decade of experience in Data Science and machine learning, there is no shortage of important takeaways that have helped guide me on my journey and set me up for success in tech. For women and men alike, here are a few guiding principles that can help ensure we’re all doing our part to create a more inclusive environment to foster female leaders in Data Science:

  • Look for community. It is critical to help young girls build a community of tech and Data Science enthusiasts from an early stage. This community eliminates any stigma and broadens the funnel of future female data scientists to ensure that girls and women have peers in their space as they grow older. Organizations like Girls Who Code, college organizations like Systers, and LinkedIn groups like TechWoman are helping to close the gender gap and grow the community of women in tech. It behooves us all to spread the word about great ways for women in tech to connect – and to reach out to those in our own communities to foster interest and support learnings.
  • Listen for the call. I never thought of a career in Data Science until a college professor spotted something in me and encouraged me to give it a go. Although I didn’t know any other women doing this coursework, I took a chance and believed in myself because someone else did first. When someone sees potential in you – believe them, trust it, and explore it. Beyond that, I feel strongly that female leaders and educators can play a more significant role in encouraging future generations of female technologists. According to the National Science Foundation, more women than ever are earning STEM degrees – but data from Accenture shows that only 25% of tech graduates are women, with a dropout rate of 37% for tech classes compared to just 30% for other programs. When we take an interest in supporting female tech students, we’ll undoubtedly see more female candidates in the workforce.
  • Correct the misconceptions and keep moving forward. Early on in my career, I had an experience in which I was sitting in a meeting with colleagues, including a professor and several military generals, when one turned to me (the only female in the room) and asked me to get coffee, as he assumed that was my role. It’s important not to get discouraged, and to instead focus on preserving and claiming the role you’ve earned. In this case, I introduced myself and stated my title. Change takes time, persistence, and thoughtful corrections to those who are misguided along the way. Don’t let one person’s mistake shift your focus and your role. In this case, I went on to work closely with the company’s engineers and mechanics to provide significant life-saving value for their military helicopter maintenance practices.
  • Understand the importance of company culture. As you embark on your career, pay careful attention to the culture of the company you’re joining, to ensure they promote an inclusive environment that values female leaders in all fields. Ask the right questions and know that there are companies that support and nurture women in tech. The DNA of a company and its commitment to promoting and investing in women is very important – and often transparent. Pay attention and look for female leaders and opportunities to encourage future generations in an environment that is forward-thinking.
  • Pay it forward. I’m fortunate to have earned a position where I’m able to help shepherd the next phase of female data scientists – and it’s incumbent upon all women in business to help future leaders. Look to mentor young professionals and get involved with groups that help foster this movement for young girls. Remember that a simple meet-and-greet with a young woman or college student could be the difference between exploring a career in Data Science and taking their skills to other career paths. Pay attention to your followers, LinkedIn connections, neighbors, and other networks to uncover opportunities for mentoring. According to a report from The ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities (ACT/EMP), “Unconscious gender bias remains a significant barrier to women’s career advancement.” I personally have worked to mentor members of my team to help cultivate and grow the skills they need to move them closer to their career goals and to demonstrate to them that those goals are attainable.

Listening to female leaders and learning about their journeys can help ensure everyone is playing a role in empowering more women in Data Science. We’ve come a long way, but we can all agree that we still have a long way to go. With more women in tech, it will increase and improve the quality of candidates for companies while helping the market evolve into a more gender-equal workforce. With more diverse teams, companies will be in a better position to continue innovating, spearheading new technologies, and inspiring the next generation of technology experts.