International Women’s Data

International Women’s Data: Five women in data who are challenging the status quo

08 March 2021 | Karolina Malota

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According to a BCG study from 2020, only 15% of data scientists are women.

Yet data science and artificial intelligence (AI) are two of the fastest growing sectors in technology, and in the US alone, there were 2.7 million job openings for data scientists last year. What’s holding women back? Lacklustre encouragement to pursue STEM subjects in school, the lack of female role models in industry, the gender pay gap, and a male-dominated office culture are all cited as factors contributing to this ongoing challenge.

Countless studies reveal the correlation between gender diversity, profitability and value creation. That’s why on this International Women’s Day, we need to hear from more women trailblazing in the AI industry, holding them up as role models for the next generation. It’s important that young girls are aware of the vast array of opportunities available in this exciting new sector and can access the stories of women who have successfully climbed the career ladder.

This year’s International Women’s Day is encouraging women to #ChoosetoChallenge. So, we asked industry changemakers from Amelia’s Women in AI program what challenge’s they’ve faced throughout their careers and what learnings they want to share with those that might be considering pursuing a career in the industry:

AI is an industry to get excited about

Rema M. Algunaibet, who works as an AI developer at the seventh largest company in the world, Saudi Aramco, is excited about the fast-paced life of working in technology. A defining career moment for Rema was seeing a life-size walking, talking artificial-human doctor on-screen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. She says: “The experience was breathtaking and eye-opening,” and has further cemented her desire to work in the tech industry and be part of “the wave of digital transformation via robotics, AI, and the technologies of Industry 4.0 that will define our future.”

Don’t let anyone tell you “no”

For Natasha Kiroska, technical lead at Amelia, an IPsoft company, when it came time to choose what to study, she was challenged on her choice of computer science and applied computer engineering, and even told by some that she should not take that road as it would be “too challenging” for a woman. Ignoring the cynics, Natasha pursued the course and landed her first position as a developer in telecoms, later moving to Amelia to hone her AI skills. She has worked in various different environments, but as she says, the best ones are those where “trust and respect” are given to women, so that they feel “braver and more confident and to reach their potential.”

Remember you ARE good enough

Stacey Tomasoni, managing director at Datacom, says she finds it helpful “to have someone external to act as a sounding board and a constant check in point to remind me that, ‘I am good enough’.” Her experience has led her to believe that it is not always easy being a woman in the IT industry and confidence is paramount. That’s why Stacey advises all women who are interested in pursuing a role in technology to “throw yourself into the job.” There is the well-known anecdote from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, that women only apply for jobs if they are 100% qualified, whereas men will put themselves forward if they have at least six out of the 10 skills required. Stacey credits reading books like this as being key to her success. She advises young girls “to always carve out time to learn, read often, and have the courage to ask plenty of questions.”

Build resilience to recover quickly from difficult situations

As director at one of the world’s largest IT consulting firms, CGI, Debra L. Sherrill is keen to stress the importance of learning to practice resilience. Being able to quickly recover from difficult situations and possessing a degree of toughness has served Debra well during her career, giving her the “determination and persistence to accomplish tasks and stay focused on achieving goals.” In fact, the strategy she finds most effective to build resilience is “to reframe the situation, talk to someone about the event and develop plans to move on.”

Treat each day as a new challenge

When considering the most valuable lessons from her own career and those of the successful people around her, Ren Zhang, enterprise chief data scientist at BMO, encourages women to “always be intellectually curious. The world is evolving fast and the shelf life of knowledge is getting shorter and shorter. Now, more than ever, is the time to have a learning mindset to stay relevant.” Secondly, she stresses the importance of adaptability; as the world around us continues to evolve, we need to adapt and learn new skills. “Be ready to rethink and change yourself. Typically, your strongest tool or skill now will rarely be sufficient on its own to get you to the next key milestone.”

Lastly and most importantly, she shares her secret recipe for success; to “never give up. No one can have a career or even a life without any setback or defeat. Those at the top now are not necessarily the lucky ones – they will have met failure many times. But they always pick themselves up and push forward.”

Building a more inclusive AI industry

This International Women’s Day, it’s key that we start challenging the status quo: from the lack of female representation in the technology sector, to the idea that you need one set of skills to succeed in AI. In fact, it shouldn’t just be one day of the year; we should give women the space and platforms to share their experiences, and inspire and encourage one another throughout the year by creating and joining communities of like-minded individuals, such as Women in AI.

It’s not just women in the industry that will benefit from increased gender diversity, but those experiencing the technology too. AI is becoming ever more integrated into the world around us and transforming society. It’s therefore critical that those designing these algorithms represent society at large.