Women in Data Science Conference 2016

5 minute read


Yesterday, I attended the Women in Data Science Conference in Cambridge. I went in hoping to learn more about data science as a field, to identify career opportunities in data science for computational biologists interested in public impact, and to feel inspired by being in a room full of women doing science. I’d say the conference wasn’t well-structured enough (i.e. tied together by a common theme) for the first goal and not varied enough in topics for the second one. That third goal, though - nailed it.

I counted approximately five men in the audience - awesome! What a great gender ratio, for a change. All of the speakers were women, obviously (look conference organizers, it’s not that hard!) Actually, the few times I’ve been in these kinds of spaces there’s a flickering voice that’s like “but equality is 50/50” and then I remember (1) that voice is society’s, not mine and (2) Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s wisdom: our fields have been dominated by men since forever, and all-male conferences are so common. All-woman conferences are not only justified, but also long overdue.

Some of the talks were better than others (Diane Greene seems like a true gem, srsly (@8:58)) but the panel was the shining moment of the event. I was struck by three main themes in these women’s responses:

Survivor bias has selected for women who were “oblivious” to gender-related discrimination and microaggressions. You often see the trailblazing women in the sciences saying that they never experienced discrimination and that STEM fields are meritocratic so what’s the big deal? I would say the women on yesterday’s panel are one or one and half generations behind these original trailblazers, and it was interesting to hear them explicitly acknowledge that “maybe we’re the wrong people to ask about this” because they’d never really paid attention to or noticed any gender discrimination. (One particularly outspoken speaker, Jennifer Chayes from Microsoft Research, said that she didn’t recognize the implication of all the other women dropping out of her physics PhD program until many years later - talk about a failure in pattern recognition! :P) This leads to a lot of interesting questions, of course: did they not pay attention to it because they were always the best and so naturally overcame the impossibly high threshold for women to achieve respect in their male colleagues’ eyes? Is their obliviousness the reason for their success? Should women follow their lead and just ignore the constant micro-aggressions and lack of representation and charge on? Do we really want to be selecting only for these types of women? (No.) Fascinatingly, all of the women on the panel said that they began to notice gender discrimination (and get really angry about it!) when it started affecting their junior colleagues.

Successful women find support in strong peer networks of strong women, which provide the mentorship they don’t get from non-existent mentors. Another common theme was that many of these women were bad at asking for help and “just stumbled along” until they formed a strong network of peers, and that these networks provided the mentorship they didn’t get from more traditional mentors and role models (probably because there were none). I find the same thing in my peer group - I have mentors for science and career things, of course, but when it comes specifically to dealing with being a woman in STEM, I look to my peers. In the past few years, I’ve slowly realized how often my female friends and I talk about being women in STEM, how empowering those conversations are, and how oblivious to them most of my male colleagues must be. Multiple friends of mine have told me stories of being taken aback by a male loved one’s well-meaning, appalled question “does that really happen today?”: yes, honey, this is what I experience on a daily basis.

Just do what a man with your qualifications and abilities would do. I really liked this advice that a few of the panelists gave. Challenge yourself to act in the way that a man with your abilities would act. Speak up in the meeting even if you’re not 100% confident about your idea. Sell yourself because, yeah, you are badass. “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” But actually.

That said, I always have issues with when the conversation falls into a “men do this” or “men are more ___ than women” - for example, in the family conversation or in the confidence discussion. I’m not sure how to move these conversations into a less hetero-normative space, allowing for multiple expressions of both man- and womanhood (and all the other hoods that don’t fit in those boxes too). I guess I wish more speakers and commenters would recognize society’s roles in these (relatively justified) stereotypes they’re presenting: a little bit more of the “He for She” movement could actually go a long way to keeping these conversations from spiraling into an “us vs. them” crusade that only serves to further entrench the societal norms holding us all back.

Also, let’s talk about race and other intersectional identities next time.