Empowering Women to Join the Data Revolution

By Mahadia Tunga 

Co-Founder and Director of Data Science

As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child today, with the theme “Digital generation. Our generation”, it is a moment to reflect on how digital inclusion can open new avenues for girls and women to learn and change the world around them. It is an indisputable fact that we need more women in Data Science! While the world is embarking on the fourth industrial revolution which is driven by data, women make up 75% of the world’s workforce and earn only 10% of the world’s income. In the US, women hold just 18 percent of data science jobs and only 15% of women globally are data scientists

Changing the narrative through women training programs

During one discussion on “Empowering Women to Join the Data Revolution to Improve Lives” at the UN World Data Forum that was held in Bern, Switzerland on October 3-6, I highlighted how dLab is at the forefront in changing this narrative. Informed by our own data on the low participation of women in the data ecosystem, I spearheaded the development of the Women in Data program under dLab as the head of training, to create a pipeline of female scientists. The program has been largely sponsored by Data Collaborative for Local Impact (DCLI). We have trained over 2000 women since 2016 under the umbrella of #GirlsHacksData, #Data4Her, #SmartGirls, #CodelikeAGirls, #WiDS-Dar-es-Salaam, and so forth.

Moderated by Agnieszka Rawa, Managing Director of Data Collaboratives for Local Impact, other panelists included Mar Carpanelli, leader of the Americas Economic Graph Policy Research and Insights at LinkedIn; Margot Gerritsen, Stanford University professor; and Katerina Ntep, Millennium Challenge Corporation vice-president. The session highlighted the urgent need for more women to get involved in data-related fields. My fellow panelists raised similar concerns, that there aren’t enough women in the STEM field.

Women in Data Science Conference

In addressing this, I was part of organising the Women in Data Science Conference (WiDS) Africa earlier this year. We brought together women in data science from all over the world to engage in discussions relating to the field and to inspire other women to join in. 

Organized jointly as an independent event by dLab, in collaboration with other African based WiDS ambassadors from H3ABioNet and MARI as part of the annual WiDS Worldwide conference that was organized by the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME) of Stanford University, the event had over 100 participants in attendance. As WiDS Dar es Salaam ambassador under dLab, we have  organized the event for three consecutive years now.  

The silver lining of COVID-19

Both conferences had a virtual element as did many other meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We were naive to think that CoVID-19 was a short-term tragedy. Now, the innovation ecosystem needs to step-in and solve pressing challenges posed by the pandemic such as reaching the offline community, reporting domestic violence during the pandemic, forecasting the impact of the pandemic, and so forth. 

There is a silver lining for data science and technology in general for the challenges brought by the pandemic and a call for more women to join the cause for creating change through data science and technology. If women are not taking seats in this journey, our thoughts will not be represented in the design of the solution.

Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of Cape Town University, a professor of mathematics demonstrates that the sky’s the limit for women scientists.  As the keynote speaker at this year’s WiDS event, she moved the virtual room with her powerful remarks. I was inspired by her emphasis on how it is important for women to be bold and strive for excellence despite structure, environmental and cultural settings against women.

What needs to be done

But this is not for women to solve by themselves. It is important for the whole society to join hands and invest adequate efforts to close the gender gap. Creative minds and innovations are needed to solve the gender gap. 

A change of mindset, that is what we need. If we manage to change that, we will have more women data scientists in the future. In Africa, it starts from kindergarten where doctors are portrayed as men in educational books, and women characters are housewives and cooks. It is time to instill the interest and possibilities of women to engage in data science fields from a young age.

UN World Data Forum: Listen to the entire conference, you can go to this link (from 2:17:50 of transmission).

WiDS Africa 2021: Check out this playlist