What I Learned From “Women in Data Science” Conferences
Read the author's perspective after attending 3 "Women in Data Science" conferences.
Covid has changed our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine. Working from home became a norm, something which was looked down upon when women used to seek this 'LUXURY' in pre-covid times.
With the booming 'digital' world, networking events also found their way through online webinars. Specifically, in the context of women conferences, I often used to wonder why is there a need to call out women and organize separate events for them.
Whenever we talk about an all-inclusive world, why does women's participation in "general conferences" not speak for itself? What stops women from demonstrating their work or giving voice to their beliefs in front of a wider audience?
With all these thoughts lingering in my mind, I thought to attend these conferences and witness for myself.
I have heard the rationale of people from both sides, some I am sharing with you here. In the end, I will conclude with my opinion and takeaways after attending 3 such women-focused conferences.
Why it all started? The points in favor:
Voice it out: General conferences are broadly seen as places where "men are talking business" while women are presumably amateurish and inept when they do the same. Women-focused conferences relieve them of this impression and give them the voice and freedom to share a wide range of topics e.g. how to maintain work-life balance, managing kids during the pandemic, receiving support from colleagues, a new business idea, or collaboration on the current project.
Cutting edge skills: If the conference involves attendees from an industry that demands disruptive technical skills, often synonymously dominated by men, the talks also involve such skills that a lot of women are yet to pick up, making it a tough bet for their time (filled with family responsibilities).
Issues with women conferences:
Why try to be mother nature: The gender difference should only stick to the point that mother nature has distinguished it to. And it should just stop there. Anything afterward is purely based on merit, dedication, and hard work. Why is it important to bring together women in one conference and teach them how to open up and ask for help, being assertive and confident?
Why preaching? Above all, my question is why do we need to teach all grown-ups about what they already know? Why can't we behave agnostic to the gender? No one can teach the whole society and pivot the deep-rooted biased lens we have been seeing the world with. It calls for a bottom-up approach where every individual feels the responsibility to promote and support equality in fighting the prejudices prevalent in the society
Marginalization: It is more of a vicious circle where the marginalized group is intended to be supported with such events but ends up getting marginalized further. Bring women and men at par, let the other side understand, discuss, support each other, and grow together.
Sometimes, I wonder whether it is specific to a particular field or industry, but unfortunately, it is everywhere. Recently, I came across a post where a senior executive had to call out a finance conference with an all-male panel discussion.
There is a fancy word for it manel i.e., male panel.
Sourced from author’s LinkedIn network
Male Advocate: Men play a crucial role in promoting women's rights and opportunities. Improving the condition of women in society and the workplace cannot be done with the other half (as they say), the men.
LinkedIn has introduced courses on helping women advance their careers. There is one course in particular that stands out 'Becoming a Male Ally at Work'. The course helps the 'gender in the majority to better understand the stereotypes that are holding women back.
What did I find after attending 3 women conferences?
While I can go on talking about how we, the society, can come together in solidarity and make it reach an upright state, this all might sound just too theoretical for you.
So, let's see a real example of how the power of women supporting each other can do wonders.
This year, I attended 3 such conferences and where women presented remarkable work in Data Science. I found one thing consistent across these networks - leaders from the industry share their stories and tips to deal with difficult situations. Some of the advice that resonates with me:
Being a yes (wo)man: Boundaries are just something that exists in our minds. Once you are past these self-imposed boundaries, the world of opportunities will open up for you. This fearless attitude of being a 'Yes woman' has done wonders to me on both fronts, personally and professionally. I became more confident of doing my best to whatever came my way.
Network your way through: Make an ecosystem of women in data, connecting with like-minded people gives you a perspective of how to handle similar situations. It also helps you make wiser decisions without committing the same mistakes that others have done.
Share the same vocabulary: Understand the business requirements, concerns of the stakeholders, map it to how you can contribute, and voice it out. I believe that the organizations are appreciative of their associates that add value and do not let their gender, caste, or religion come in the way of retaining successful business contributors.
Stop fighting the unconscious: It is important to acknowledge that there might be a subtle bias present in the subconscious of people around you. But we have to stop letting it come in the way of our vision. I am a working mother and know for sure the value of each hour that slips out of my hand. I would rather prefer to spend my time productively by upskilling myself. People can take anything but your knowledge away from you. Keep working on your knowledge bank and it will pave the right path for you in the long run.
Ways to be productive: Women are good at multi-tasking (and we know that :)). So, it is important that we use it to our advantage. Listening to podcasts, or technical courses while cooking or taking nature's walk keeps me on my toes and lets me utilize my time judiciously. Another important aspect of networking comes from the right use of social media, I try to connect with the leaders in Data Science to keep myself adept with the latest technologies and algorithms.
No golden rule: In the end, I would say that there is no recipe for success. Working on the "try fast, fail fast" formula proves to be good sometimes. So, do not be a victim of self-doubt and give a shot at everything that you dream of. When anyone tries to get you down, do not let it affect you. 'Show-up to the adversities in the face'.
So, with all the confidence I gained from attending these conferences, I implemented what I had learned, i.e., showing up. Yes, it has helped me get past the fear of self-doubt.
Though attending women in data science conferences has done good to me, my heart wishes for a day where conferences do not get a group-specific tag or label. That would be the day when the purpose of such conferences being conducted today would manifest into an inclusive and diverse world.
Till then, let us work on "each one, help one".
Vidhi Chugh is an award-winning AI/ML innovation leader and an AI Ethicist. She works at the intersection of data science, product, and research to deliver business value and insights. She is an advocate for data-centric science and a leading expert in data governance with a vision to build trustworthy AI solutions.