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There’s a Place for You: Women in the European Data for Good Space: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Path Ahead

What do Émilie du Chatelet (1706), Mary Somerville (1780), Ada Lovelace (1815), Alice Augusta Ball (1892), and Hedy Lamarr (1914) have in common with with a panel discussion entitled, “Women in the European Data for Good Space: Challenges, Opportunities and the Road Ahead” (2023)? As it turns out, quite a bit. Held in Brussels at BeCentral, with moderator Julia Stamm (The Data Tank), panelists Jeanne Bretécher (Social Good Accelerator (SOGA), Olivia Gambelin (Ethical Intelligence and Global Advisory Council Member, The Data Tank), Chloé Vandendriesche (King Baudouin Foundation), and Dewi Van De Vyver (EFFEX), the discussion illustrated the challenges women in science, data, and tech have had and still face in fields deemed suitable largely only for men.

Chloé Vandendriesche, Olivia Gambelin, Julia Stamm, Dewi Van De Vyver, Jeanne Bretécher

There is little sense in painting a rosy picture about the situation of women in data and tech: the Women in Tech Network safely estimates that at the current pace of change, it will take 132 years until the economic gender gap in tech is closed. Those are long odds even for the more optimistic sections of society, but like those women in science throughout history, this discussion, and what The Data Tank sets out to do, is part of the way forward. Dewi Van De Vyver said, “There aren’t enough spaces for discussing data for good. We need to amplify these discussions to highlight a future where technology benefits us all, not just presents challenges and anomalies. The tech space must not ignore the importance of Data for Good.”

While strides have been made towards inclusivity, the data and tech sector still grapples with a significant gender imbalance. However, our event not only explored the experiences of women in European data and tech and examined the obstacles they encounter, but also frankly discussed real challenges in the data sphere. Opening comments highlighted the fact that while the European data and tech landscape have witnessed a remarkable surge in recent years, as the panelists pointed out, the European model can, and should, prove to be a counterpoint to the American model of “profit at all costs”, and that we must “accept AI without discussion” or be “shut out of the world economy”, an argument often toted in political and economic circles on both sides of the Atlantic. As Dewi Van De Vyver pointed out, just because you know how to build an atomic bomb does not mean that you need to build one.

Olivia Gambelin, and AI ethicist, said there is no AI without data, but we need to ascertain risk mitigation, to push creativity in a good direction, and not only think about how do we actually achieve that or technical advancement but advancement of our values as well. Oliva said, “We started the event with being asked to reflect on what word comes to mind when we think of women in the Tech and Data for Good space. Without hesitation the word ‘leaders’ came to my mind. I am happy to say the insights from my fellow panelists and contributions from the audience throughout the event that followed only served to further strengthen my conviction.” There are persistent gender-based challenges and misconceptions, and those must be addressed before women can be considered equal partners in data and tech. 

Challenges and Misconceptions Faced by Women in Data and Tech

  1. But there are laws! Gender Bias

Women often still encounter gender bias that undermine their contributions and limit their opportunities. Preconceived notions regarding women’s technical competence perpetuate a culture of exclusion and hinder career advancement. Dewi Van De Vyver spoke about micro-aggressions adding up, and being told that girls should be not in interested in tech. It is essential to challenge these stereotypes and create an environment that values both genders equally.

2. You got your job because you’re a woman. Lack of Representation

The underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles is a significant barrier in the industry. A scarcity of female role models and mentors can impede career progression and perpetuate a cycle of exclusion. Chloé Vandendriesche shared she was happy that she found a place where diversity was the norm and not the exception, but that in her early studies, she experienced that her achievements were sometimes discounted because of being a woman. To break this cycle, organizations must prioritize diversity in their leadership ranks and provide mentorship programs that empower women to excel, not because the candidate is a woman, but because it is the right thing to do.

3. Women are so, well, emotional. Stereotyping

The panel discussed what is perceived as emotional was indeed the soft skill of empathy. As Olivia said, ethical intelligence is the ability to identify decisions based on our values. Tech is part of the natural process of ethical decision – we have to surface and bring forward those “softer skill” decisions in tech, and that women have the ability, largely shaped by society, of a “hidden secret superpower”. You don’t need to know how to code to understand that ethics and morality are a basis to understand humanity, and that also goes for tech and AI.

Outcomes and Opportunities in the Industry

  1. The European Model as a Force for Change

Dewi detailed that forces are underway to threaten the European Union’s values, and pulling at the foundations of the EU. What is needed is a rethink of the “money is power” model, and to stop frightening people that the future of unbridled data and tech is the only possible economic model. Jeanne Bretécher rightly pointed out that in the social economy and digital culture, nearly everyone is a data producer but some are being left out. It is not unconceivable that in some future society, there will be tiers of citizens with varying access and control of their own data based on heirarchy.

2. How to Close the Skills Gap

Dewi pointed out that there were more women in data and tech in the 80s than there are now. In their own interests, the European data and tech industry should encourage skill development and career growth. Initiatives that promote mentorship programs and scholarship opportunities specifically targeted at women could help close the gender skills gap. By actively encouraging women to pursue careers in tech, we can capitalize on untapped talent and unlock a wealth of innovative potential.

3. Diversity Drives Innovation

Embracing diversity and fostering an inclusive culture allows in data and tech for a wider array of perspectives and ideas to flourish, ultimately enhancing innovation and problem-solving capabilities, is good for everyone. The panelists emphasised looking at places where women have higher representation usually have higher representation across the board. 

4. Networking and Support Systems

Building strong networks and support systems is crucial for women in data and tech. Engaging in professional communities, attending conferences focused on women in tech, and participating in mentorship programs can provide valuable connections, mentorship, and guidance. Such initiatives enable women to thrive in a supportive network and overcome the challenges they may encounter on their career paths.

The Path Ahead

The discussion concluded with two questions:

What would a world look like in that pursuit?

Are we brave enough to get there?

To the second question, the panelists emphatically said yes. Human connection, a convergence between private and public, and that NGOs and NPOs were here for good – we want society to work better. Data and tech is not not just for companies but for NGOs and NPOs alike. Dewi reminded us that the system we live in today is largely the result of the end of a world war system designed to keep women out of the workplace. Data and tech should serve us, not derail us, and that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Addressing the challenges faced by women in the industry requires a collaborative effort from individuals, organizations, and governments alike. Partnership initiatives between academia, industry leaders, and institutions can pool resources to promote gender equality and diversity in the field. Shared best practices, mentorship programs, and knowledge exchange forums can accelerate progress towards a more inclusive European data and tech landscape.

Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, AI Coach at BeCode, said “The women in data and tech is a fantastic environment to discuss the challenges, perspectives, and opportunities in the tech space with leaders in the field. When the audience was asked to describe in one word what comes to mind when you think of women in tech, for me without a doubt it is: “Boss”. In my experience, many women in male-dominated spaces feel unheard. I often ask myself what will it take for the experience of women, and other marginalized groups, to be heard. I felt privileged to be in a space to connect with others, to be vulnerable, and to also share a vision for a more fair society. It became clear that making tech truly inclusive and accessible will require changing our ways at all levels (individually, organizationally, and as a society). Something that stuck with me was the idea that we can all decide to live this vision, now.”

Much like the history of women in the sciences, which took sheer determination to get seen let alone heard, women in data and tech face obstacles and severe challenges. Jeanne Bretécher said, “It was an amazing talk! I am always stunned by the talent and courage of women. Sharing is key, it gives so much strength to fight the great battles ahead. It is really time that women take power to accelerate data for good uses. We sure need their many different skills but also caring consideration for people and the planet to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In the digital age, let’s reverse the gender stereotypes for the common good!” Chloé Vandendriesche agreed, saying, “It’s time to spotlight and bring awareness to the work to be done in data for good. It’s so nice to have more people, and even more women, discussing challenges and opportunities in the field.”

By addressing those challenges faced by women, leveraging the industry’s potential, and actively pursuing diverse and inclusive environments, we can, even with long odds, have a future where women thrive as contributors.

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