5 Unconventional Career Tips From Top Women In Data Science

Everything we do today relies on and/or uses data in some way or another. Research on any topic – from covid to climate to your favorite sports team. Your smartphone. Your computer. Searching terms in Google or Bing or Yahoo or on Twitter or Instagram or on any website or platform. The list goes on and on and on.

Those searches use terms and algorithms programmed into it by someone – and 82% of the time, that person is a male (and white). Women make up only 18% of data scientists, and put data at risk of being biased.

“Relying on biased information undermines the effectiveness of evidence-based policymaking. A potential source of bias in many datasets is that most of the world’s data scientists—i.e., the people who collect, organize, analyze data, and make decisions—are men.” That’s from the Center for Global Development, and says, in essence “garbage in, garbage out.”

We’ve all experienced getting weird stuff in our searches. I’ve searched normal words like “sustainability” on some websites and received photos of scantily clad women (I’ll leave those sites nameless at the moment, but suffice it to say I reported it every time).

We need more women working in data science, and staying in the field, for us to get high-quality data. And remember that a great deal of funding decisions and public health decisions are based on that data and the research behind it. We need it to be as unbiased as possible, so we need more women in the field.

Here are five career tips from two top women in data science at different career stages:

Olivia Martin is a data scientist at USAFacts, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. She’s a wise soul who is already at the top of her field early in her career. I recently interviewed her on my podcast, now called Electric Ladies, about USAFacts’ State of the Earth report.

Allison Sagraves, is Chief Data Officer of a top national financial institution who also gave a fascinating TED Talk on citizen data science a couple of years ago. Her advice here is from my interview with her about two years ago on my podcast (under the previous podcast name Green Connections Radio).

Don’t find your passion: So many coaches and leaders tell you to “find your passion” and there are even “tests” to help you do so (supposedly). But Sagraves takes what she calls “a kind of reverse position on this.” Instead, she says, “I think oftentimes the passion may be sitting in front of you and you’re not recognizing it,” she said on my podcast. She said that when she took her current role, she could look at it as “very tedious work.” But instead, she widened her lens and, “got very interested in the broader aspects of data science…(and) kind of developed this idea about citizen data scientists, and I made that a passion.” Therefore, she added, “I would urge people to try to find the passion in the field that they’re in.”

Have confidence in your own work: “I think whenever you’re a woman in a field that is, typically not dominated by women, which is very true in the data space… I think having confidence in yourself and having confidence in the research you’ve done and your own preparation is important,” Martin stressed. Put more broadly, have confidence in your own work.

Speak to yourself as you would a good friend – acknowledge your accomplishments: What we say to ourselves is very powerful. It’s easy to get sucked into the opinions of others, even when we feel good about our education and accomplishments. As Martin told me, “Especially as women, we often talk ourselves down when we don’t realize all the work we did to get where we are.”

Choose your job based on having a good boss, as well as the work: We often don’t realize how important it is to have a good boss, one who respects us and supports us as well as challenges us, until we have a lousy one. Martin feels her boss at USAFacts, Poppy MacDonald, has been very supportive. “Something that I’ve really learned in the past year is the importance of just like really powerful and amazing female mentors. I feel very fortunate at USAFacts,” Martin said.

She has enjoyed the support of USAFacts’ president Poppy MacDonald, so she advises other women to find a supportive boss too. “It’s hard to give that as advice of like, get a great boss, who’s going to empower you and lift you up. But I do think that’s a really important thing to, to look for in an organization,” Martin said, adding that “having that kind of empowerment has just been really transformative for how much I’ve been able to grow in this role.”

Don’t plan your path: “Be really curious and see where that takes you,” Sagraves suggested. As we see people around us advance, we feel like we have to take a particular path, but their path may not be right for you. She encourages us to be curious and open to our own adventure. “Put yourself out there, get yourself educated, take risks. Nobody’s going to do it for you. You have to forge this path yourself.”

“Life is unpredictable. Go for the ride, give it your all,” Sagraves said.

The past two years have certainly proven that unpredictability and that adaptability and curiosity are key.

Listen to Joan’s full interview with Olivia Martin on Electric Ladies podcast here, and with Allison Sagraves here.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com.

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