Data analytics: Harnessing the potential of a more diverse workforce

Following a panel discussion at SAS Forum Ireland, Jennifer Major, Head of IoT, discusses why a diverse tech workforce is critical to the industry's success.

Following a panel discussion of inspirational leaders at SAS Forum Ireland, Jennifer Major, Head of IoT, discusses why having a diverse tech workforce is critical to the industry’s success. 

There are various external influences that determine an individual’s potential. Context is a crucial factor. Globally, context and cultures have been seen to restrict many groups’ potential to succeed in the technology market. Although significant progress towards equality and diversity has been achieved, the battle is far from won.

Pursuing equality and diversity is not about being “politically correct” for the sake of it. This is about making decisions that benefit businesses as well as the communities within which they exist. The benefits that previously under-represented groups can bring to science and analytics needs to be recognised. They can give companies a fresh perspective on things, helping to enhance the workforce already in place. In an increasingly competitive world, harnessing this potential will be paramount to success.

 Obstacles to overcome

Many of the obstacles facing excluded groups are cultural. Habitual bias, or the assumption that a certain race, gender or religion is less capable, can exist in many situations, whether explicitly or implicitly. This might be the case for educational institutions, employers and recruitment processes, or just the domestic environment in which people grow up.

Part of the solution is to make our societies, institutions and decision-makers more diverse. A homogenous group may not consciously discriminate against those different to itself, but it is far more likely to privilege similar ideas and perspectives. Diversity isn’t only important to a single race, religion, gender or group – depending on the context, the barriers of bias can limit anyone’s potential.

At the root, encouraging interest in STEM subjects from an early age will help to change perceptions. By focusing on young people as a group and ensuring they have a level playing field on which to start their journey, we stand the best chance of increasing diversity in the field as a whole by helping to build a meritocratic industry.

Equality of educational opportunity is not a new idea, but the need for it is real and pressing. Indeed, in some advanced economies we seem to be moving backwards. In the US, for example, the number of computer science bachelors’ degrees awarded to women peaked in the 1980s and has been dropping ever since.

At the same time, however, there are causes for celebration. Rapid progress has been achieved in BRIC countries where, despite challenges, large numbers of women are eschewing arts subjects for degrees and careers in technology. In China, Brazil and Mexico, women make up 36 percent, 38 percent and 45 percent of the total IT workforce respectively. This is compared to only 17 percent in the UK.

To make further progress at home, we need to address perception problems towards STEM subjects. Old stereotypes of the sciences being the preserve of middle-class white men or awkward social rejects are being undermined every day. Yet those ideas still shape public thought. If children are repeatedly given perceptions that STEM is for a certain or special kind of person, it can reduce the chances they will pursue careers in maths or science.

We are often told that STEM skills can be the foundation of a lucrative career, but is that the most effective message to get children’s attention? In the end, we need to do more to convince future generations that STEM can be fun, fulfilling and useful. Maths and science aren’t all about dry formulae: they are practical and powerful, driving amazing innovation everywhere.

>See also: A-Levels, Gender and STEM 2018

Why ‘analytics for all’?

Without diversity in tech, the same ideas and perspectives will be repeated endlessly leading to a state of stagnation. Increasingly progress in this industry comes from people having different and complementary skills to each other. As data and analytics move closer to the top of the corporate agenda, for example, the ability to communicate simply and inclusively will be crucial.

The real power of analytics is its ability to democratise data for all, from the boardroom to the factory floor and everyone in between. In light of this, each individual should feel inspired to get involved in computer science-related careers.

Last year SAS in the UK signed up to the Tech Talent Charter  – a commitment by organisations to a set of undertakings that aim to deliver greater diversity in the UK tech workforce, one that better reflects the make-up of the population.  This covers organisations in the technology sector and across all other sectors, who have employees in tech roles, and recruitment agencies who are supplying candidates for tech roles.

Despite the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the need for people to be involved in analytics is limitless. The valuable insights human analytics teams can draw from raw data cannot be ignored. With the workload rising, it’s illogical for companies to disregard talent from any particular group. All in all, for the tech sector to succeed a breakdown of cultural barriers and stereotypes is needed to improve businesses’ speed of travel down the path of analytical growth.

>See also: Women’s Equality Day – Time for change in the STEM sector.

About the Author: Jennifer Major has spent the past 15 years at SAS working as a consultant in a range of different industry sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, media and services. Most recently, she was focused on the energy sector – this includes the whole ‘smart’ paradigm of Smart Grid, Smart Homes and Smart Cities. In early 2018 Jennifer took the opportunity to head up the IoT practice for SAS UK & Ireland. Jennifer holds a Bachelor Degree in Mathematics and Drama – which she feels to be a perfect combination for someone whose job it is to communicate the power of analytics to businesses.

Jennifer Major

Jennifer Major has spent the past 15 years at SAS working as a consultant in a range of different industry sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals,...

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