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21 Mar 18 16:00

Yesterday I attended the WiDs (Women in Data Science) Conference at Swiss Re's Centre for Global Dialogue in Rüschlikon, Switzerland. In my role as member of Swiss Re's D&I Council, I was eager to learn more about the state of things for women in the field of data science.

Over the course of recent years, the percentage of women in data science didn't budge - and this was a key reason for the creation of WiDS (Women in Data Science).  Founded by Margot Gerritsen, a Stanford faculty member and Director of Stanford's Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, WiDS has spread across the globe and with conferences in 30+ countries and 80+ regional events in 2017, always attracting female expert line-up of speakers and thousands upon thousands of participants (75'000 last year).

Yesterday's event here in Switzerland was massively positive, engaged and future-passionate - and left me with a deep sense of hope. The conference was sponsored by the who's who of data science smarts, among them Microsoft, Google, McKinsey, IBM, UBS, ETH and, naturally, the Swiss Re Institute as well. Of the 200 participants I'd say that at least 90% were women (and a show of hands revealed that almost a third had come to attend from abroad). In essence, WiDS aims to inspire, educate and support women on their data science career paths and the event delivered, with a very healthy mix of data science insight, combined with a dose of gender focus about career, experiences, learnings and mentoring. 

As I was listening to the keynotes, it was as it should be - I wasn't listening to woman after woman, but to expert after expert. I actually tried to remind myself that this was a conference of women for women and I tried to imagine the exact same talks with men instead of women ... and I do believe it would have been different. While these speakers were obviously professional and passionate about their topics, I felt that they connected more with the participants in the room than an equal line-up of men would have done ... I think that this in itself is a telling glimpse at the power of our gender intelligence differences that, coming together, can help us innovate across the globe, across industries, on every level.

Jeff Bohn, Head of the Swiss Re Institute, was in the unusual situation of opening the conference as the only man on stage. He handled it gracefully, shared a few things about the SRI and were Swiss Re stands with regard to tackling equal opportunity. Kudos to Jeff and everyone at Swiss Re who helped make this conference happen at the Centre for Global Dialogue - participants were over the moon happy with the Centre's famed hospitality. Jeff was followed by Monica Epple (Swiss Re's Head Digital & Smart Analytics EMEA) who talked about her path, her work at Swiss Re and the fact that Swiss Re, at this stage, employs about 150 data scientists. Before she handed over to the next speaker, she shared something about her recent search for a data scientist: Of a total of 80 applications, only 4 of them had come from women. Then she looked into the audience of almost 200 women, smiled and said, "This give me hope."

What followed as a day packed with fascinating speakers and topics, From Javiera Guedes, data scientist at Credit Suisse, who shared her passion for understanding the universe to Microsoft researcher Danielle Belgrave, who talked about her efforts around machine learning for personalized health. Google software engineer Julia Proskurnia went deep on "Efficient Long-Tail Query Classification in Short Texts" and Google product manager Tilke Judd shared insights into building a personal assistant, while Swiss Re's Kornélia Papp explained the work she's doing with NLP (Natural Language Processing). There was more, so much more - here's the link to the program - and here to the speakers (where you can also find their contact details from Twitter to LinkedIn to personal websites). I have a feeling that, if you get in touch with them, they'll gladly take the time to engage further.

A final thought: Outi Simula, McKinsey associate partner, talked about her company's studies where they add numbers to the known concerns, namely that in the near future 40% of tasks are likely automated (and that with current technology). That means that 375 million workers globally have to find new jobs by learning/evolving into other fields. Tied to this, another telling number that carries a warning with it: The McKinsey study shows that 90% of companies recognize their current gap when it comes to digital and analytical skills ... yet only 4% of those companies are ready to close the gap > Automation and the future of work

Data Science is a key element of our future - and it'll be a far bigger key element than is currently acted on. And so, with awareness raising like WiDS, there's hope the many women (and the few men) in the room yesterday will be the engaged and super-smart members of the data science world in the future! 

Category: Other

Location: Rüschlikon, Switzerland


Alicia Montoya - 27 Mar 2018, 8:51 p.m.

What a great idea for an event!

So what did the mentorship discussion cover? I'd be interested to heard about views on what helps the most.

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 29 Mar 2018, 9:35 a.m.

Hi Alicia - the mentoring sessions were in smaller circles for the most part. What was shared during the main talks in the forum was really nothing new that would surprise you. It was a career path experience sharing and tips about what helps women progress.

Alicia Montoya - 3 Apr 2018, 8:16 p.m.

I don't know, try me, you might surprise me. I was wondering if the mentorships suggested were mainly men to women, women to women, execs to less senior professionals or all to all?

I'd also be interested to know if any companies have "institutionalized mentoring" n the sense of creating a pool of mentors and mentees that can find each other but making mentorship part of everybody's MBO, for instance.

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 5 Apr 2018, 3:41 p.m.

Good questions - I'm sure they were addressing during the mentoring session - nothing I'd know, though. My guess is that the good companies have a healthy mix of everything. The gender equal opportunity topic will remain with us for another while ... sigh.

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