Data and diversity - two female tech execs share their experiences, good and bad

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels March 25, 2024
Data professionals from EDF and Monzo Bank discuss ongoing diversity issues.

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Organizations need diversity more than ever before but it’s incumbent on everyone in the business to ensure that people from disparate backgrounds feel confident and included.

That was the conclusion of a panel at the Mesh-AI Data & AI Symposium in London, where IT professionals discussed the role of women in data and the benefits that come from a diverse workforce. The conversation was placed within the context of three issues – dealing with bias, building a career, and attracting and retaining talent.

Dealing with bias

Clementine Whitcomb, Data Engineer at EDF, argued that it’s important to recognize that AI models are trained on real-world data, which can include biases and prejudices. Companies must build teams that look beyond homogenous experiences, so models can be checked:

Having many different perspectives and experiences as part of that development process will help us make sure those biases aren't going through unchecked. That’s an important part of making sure that we don't just blindly trust what's coming out of these algorithms.

Valeria Cortez Vaca Diez, Senior Data Scientist at Monzo Bank, talked about the problems she faced several years ago when she applied for a credit card. When she started working for Monzo, she realised her application had been refused because her full surname included a compound that isn’t usually found in UK data patterns.

Cortez said her example highlights the problem that companies face if they’re not careful with data. If you don’t include different perspectives as part of the design process, you might miss problems:

In the case of AI, where it's not obvious where bias could be, a lack of diverse experiences means you’re not able to detect where you might be causing harm. So, there's then not a brainstorm of different perspectives associated with the client.

When Cortez helps to build models to combat financial crime at Monzo Bank, a crucial part of success is ensuring humans ask challenging questions about what data goes into a model. They also look for well-known biases:

We look at what goes into the models – we don’t just blindly pass everything through. There’s a lot of second-line validation, where we make sure we know how the models work. We focus on explainability and ensure we're mindful about the data people are selecting for our models.

Building a career

Despite the demand for diversity, IT is still dominated by males, with estimates suggesting women account for about 26% of people working in tech. Whitcomb said that the key thing that’s helped her establish a career in the data profession is the people she’s worked with at EDF:

It’s about having a support network with role models that support and encourage me. What’s helped me in my career is a culture of openness, where people are listening and there’s cooperation. It’s about the mindset of helping people make the best decisions and become the best versions of themselves. That’s the key difference.

Whitcomb has also benefited from working with senior women leaders in the business. She says people need role models who reflect their background, whether those experiences relate to ethnicity, educational background, sexuality or disability:

That diversity within a business creates a sense of belonging when you know you have a community who have shared experiences and people you can go to for advice. And it also helps you envision your future in that company when you can see leaders who you can relate to.

For her part, Cortez began her studies in Germany and found she was often the only non-German in the room. She felt more confident once she moved to the UK and worked for Monzo:

It was different in the UK because I suddenly found myself in more diverse groups in terms of the people I met, particularly in the tech sector. Having a safe environment helped me have confidence in myself and to not be shy about what I could do.

Representation matters and managers should look to build a safe environment, she stated. First, ensure people in the room come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Second, ensure that striving for diversity is a continual work in progress:

I think that approach creates a bit of a safe space when you know that you're not ‘weird’ just because you have a different background or experiences.

Attracting and retaining talent

According to Whitcomb, it is important that organizations recognise that attracting and retaining diverse talent represents two distinct challenges. When it comes to attracting staff, companies must be careful to understand that unconscious bias can play a part in hiring processes: 

“It’s important to acknowledge bias during the hiring process and put things in place to make sure that it's not affecting the decisions that are being made. That means focusing on things like unconscious bias training, trying to have a diverse panel where possible and thinking about undertaking blind CV screening, which means removing any information on CVs that could be used to put somebody in a demographic and instead basing the hiring decision on their skills.

Cortez argued that the aim of data managers should be to ensure diversity is always considered as part of the hiring process. The key to success is using data to track and trace your approach:

How is promotion changing across different groups? You want to be able to measure that to understand whether something is going wrong and whether something needs to be calibrated differently. So, make sure to measure everything, see where things don’t look good and be proactive.

As well as considering quantitative results, Cortez says it’s important to focus on qualitative sentiment. If you want to retain staff, ask them how they feel about the company’s culture. It’s important to encourage conversations and ensure that people from every background aren’t overlooked:

It’s about having a culture where people feel like they can make suggestions that make them feel more comfortable or feel more like they belong to a community. It's easy to forget that we're not holding a guessing game and we can ask people about their experiences.

My take

An interesting discussion around an ongoing set of issues. Check out Madeline Bennett's What I'd say to me back then... series of articles for many more insights on this theme. 

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