As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we speak to women who have carved a career in data science and analytics to know how their journeys have been so far. While there has been a tremendous increase in the number of women in leadership roles, there is still a huge gap when it comes to women enrolling in STEM fields.
Analytics India Magzine got in touch with Jaanaki Sankar, Partner at TheMathCompany, who has worked with the likes of Tesco and Mu Sigma in the past. She is an experienced professional in retail, technology and digital entertainment industries, with a strong understanding and interest in e-commerce and customer analytics.
Analytics India Magazine: Have you ever faced gender disparity in your career in analytics and data science? How did you fight the obstacles?
Jaanaki Sankar: Fortunately, I have not faced any disparity based on gender in my career spanning across 8 years in Analytics. I have been very lucky to have worked (and continue to work) in forward-thinking organisations with great leaders and mentors. Things have changed in recent years, with both men and women getting equal opportunities based solely on their capability. Though I have not been directly impacted by any gender bias, I have witnessed, over the years, that there still is a general perception that women cannot handle high-pressure environments as well as men can. This can only be broken by proving it wrong.
AIM: Research suggests that girls are less likely to study STEM subjects. How can we inspire young girls to get involved with technology careers?
JS: Our education system is rapidly changing. Girls and boys these days, have a lot more exposure to various fields of study to make an informed career decision. I feel that academically strong women/girls in the younger generation who choose a non-STEM path, make that decision willingly for better work-life balance rather than lack of exposure.
The above is unfortunately applicable only for urban settings while girls in rural settings still do not have the exposure or support to explore STEM subjects.
I think that inspiring girls (especially from cities/schools with lesser facilities) to explore opportunities in technology must start at home by exposing them to the different areas of studies. I personally have always looked out for a mentor to share his/her experiences with me and help me make better decisions. It could be anyone, a parent, a teacher, a friend or a senior. Consistent mentoring and career counselling at a young age (equally enabled for girls in both urban and rural settings) will help more women develop an interest in technological fields of study.
AIM: What would be your words of advice for fellow women professionals who are looking to switch or start a career in data science?
JS: I would advise them to start from scratch and get ready to feel uncomfortable and challenged. A switch to any new career path is never easy, and data science in that aspect is a lot more difficult. Spending enough time in training, acquainting themselves with the subject matter, and understanding the pros and cons of working in this field would help them settle-in faster and make the transition easier on them. Data science and consultancy environment is a lot more challenging for working mothers as there will be some sacrifices and compromises needed, both at work and at home.
AIM: Do you think there is an unconscious bias in recruiting women in technology? If so, what are the ways we can overcome it? Have you faced it in your analytics and data science career?
JS: Yes, I think there is always a bias, not so explicit–that comes from the fact that women are perceived to struggle more in handling high-pressure scenarios and hence, are less preferred for leadership role recruitments than men. Also, working mothers come with certain flexibility expectations in terms of work timings and need more support at work than others. Hence, growing organisations sometimes do tend to prefer recruiting men over women for critical roles. I, however, haven’t faced this directly. While joining back at my previous organisation after my maternity break, I had an honest conversation with my manager who understood my constraints and planned my role accordingly.
AIM: Is there a need to re-starter programs by leading MNCs to help women get back into the workforce after a break? How can these programs help in uplifting women in tech? Does your company have any such programs?
JS: Yes, I feel refresher/re-starter programs would be extremely helpful to women trying to find their way back into their careers after a break. Women generally are always a lot more self-critical and especially women re-joining after a break need a confidence booster that will help them settle-in more smoothly in their new jobs. A refresher program helps in increasing their self-confidence, helps them get up-to-date with the field and will give them a lot more clarity on the kind of role they want to pursue after the break. My organisation is just over two years old and we are in the process of setting up some of these things. MathCo. has good training programs and learn-from-home options for both men and women alike. We will work on developing an exclusive re-starter program for women joining in after breaks.
AIM: What are the various other steps that companies can take to increase the number of women in the technological field or for that matter even retain them?
JS: Training, regular career counselling, flexibility and empathy-all these mixed together will be the most important traits that any organisation would need to increase/retain women colleagues.
AIM: Upskilling is one of the foremost requirements to sustain in the tech-driven industry such as data science. Are there enough opportunities within corporates for women to upskill? How could it be incorporated?
JS: I agree-upskilling is of utmost importance in a tech-driven industry, especially in data science. Upskilling opportunities are not gender-specific in most organisations. More than opportunities being available, I think the challenge for women with upskilling would be to make the time for it. Upskilling is education and any education along with regular work and family responsibilities are challenging. This is another area where I feel the need of a mentor is crucial to guide women with upskilling and help them set that up as a continuous learning process rather than a one-time effort.
AIM: Do women in senior management roles have to tackle the ‘prove it again’ bias?
JS: Sometimes yes. Especially for women who have family commitments and join in after breaks, there is a tendency for the management to ‘assume’ they cannot perform as expected–that puts more pressure on the women to prove themselves to win trust and credibility. It is again a factor of gender-based perception that women struggle when having to multi-task and hence may not be able to perform as well even though they have done it in the past.
AIM: What are the measures that can be put in place to help women rise to senior management roles in data science and analytics field?
JS: Like some of the answers provided above, I think the following will help more women grow in their respective organisations:
- Having regular conversations with growing professional women to understand their aspirations and the challenges they are facing in achieving or working towards them
- Giving them the right opportunities that they deserve
- Supporting training needs after breaks
AIM: Is there a need for mentorship for women to help them accelerate their careers?
JS: Mentorship is extremely important for both men and women. Women thrive a lot better in supportive environments that give them the required attention and support. Mentors will help women get better clarity on their priorities, areas to focus and in turn, make them share their learning as mentors to growing members of the teams.
AIM: What would be your tips for maintaining work-life balance together?
JS: Work-life balance is an overused term that has long lost its real meaning. To be honest there isn’t one definition that can be considered entirely true of this term. It is very subjective and depends on the person’s perception. Having a 4-year-old who needs a lot of attention and care, I definitely find it hard to maintain the balance all the time. There are days I stay pre-occupied with work at home all the time and there are days I require to focus completely on home needs and take it light at work. We must balance it the way it works for us and prioritise based on what comes first in our mind. Planning our duties and tasks well in advance helps maintain a decent work-life balance.
An indication of a bad work-life balance would show on the women’s mental/physical health and performance at work. Identifying any signs of stress early and having the right conversations will help bring in the balance again.