Women Data Scientists of the World, Unite!

The Women in Data Science Conference was created to ensure women will be represented in the data science field. By 2030, they want 30 percent of all data scientists to be women.

The Women in Data Science Conference was created to help women achieve better representation in data science. The conference this year will be held on March 7, 2022—the day before International Women’s Day. (Courtesy of Women in Data Science Conference)

The Women in Data Science Conference (WiDS) was born of a problem: How can we remove the barriers to success that traditionally bar women from accessing the increasingly critical field of data science?

WiDS co-founder Professor Margot Gerritsen is no stranger to this problem. Gerritsen, who received her Ph.D. in scientific computing and computational mathematics at Stanford University, recalls that as a woman and an international student pursuing a degree in computational science nearly three decades ago, there were few people she felt closely connected to—and fewer still who understood the challenges she faced in scientific fields. “You can’t be what you can’t see” wasn’t yet a slogan, but Gerritsen knew she wanted to help break down the barriers she had faced in the field so that other women would not have to overcome the same obstacles.

Along with co-founders Karen Matthys and Esteban Arcaute, Gerritsen set out to help diversify data science. Their vision of an inclusive future for data science lies at the core of WiDS’s mission.

In the current field of data science how data is collected and used as well as who is allowed to collect and use it is extremely limited. Because most data scientists are white men, the kind of data collected and how that data is analyzed often leaves out important groups of people including women, people of color, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people and more.

Margot Gerritsen, professor at Stanford University and co-founder and co-director of WiDS Worldwide. (Courtesy of WiDS)

Gerritsen points out that these gaps in data science can be quite dangerous since limited perspectives and incomplete and biased sets of data are being used to make decisions that will affect everyone. To Professor Gerritsen, having a diverse group of data scientists at the decision table is vital to creating equitable solutions to the problems we face today.

Diversifying data science also allows people from all groups to access what Professor Gerritsen refers to as the “new oil” in an evolving economic world: data. Data is a resource that, like oil and gold, gives economic and political power to those that possess it. Gerritsen believes that diversifying data science ensures that people from all backgrounds can access this growing route to power—not just the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of the world.

Because most data scientists are white men, the kind of data collected and how that data is analyzed often leaves out important groups of people.

Diversifying the field, according to Gerritsen, means identifying and removing traditional barriers to entry. WiDS models how to do this through focusing on accessibility. Rather than charging expensive entry fees, WiDS livestreams the conference and provides all WiDS programing for free so those who cannot afford to participate in person are still able to access important information. For Gerritsen, who balanced being a single mother and a full-time worker early in her career, ensuring that women with diverse needs can access WiDS resources is of paramount importance.

Gerritsen also recognizes that a conference in the United States, representing the perspectives of U.S.-based data scientists, could not address the problems women in data science in different regions of the world face. To avoid this potential disconnect, WiDS created local conferences and programming in accordance with local data scientists across the international stage. They ensure that women throughout the world can access resources that speak to their community’s particular needs. At the same time, this model reduces the negative financial and environmental consequences of conference travel.

Of course, many other barriers have been constructed around data science, which Gerritsen is helping to dismantle. WiDS provides mentorships to women in the field who previously have not been able to learn from data scientists that look like them. Gerritsen cites studies showing that for people to feel like they belong in a specific field, about 30 percent of people in that field need to resemble them. This has inspired WiDS’s initiative “30 by 30,” a project aiming to have 30 percent of people in data science be women by the year 2030.

To Gerritsen, ensuring women can see other women in the field will help them destroy the myth that data science is a field exclusively for men. In constructing the conference and programming around accessibility, WiDS has turned what could have been another expensive and exclusive 20,000-person conference into a network of women working together to find solutions to the problems they face.

WiDS’s goal of addressing the unique needs of women of all backgrounds manifests itself in one of the conference’s most notable events: the two-month-long Datathon. Every year, WiDS challenges people from all experience levels and fields to work collaboratively with data to solve a problem facing the world.

This year, the Datathon challenged its participants to create solutions to climate change that center on energy efficiency. Working in mixed-gendered teams, participants use their unique backgrounds and experiences to contribute to the efforts of the whole WiDS community.

Gerritsen says Datathon inspires creative and collaborative solutions and creates interest in the field for women of all ages. WiDS provides a model for how to create an international coalition of women in data science, working regionally and nationally to diversify the field and solve some of the most urgent problems of our time.

Monday, March 7: Get Involved With the Women in Data Science Conference

The Women in Data Science Conference will broadcast live from Stanford University on March 7, 2022, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT—the day before International Women’s Day. Tune into WiDS Worldwide Livestream throughout the day on March 7 to watch keynotes, tech talks, panel discussions and meet-the-speaker interviews.

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About and

Jacob Smith is a third-year student in the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon pursuing dual degrees in English and ethnic studies. His work is focused on topics surrounding social inequality, discrimination and justice.
Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.