Women demand change to ‘toxic working culture’ in data sector

Women working in senior positions in Scotland’s growing data industry are still struggling with a lack of self-confidence, with many of them feeling a “toxic workplace culture” must change to give them equal status with men.

Dozens of women were interviewed.

The Women In Data project, led by the Data Driven Innovation initiative, interviewed almost 60 women working in a range of different high-profile roles in the sector.

Poppy Gerrard-Abbott, the project leader and a sociology tutor at the University of Edinburgh, said differences of opinion emerged about what women see as the main problem in achieving equality of opportunity in the data world.

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“Some regard it as a skills gap issue [because] women are socialised into and steered towards specific school subjects and careers,” Ms Gerrard-Abbott said. “They think the challenge is upskilling women and girls, building confidence and delivering more initiatives to keep that STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] pipeline going, to get women into data science and related professions, and then get them to stay.

“Others think the main problem is a toxic workplace culture, which normalises historical male dominance.

“Some say the solution does not lie with upskilling, as girls and women are highly competent and suited to STEM, but rather changing the culture to value the ways women work and encourage women to enter and stay. Change lies in women not being subjected to discrimination or higher workloads, or being overlooked for promotion, sponsored less or paid less than male counterparts. Currently, STEM workplaces are not always right for women – rather than women not being right for them.”

The findings of the project are outlined in Doing Data Right, a supplement examining the ethical questions thrown up in our data-rich world, which is published with The Scotsman tomorrow. The supplement looks at the many challenging issues surrounding our increasing use of data and whether Edinburgh can gain a competitive advantage in data science and data ethics.

A Centre for Data Ethics is being established at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, where 36 PhD students will examine issues around the use – and potential misuse – of data.
Jarmo Eskelinen, head of the Data Driven Innovation initiative, said: “Data holds immense value, but whose data is it? ‘Sharing data increases the value of data’ is a cliché often repeated. However, instead of sharing, corporations are monopolising data, like any critical asset. How can we ensure data doesn’t just congregate around a small number of the largest companies and governments, but delivers public good? How do we protect the data rights of individuals?”

Gillian Docherty, chief executive of The Data Lab, an innovation centre in Edinburgh, said: “When we are working in a global marketplace with no barriers or boundaries, legislating and regulating is very difficult – because legislation and regulation inevitably focus on a specific jurisdiction or industry.” Another key issue is ensuring diversity and inclusion in the workplace.