The Case for Women in Big Data

Technological innovation is one of the great stories of the 21st century. Over the past 15 years, technology companies have generated unprecedented wealth at a blistering pace, fueled by smart and capable teams of brilliant scientists and engineers. Today ultra-technical big data companies in the heart of Silicon Valley exemplify growth through innovation and are among the most exhilarating places to work.

Among all of this success, however, it’s hard not to notice that women have played a distinctly small role in the process.  

This perplexing phenomenon has been the subject of much research and debate within academia for the past two decades, particularly among computer science educators at universities and colleges. I myself am currently a professor of computer science at a small, elite liberal arts college in New England where I, and my colleagues, spend considerable time discussing the gender gap and implementing strategies to attract women to the computer science major.

A number of useful observations have come out of this work including an understanding of why women opt out of computer science and other technical careers and how we can combat this tendency by fostering community and promoting female role models.[3] However, an implicit assumption in many of these conversations about the gender gap in computer science has been that a lack of gender diversity among technologists is inherently unfair to women.

The view that we should promote women in technology for the sake of equality understates, I believe, what is the core argument for why the lack of women in computer science is a problem for the tech industry: a lack of gender diversity is bad for business.  

I’m a big data scientist, so I always like to go by the numbers.  Since 2007, McKinsey & Company has been conducting extensive research on the relationship between the number of female executives and business outcomes.[2]  They found that, compared to their peers, Fortune 500 companies with three or more women directors saw:

  • Increased return on invested capital by at least 66%.
  • Increased return on sales by at least 42%.
  • Increased average return on equity by at least 53%.

Catalyst did a similar study of Fortune 500 companies[1] and found that companies with women in senior leadership roles:

  • Increased return on equity by 35%.
  • Increased total return to shareholders by 34%.

These are not abstract notions of equality and diversity for the sake of fairness; this is cold, hard scientific research that links the presence of women in leadership roles to the success of companies.  Unfortunately, at present, the lack of women in the field makes it difficult to recruit into roles at big data companies.

As a woman in computer science, I therefore find it encouraging that others have noticed the lack of gender diversity in my field and are actively working to implement some of the techniques for attracting and retaining women in the industry.  In particular, last year a group of big data practitioners started the Women in Big Data Forum (womeninbigdata.org) whose mission is to encourage more women to enter the big data industry.  The group--which is sponsored jointly by MapR, Intel, Cloudera, Hortonworks, SAP, and IBM--has grown to over 500 members in the past year.  In addition to providing a network of women practitioners, the group hosts meetups and workshops on new big data technologies.

For example, next Wednesday, 5/4/16, the Women in Big Data Forum will hold an all-day workshop at the MapR headquarters in San Jose.  The workshop will feature a half day of training on Apache Drill, presented by MapR Senior Director of Product Management, Neeraja Rentachintala, followed by a half day of training on Apache Spark, given by MapR Principal Solutions Architect, James Casaletto.  The event promises to be an incredible day of learning and networking.  For more information or to sign up, please visit http://www.meetup.com/Women-in-Big-Data-Meetup/events/230550846/

I hope that the Women in Big Data Forum continues to grow and provide support for women in this exciting field.  I applaud MapR and the other sponsor companies for supporting women in big data; after all, it’s good for business.  Last, I’m thrilled to announce that I will be joining MapR Technologies at the conclusion of the current semester as VP of Technology Strategy.  I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be joining such a passionate and innovative group of people who value the contributions of a diverse set of employees.  So count me as one more woman in big data.

[1] Lois Joy, Nancy M. Carter, Harvey M. Wagner, and Sriram Narayanan, “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards”, Catalyst, 2007.

[2] McKinsey & Company, Women Matter series, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012.

[3] Nancy Ramsey and Pamela McCorduck, “Where are the Women in Information Technology?”, Report for the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 2005.

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