Tuesday 26 Sep 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023

Jana Marle-Zizkova has been in the data technology business for the past decade, operating out of Singapore and serving Asia-Pacific-based clients in places like Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Most of the time, she deals mainly with men. And more often than not, she is the only woman in the room. After a while, she became accustomed to it.

It wasn’t until she started her own customer data consultancy in 2015 that she observed that women tended to take a step back during discussions on tech and data in the meeting room.

Over coffee breaks, she checked in with these women — who held leadership positions such as chief marketing officer, chief digital officer or chief financial officer — to find out why they did that. One of them openly expressed that it was intimidating for her to talk about data and tech, and there was nowhere to learn about data.

Marle-Zizkova spent some time thinking about it and looked to businesses in Europe for guidance, where there are plenty of organisations with courses to help women upskill themselves in data and tech. In 2016, she organised a hackathon in Singapore in collaboration with a local university, which saw 180 people sign up — but again, there were very few women.

“But the interesting thing was that the winning team had a woman on it who presented and took the lead, and that group stood out. Unlike the rest of the teams that had guys with similar backgrounds and interests, here was a woman who was so sure of herself,” she recalls.

“All the judges were asking questions and everyone remembered her performance, how she explained things. It was really refreshing to hear her opinions.”

On the third day of the hackathon, Marle-Zizkova thought, “Let’s bring all the women here together”, which led to 500 women in Singapore registering for the session. And from there, she got the idea to put together a programme to teach women data and tech. This eventually led her to co-found She Loves Data, a non-profit social enterprise that inspires women around the globe to become active contributors to an increasingly data-driven world.

“I remember going to Australia to meet one of our partners who had told me to do the programme there, and I was surprised because I thought Australia was a much more mature market as women are visibly seen in leading positions, and the person said that was not true at all.

“That was when I realised that equality and equal opportunities for women needed to be promoted. And at the same time, there was a talent shortage for data and tech jobs, which meant that we needed to upskill women too because they are an obvious group that is not represented,” says Marle-Zizkova.

Diversity is needed for the data and tech industry to have better outcomes for all the algorithms and hypotheses it is working on — because when trying to solve a problem, if it is done with a group of people who are similar, the outcomes will be pretty much the same, she says.

“Now with AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning, we need to look at everything we do from different perspectives and one of them, of course, is gender. It is also the background, culture and what a person studied, because what we see is that there is a huge need for not only people who have a technical background but also people with a business or teaching background to upskill themselves in tech. So, when we are discussing hypotheses on how problems can be solved with the help of data and technology, a more diverse group always finds better solutions.”

Marle-Zizkova also noticed that women tend to use high technologies when creating solutions and develop more purpose-driven and meaningful solutions. “I’ve seen women working with Web3 and blockchain, and other new technologies, and making the best out of it. They aren’t out there testing every new tech that comes about,” she says.

Breaking barriers and glass ceilings

At Asia Pacific University, almost 50% of those studying tech, specifically in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, are women. But what happens is that after they enter the workforce and get married, they become caretakers when they have children and take a career break.

This results in women having gaps in their careers, and with tech- and digital-based jobs, where the industry evolves very quickly, it is harder for them to return to the workforce and do their previous jobs. “The career progression is breaking because it is harder for them to come back, let’s say, two to three years later, because they have a gap compared with their male colleagues,” says Marle-Zizkova.

“What I’ve also seen is that women feel like they are not adequate to apply for some positions because of the career and knowledge gaps, and it is movements like She Loves Data that are important to them on their journey of upskilling because we tell them that it’s okay not to know it all and no one does anymore.”

On top of the competence gap is the confidence gap, she says. It is widely known that when women apply for jobs, if they don’t know a large chunk of the skills, they don’t apply for it. Men, however, are confident to apply for a job even if they have less than half of the job’s required skills, with the mindset that the rest can be learnt on the job.

“It is this confidence that we are trying to support by being part of the circle, finding other individuals to be role models, mentoring women to think about how they can advance their careers,” says Marle-Zizkova.

“We advise women to find not only mentors within their organisations but a sponsor as well. A sponsor is someone who is going to open doors for them and support future leaders or their career progression. Role models, mentoring, sponsorships and working on the competence gaps — these community support activities are very important.”

She notes that for change to happen, women can’t do it on their own and need men as allies to carry out discussions and be active in achieving gender equity and equality. Male allies need to be showcased talking about the need for diversity and lifting women in their careers.

Diversity and equality have to start at home, stresses Marle-Zizkova. Men need to be shown that their parents are equal partners, taking care of all things that traditionally hold women back from career progression.

“There needs to be divided responsibility for households and caretaking; showing equal opportunities for women starts at home. I would not be sitting here if my husband was not super supportive of my career. We are focusing on and driving our family’s life based on what I need for my career, and we take turns,” she says.

“I think what we need to talk about is not only what we can do at the organisational level, but also have a real discussion about how we are supporting equality.”

She Loves Data has carried out surveys in the past five years and between 35% and 45% of women say they are at a pivotal moment in their careers, where they want to switch to data and tech careers to future-proof their jobs. What’s more important is that the stereotype that tech jobs involve coding needs to be eliminated.

Marle-Zizkova points out that there are so many jobs that don’t involve coding and only require a fundamental understanding of tech and data. She Loves Data’s entry-level workshop, “Introduction to Data”, showcases what structured query language (SQL) coding is and explains the logic around it so that it does not feel like rocket science.

“We want to show that it is easy and there is nothing to worry about because there is logic in it and you don’t need to know it all. So let’s break this myth that being in data in tech means that you’re a programmer, because there are so many jobs out there that don’t require coding and we need those professionals because of the huge talent gap.

“And I think more women are beginning to understand that. So, let’s give women some hope.”

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