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December 06, 2019
[Interview] Women in Tech: Diversity and Inclusion

It is increasingly recognized that a successful workplace depends on diversity and inclusion in any organization. Moreover, we now have proof of the correlation between gender diversity and better business performance. Efforts are made to increase diversity in the more traditional ecosystems, i.e including women in tech, finance or data analytics. However, data show we are not quite there yet: 

Female developers responding to our survey were outnumbered by males by a ratio of 1 to 10 (9% women and 91% men). This suggests a global population of 1.7 million women developers and 17 million men.’ [State of the Developer Nation report, 16th edition]

That said, significant progress has been made in acknowledging the issue, and discussing it openly. We see many inclusion initiatives taking place in different forms and across all fields. In the past, we have interviewed a couple of very dynamic women in tech roles, specifically Silvana and Rachel.

Today, we are meeting with Naomi Molefe, Innovation + Digital Talent Consultant and the SA Chairperson in Women in Big Data to discuss and learn more about this initiative.

In your mission we read “WiBD is an industry initiative with the mission to inspire, connect, grow, and champion the success of women in this field.” Tell us one of the inspiring stories you share with women who reach out to you.

I do not come from a technical background; my training was in the social sciences. I majored in psychology and later completed a business master’s degree in strategic management. When I was interviewing for an internship at data analytics and innovation organisation in Dublin, I told the hiring manager that I did not belong there and that they had made a mistake by shortlisting me. He told me that my business skills were needed by the organisation and my professional background had provided me the kind of exposure and access to leadership that no one in that intern group possessed.

I was selected as one of the 6 interns for that summer and I did not look back ever since. 

The imposter syndrome and self-exclusion is a real thing. I tell the ladies we connect and engage with to be aware of it, but not let it dictate which opportunities they choose to pursue.

What are the questions women that reach out to you first ask? Which problems are they trying to tackle?

There are 2 main types of questions that we get.

The first is:  “How does one get involved in Tech?” (these are women who don’t come from a traditional tech background). The second: “How can I pivot my career and use the skills I have acquired over the years to prepare for the emerging tech roles?” (women who have the technical background required but are interested in the emerging fields like machine learning). 

South Africa, like many emerging markets is leap frogging both in developing technologies and as well as in creating new patterns and ways of working. The demand for tech talent is also huge. Many of the women we engage with seem to be intimidated by the language and framing of how artificial intelligence will disrupt their current roles.

What brought you to WiBD? Where did you kick off your career?

I kicked off my career in academic research with a study that was a collaborative effort between the University of Pretoria and Johns Hopkins University in the USA. It was a phenomenal experience in learning how to collect qualitative and quantitative data and the analysis of it.

I grew into business research and applying it to the search of C-Suite leadership; my reintroduction into Data analytics with tech as an enabler was during a summer internship at AON’s Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA), in Dublin Ireland. When I came back to South Africa, after my studies in Dublin, I wanted to join a community where I would learn as much as I can and grow my Big data skills, particularly for the emerging markets. At the time Big data was not a field that was widely talked about in the media and other forums, so joining such a community seemed like a promising option for me.

I came across an article on LinkedIn by the German chapter lead for WIBD, about an event they would soon be hosting. I connected with her and we started talking about how I could join the community. The more we spoke the more I realised that South African women could benefit from this community too.

So, I was elected to be the founder of the South African chapter. I assembled a team of phenomenal women and we have managed to create quite a significant reach and awareness about careers in Big data. We can’t wait to do more!

Lately we see efforts being made, on a global scale to embrace diversity in all industries. What real challenges are there still for women in tech in South Africa, involved in Big Data?

Breaking into this field is proving to be a challenge because the majority of women in South Africa are in highly administrative roles that don’t require technical skills. We have created training programs in place to assist women who are interested in learning and have an appetite for working in data science or analytics. The programs are beginner and all the way up to advanced level for any topic around Big data.

Fortunately, the companies we have been reaching out to partner with us, have embraced our goal and support efforts to include more women into this field.

This is our first year of operation, and we are confident that the more women become aware of our community, the more our workshops and events will grow. The goal is to help women pivot in their current roles and build on the skills that will help them pursue a career path in Big data.

Most people think that they must be Einstein smart to be in this field; which is not true, anyone can work in Big data. There are challenges around self-deselection and confidence building; particularly because our target audience is women.

And what has been a major breakthrough to celebrate?

We recently hosted an introductory workshop to Machine Learning, for women of all professional levels and ages. We tried to partner with as many community ecosystems as possible, to enable us to reach a diverse pool of women. We focused on bringing in women-centric communities that aim at helping women to develop all types of technical skills- from coding to Ai ethics. We also addressed the broader issue of how to cope with the challenges specific to Africa.
To celebrate our one-year anniversary we are hosting a data challenge hosted by Zindi Africa (a data science competition platform). The exercise is asking participants to provide an estimate of the percentage of female headed households in South Africa, using open source data.

We are extremely proud of this opportunity since it is going to get female data scientists flexing their muscles and connecting with other women in tech and female data scientists on the continent. We will celebrate their efforts when the competition closes (March 2020)-the same month as the International Women’s day.

What would be your message to women trying to get into technology and / or Big Data? How can we have more women in tech?

I always say, start with what you have. The professional skill set, and educational background are a good base that will be beneficial to your chosen field within Big data. Remain curious in finding out how new technologies can help you leverage your current role, Big data cuts across all business functions.
Also, you got this! Don’t let that imposter syndrome tell you any different!

Can you share any KPIs or other indicators that you use to track the impact of your work at the WiBD?

We use different channels to measure our reach and impact. The digital metrics that we focus on are the community numbers on our core social media platforms – LinkedIn and Twitter. We look at the engagement and reach of the forum, because the more people know about us, the more women we will be able to communicate with and attract into the community.

We also look at survey data that we distribute periodically to ensure that we are not putting together content that our members do not understand or cannot engage with. We have video testimonies of members who have attended our events that indicate their sentiment level and willingness to come back and bring friends to other events we host.

Also, we have recently partnered with a telecommunication operator to advertise their Big data vacancies on our local site. The idea is that in the future we will be able to use this metric to understand whether our members are being offered job opportunities that contribute to their professional development and ultimately increase inclusion of women in Big data fields (as per our mission statement).

Do you have a personal vision guiding you? And if so, how is this WiBD part of it?

What has been a motivator for me ever since I was younger, was the power of women, being able to achieve so much with so little. I have always been in awe of my mother’s ability to make more from the little that she has. I approach my goals with that same mindset. WiBD plays a part in that. I live out this vision, together with the leadership team and we are able to touch so many women’s lives with the work that we do. Coupled with that mindset, there is a tenacity that can carry us (me) through some of the most challenging situations, to achieve what we have set our minds to.

WiBD was established by women who wanted to promote evolution in how women saw themselves within Tech. That vision is always guiding us, every time we host an event.

Is there a WiBD upcoming event?

Our latest event was in collaboration with a variety of learning communities for women. Ιt was a workshop on the Ιntroduction to #MachineLearning4womxn by womxn– webpage: https://sites.google.com/view/intro2ml4womxnbywomxn

How can one become a member of the WiBD?

We have communities in Europe, LATAM and North America. Those interested in joining us can check out our global page: https://www.womeninbigdata.org/. If you are based in South Africa, you can check out our local page. Τhere is a sign-on tab you can complete and keep in touch with our activities. (Local website: https://wibdsa.wixsite.com/wibdsa)

Bonus part: To contribute to the effort of empowering women in tech worldwide, /Data will be donating $0.10 for every developer who completes the new Developer Economics survey, to the WiBD South Africa. Take the survey here!

Naomi Molefe @_naomiza or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/naomimolefe/)

Short Bio: Naomi is the Chair for the South African chapter of Women in Big Data. A global non-profit organisation with a community of 14000 women, that aims to connect, inspire and increase the inclusion of women in tech and specifically in Big Data fields. Naomi, is part of the organising committee for the Deep Learning Indaba X 2020; an academic community of African researchers and practitioners in machine learning and artificial intelligence. She considers herself a community builder and diversity talent specialist. She has extensive experience in Executive Talent acquisition and management, across sectors in Mining, Telecommunications, Financial Services and Media Entertainment. Naomi holds a Master of Science degree in Strategic Management and Planning from triple accredited UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, in Dublin Ireland.

women in tech


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