BLOG: Women in Healthcare Data Science
Rose Penfold highlights key takeaways from a 90-minute panel discussion on promoting women in data science.
By Rose Penfold | Multimorbidity PhD Fellow & Registrar in Geriatric Medicine
When I was approached to co-facilitate a panel discussion on “Women in Health Data Science”, it was a new challenge. I had never facilitated something like this before – and certainly not at scale and live broadcast. However, I knew it was an important conversation to have. The gender gap persists in STEM fields and is not closing quickly enough. In 2020, only 15% of data scientists were women, with a smaller percentage in senior positions1. In the words of American activist Marian Wright Edelman, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Seeing relatable role models and sharing personal journeys is vital to inspire others in the field and to drive the change. Events such as this can catalyse the conversations which become the next big idea.
The seeds were sown many months ago, following a conversation with the Usher team about existing initiatives to promote the work of women in data science in Edinburgh. Fast forward to October 2023, and I was thrilled to co-facilitate this important discussion alongside my colleague, Dr Clare MacRae. Both Clare and I are medical doctors currently undertaking data-driven PhD fellowships at the Advanced Care Research Centre, University of Edinburgh. We enjoy the challenges of working in the dynamic and evolving field of health data and want to enable other women to do the same. The panel comprised women leaders across various sectors, including industry, frontline healthcare, academia, leadership, entrepreneurship, policy and government: Professor Julie Jacko, Dr Riinu Pius, Kirsty Ward and Dr Charlotte Lee-Sinclair.
Our conversation began with exploring the personal journeys of our inspirational panelists into health data. It quickly became evident that there is not one path. We delved into breaking down unnecessary bureaucratic barriers between sectors and how to initiate conversations about working together towards our shared aims. Our panelists had achieved remarkable things in their careers, yet were full of ideas on how to build on their achievements further and, importantly, how we create an inclusive and accessible pathway for women working in health data.
We did not overlook the ongoing specific challenges that women face. We talked about the topical work of Professor Claudia Goldin, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences this year for her groundbreaking research examining factors which drive wage inequality between men and women, including a “care penalty” for those who have children or other caring commitments. It is only through continuing to rigorously identify and speak openly about ongoing challenges that we can collectively develop solutions to address them. We explored the vital role that all of us, men and women, individually play in this and the need for high-level institutional and policy leadership.
Our panelists also shared their thoughts on the event.
By hosting events that empower members of our community to have an even bigger voice and even more impact, we are ensuring that the Usher Institute's tradition of excellence will be sustainable. From my seat on stage, I was witness to the incredible flow of energy and excitement that rippled through the audience as our moderators led us all on a journey of discovery and growth.
I especially appreciated the personal and candid examples that illustrated variety within women's careers in tech. I was honoured to be included in the panel and learned a lot from the discussion with other established health data science professionals.
Events like these can be game changing for women’s careers. I had a fantastic time and I hope that this inspired a few more women to get into data science!
A blog cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of the 90-minute discussion, and I encourage you to watch the full recording of the discussion. However, I will finish with three things that really resonated with me:
Learn a new language
Collaboration across sectors demands an understanding of what people in different industries do, and an effort to communicate effectively with each. Quite often we are siloed and blinkered in our respective fields, but through translation across sectors, we can have a greater impact. Like any language, mastery comes through practice!
Find a mentor – but you don’t need to make it official
Mentorship was a key topic both in the panel discussion and in the Q&A. We talked about the important role that mentors had to play both in encouraging women into data science, and in helping them to remain in the field and to overcome the numerous barriers to progression.
What struck me was the informal nature of many of these mentoring relationships. Our panelists shared stories of mentors who were both men and women and had fulfilled different needs at various stages of their careers. However, all of these mentors – whether formal or informal - provided the perspective and objectivity, networking opportunities, role modeling and emotional support needed for personal and professional growth and development.
Just reach out!
A surprising revelation came when Charlotte mentioned that she could count on one hand the number of women who had sent her a direct message on LinkedIn. But then I thought - how often have I reached out to the inspiring women I follow on social media? And what holds me back?
Since the event, it has been reaffirming to receive several direct messages via email, LinkedIn and Twitter and I have reached out to people myself. This has led to some great conversations and growth of my own professional network.
I would like to thank the Usher team for making this really important event happen and hope that this is just the start of a wider conversation. Changing the status quo is not comfortable or straightforward and requires a concerted effort from women and men across health data science. We intend to build on this event with further initiatives to promote the work of women in data science and to foster cross-sector collaborations across Edinburgh and beyond. We want you to reach out and join us in this endeavour.
Contact Rose Penfold
Email Rose at Rose.Penfold@ed.ac.uk
Follow Rose on X @rosespenfold
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