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From Talent Pool to Talent Ocean: Plugging the leaky talent pipeline by building a data workforce with diversity

Simon Walker, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Kubrick
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Businesses are striving to become data-driven and harvest the value this approach will bring. Yet, the misconception that transformation is rooted in the technology which facilitate it prevails; technological revolution is ignited by the people who understand it, who can take advantage of the data they hold and turn it into meaningful insights. Without such talent, these organisations will be left behind.

As the pace of technological advancement accelerates, organisations must first contend with the digital skills emergency – a widening chasm between the skills of today’s workforce and those required to harness the power of data and next-generation technology.

The skills crisis is no longer a theorised outcome of rapid change, but a reality which is being monitored and reported on by the likes of Microsoft[1] and the BBC[2]. Accessing cutting-edge technologies whilst overcoming the shortage of the skills required to do so might seem like a catch 22, but we can break the cycle – and gain better solutions – by challenging the status quo of who belongs in our data workforce.

Just 15% of all data scientists are women[3]

The skills gap is bolstered by an alarming gender divide – less than 18% of technology roles are held by women, a figure which has more or less plateaued throughout the last decade[4]. There are some effective short-term tactics for recruitment processes to increase the number of female-identifying applicants, such as word-replacement tools to remove biased language in job descriptions or events designed to target candidate segments. However, the talent pipeline which feeds the technology workforce is leaking at a much earlier stage than career entry.

The technology community operates in an antiquated system which often deems STEM education routes as a prerequisite for a career in data, blocking the path for the majority of female graduates. Despite successful national campaigns to promote female enrolment in STEM subjects, who overtook the number of male entries in A-Level science exams in 2019[5], systemic challenges mean at university-level, only 35% of STEM students identify as female, and they make up just 19% of students currently studying computer science[6]. The organisations which remove the limitations of STEM-only hiring and seek analytical capability with a wider lens will inherently access a much larger talent pool from which to bridge their skills gap, whilst simultaneously improving their gender diversity.

More than a quota

At the breakneck speed of change for both the technological and social landscape, leaders are under extreme pressure to rapidly build their teams whilst addressing a long-neglected gender imbalance. Businesses which are tackling their diversity and inclusion challenges are already reaping the rewards, seeing improved financial performance year on year[7]. But the call for action should be most directed towards data teams, who, without diverse representation, risk producing biased analysis and insight that does not speak to their customer or internal needs. The more inclusive the data function, the better the questions asked of the data and thus answered to achieve more impactful decision-making. Moreover, businesses are becoming accountable for making tangible changes in their teams as public awareness of the systemic issue grows. For example, Caroline Criado Perez’s 2019 book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, which revealed the harm of gender bias from transport design to pharmaceutical testing, became a Sunday Times bestseller.

Increasing gender diversity presents another exciting opportunity to improve technology solutions beyond engineering, managing, and analysing data. By expanding the talent pipeline to include graduates from non-STEM backgrounds, leaders can gain access to a whole range of complementary skills, like problem-solving and communication. Such skills not only bring a fresh approach to data challenges but ensure the products developed meet commercial need, are well-integrated into the wider business, and deliver value, rather than alienate or confuse their non-technical users outside the data team. It is these strong communicators who are your data champions, possessing the power to influence and even teach data literacy to fellow colleagues, creating the enterprise-wide engagement with data that an organisation needs to classify themselves as truly “data-driven”.

A pipeline to supply an ocean  

Revolutionising the entry criteria into the data industry is just the start. Businesses are at a watershed moment where resiliency is intrinsically linked to their ability to thrive, yet with key skills missing from the workforce, the speed and trajectory of their journey to digitise and adapt is thrown into question. In fact, recent Alteryx commissioned YouGov research found that fewer than a quarter of the UK’s data workers have the necessary skills to help them get there with advanced analytics. 79% of UK data professionals rated their skills as above average, but only 33% felt they were capable of completing the most basic data tasks and just 29% could use data to deliver any business value.

Given the ever-evolving nature of technology, leaders must not fall into the trap of simply investing in the latest tools but drive upskilling programmes to help their teams recognise that self-improvement is a career-long priority, with access to certification opportunities. And though transformation is propelled by a cultural shift to embrace change, the right technology can make the transition a whole lot easier. Choosing self-service data analytics tools with preconfigured workflows allow any employee to safely and accurately explore their organisation’s data.

Most concerningly, looking beyond the talent pipeline and into the workforce at large, the gender divide only widens – just 15% of technology leadership positions are held by women[8]. If organisations are committed to creating a more balanced and effective data function, they must actively combat the lag between increasing female representation at entry level and their progression to senior roles and implement development initiatives to support their female data champions on the path to leadership. Cultivating an inclusive environment to build confidence and drive success has never been more important: of the 79% of professionals which believed their data skills were “above average” in Alteryx’s research, only 28% of these respondents were female.

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Simon Walker, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Kubrick

References:

[1] Microsoft launches initiative to help 25 million people worldwide acquire the digital skills needed in a Covid-19 economy

[2] DISCONNECTED – THE IMPENDING DIGITAL SKILLS DISASTER

[3] What’s Keeping Women Out of Data Science?

[4] Workforce statistics September 2020

[5] Education Secretary wishes pupils and teachers good luck for A Level Results 2019

[6] Percentage of women in stem – statistics

[7] Diversity wins – how inclusion matters

[8] Workforce statistics September 2020

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