Australian National University’s data analytics courses exceed gender parity

Efforts from the Canberra chapter of Women in Big Data, and support from the government for gender parity, have for the first time helped women achieve more enrollments than men in two postgraduate data analytics programs at the Australian National University (ANU).

ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and organisers from Women in Big Data (WiBD) Canberra, are thrilled by the history-making results for the Graduate Diploma of Applied Data Analytics and Master of Applied Data Analytics.

“It was pleasant surprise, but my Dean [Professor Elanor Huntington] said she knew we could do it all along,” Dr Kerry Taylor, Associate Professor at the ANU and the applied data analytics course convenor, recalls. “The graduate diploma, which is smaller than the Masters, has achieved 50/50, but in the Masters, which is the bigger program and at the higher level, we actually have more female students than males.”

“The increase in participation of women in what are traditionally male-dominated courses is really exciting to see,” she says. “Women are growing in confidence, are aware of the value they bring to government and other sectors, and are willing to invest in their skills. This will bring significant long-term value to the Australian economy.”

Dr. Taylor, who’s part of WiBD Canberra’s executive, is often asked how her postgraduate programs achieved gender parity.

“I want to emphasise that there is no gender-based selection criteria in play here, and we admit all qualified applicants,” Kerry explains. “I wonder whether the admission requirement for work experience, as well as the organisation of the course delivery to suit part-timers, makes a difference. A good portion of our students are public servants, and we do know that the public service has been working to achieve gender equity for a long time now, so we are piggybacking off that success to some extent.”

Another factor is WiBD Canberra’s activities, which include a mentoring program, as well as networking nights featuring presentations by women working in industry, academia, or territorial or national government. The presenters, who are at differing stages in their careers, share their work or research projects and stories in a friendly, supportive environment.

“It serves to give confidence to people wondering whether data analytics is something they could take on, and to show them how interesting and important it can be,” Kerry says. “It is often said that the absence of female role-models keeps females away from male-dominated disciplines, but WiBD demonstrates that there are plenty of amazing female role models working in this space!”

Charmaine McGowan adores numbers and problem solving and knew she’d found her people when she attended her first WiBD Canberra event.

“After spending just shy of 10 years in the public service as a data analyst, and working with men aged 50 and over, the event was a breath of fresh air,” Charmaine remembers. “Prof. Elanor Huntington was the speaker that really inspired me to pursue my academic goals and progress my career. I have since enrolled in the ANU Master of Data Analytics, and the computer science courses I have completed have enabled me to bring my A game to the “boys club” type meetings at work.”

Dr. Taylor has been at the ANU since 2016. She has more than two decades’ experience in roles such as a United Nations big data project with Australia’s national statistics agency, the Bureau of Statistics. Before that, she spent 20 years with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, as a principal research scientist  in the polyonymous IT research division. But her enjoyment of data science and computing science stretches much further.

“For me, the attraction has always been about turning the elegant beauty of mathematics into a living, working beast,” Kerry says. “So much of computer science is about creative problem solving, and a lot of that is building on a mathematical approach, or at least needing abstract mathematical thinking. I get to turn my abstract thoughts into a dynamic near-physical form that actually does something.”

Kerry Taylor, Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander has held various senior roles with tech companies, including business development manager. One reason she joined Women in Big Data and decided to import the model to the Australian capital, Canberra, in 2018, was to correct an injustice.

“There is a significant number of extremely capable women in the analytics and data industry who all too often get overlooked in the male-dominated industry,” she says. Women largely represent an under-utilised resource and the ramification of discrimination against women comes at an economic burden to government and industry. Higher levels of education for women will partly solve these issues. Industry and government need to recognise the economic force women represent and provide opportunities, commensurate with our male peers, inclusive of pay scales and promotional prospects.”

What does Kerry Taylor hope women students will gain from their new qualifications? “A good job that rewards them for their creative and critical thinking, a toolkit of techniques to help them solve problems with evidence, and an urge to find the problems that really need solving,” she says.

Current student Charmaine says it’s great to finally feel like she’s bringing value to the table. “I look forward to the Canberra chapter continue to inspire and support more women as they pursue their STEM careers,” Charmaine says.

That inspiration is one of the goals of the Women in Big Data Forum, which also seeks to strengthen diversity in the big data field, Jane Alexander says. “As part of this initiative, we would like to encourage and attract more female talent to the big data and analytics field and help them connect, engage and grow.”

Some of that talent might come from the ANU applied data analytics undergraduate program, which Kerry Taylor also convenes. “Like our postgraduate program, it is firmly inter-disciplinary,” Kerry says. “Mums, consider sending your sons and daughters along!”

Photographs by Ibidolapo Adekoya
Story by Paris Lord

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