Women are breaking the glass ceiling in every field possible and making a significant mark in the field of sciences tooWomen in Data Science (WiDS) Pune ambassador Sucheta Dhere speaks to SheThePeople.TV about what can be done to motivate more women to work in data science and how it can empower millions of qualified women who drop out of the workforce every year. Some edited snippets from our conversation with her:

Most of us think of data science as a relatively new field, how did you enter it?

Data science is not a new field, but it is becoming more feasible now. AI, machine learning and data science have been around for the last 50 years, but because of the lack of maturity of technology, it was not feasible to have solutions and commercial products around it. It needs very high computing power which wasn’t available earlier, especially at a reasonable cost. Today, the technology has matured; for example, the costs of semiconductors have reduced, their sizes have reduced too, networking speed is very high, so all this has now enabled its popularity.

I started my career by working with embedded programming systems, protocol stack development, connectivity and wireless technology. The technologies have now evolved and now the need of the hour is data science.

The technologies have now evolved and now the need of the hour is data science. So there are problems which we couldn’t solve earlier, but we can now.

How important are reskilling and upskilling to a data scientist?

I have 21 years of experience and have worked on many technologies, a lot of which are now becoming redundant and outdated. So it’s important for everyone to reskill and upskill, to stay updated and competitive.

Sucheta Dhere
Sucheta Dhere, WiDS Ambassador

What role does data science play in the empowerment of women, in fields like business, etc?

Traditionally, women were not even educated. Look at the field of academics and you’ll see that it is women who generally are the toppers. But what happens when they go into the job market? They suddenly become non-performers. Why does this happen? Firstly, the corporate world still remains highly male-dominated and women remain a minority. Secondly, most of the women drop out within the first three to five years of their career due to marriage and maternity. Everyone has a different time to come back, while some never do.

Data science, machine learning and AI are highly IQ-based fields. These are multidisciplinary fields. Which means you need to have knowledge of statistics,  a very strong subject matter domain expertise, marketing and business and you must also have the knowledge of computer science and programming. So in that way it is very complex.

It is very difficult for one person to have all these skills. It takes a lot of time to gain these skills, and since data science is new, you’ll find fewer experts in this field.

But this is a field where once you understand what the concept is, you know how it works, and I think women can easily pick it up, because Maths and Stats are highly IQ based subjects. So it is a very good opportunity for women starting the second innings of their career.

Also, in product development there are a lot of biases. At this upcoming WiDS Pune event, one of the speakers is going to talk about how most of the products in the world are developed for an average American man, not even an American woman. So imagine what must be the current situation in data science, because this field thrives on data. The machine learns everything on the basis of data fed to it. So if the data fed to it is itself biased, or if the people feeding that data or feature engineering it are one-track minded, there won’t be any diverse perspective. Due to lack of diversity, those diverse perspectives are absent, and these factors are impacting product designing and solutions. Women are naturally empathetic and possess other softer aspects which are important in designing, due to which they can do a better job if they are properly mentored.

Today, the way technology has changed, people no more care about the products, they care about experience.

What changes would you like to see at an educational and policy level so that more women enter the field?

First of all our educational system is completely outdated in not only about what they are teaching, but also about how they are teaching it. Secondly, when it comes to teaching data science specifically, before teaching students the professors need to get trained themselves. It is not a theoretical subject, it is learning by doing. So there is a huge gap now, because how will you train so many professors, and just theoretical training isn’t enough, they need to have practical knowledge as well.

Many colleges who do not have autonomous syllabus are still teaching something very outdated, as the curriculum only changes every five years. So when students come out of college, what they’ve learned is already redundant. In fact, I have spoken at several colleges in Pune as a visiting faculty because there are many subjects which the resident faculties cannot teach.

Many colleges who do not have autonomous syllabus are still teaching something very outdated.

Tell us a little about your work at WiDS Pune. What do you plan to achieve by organising this event?

I was looking for areas to get women back to work. There are different types of problems at different levels and empowerment is a huge issue. So honestly speaking, I chose the easiest and the simplest way. I thought, let me target the educated women, who are science graduates, engineers, but sitting at home. You must be aware that there are almost 18 lakh highly-educated women who have left their jobs because of motherhood and so on.

The objective was to motivate these women and give them a platform or avenue to get back to work. Also, when they take a break they completely lose touch with the industry. So the objective of this is to show them some direction, to mentor them, to tell them that if they have to start now, where do they need to start, how they need to reskill. And it isn’t just women on break who have to reskill, all people who are working in this field have to reskill and upskill. The only difference is that sometimes their companies support them.

The whole objective was to give women a sense of community and inclusion, where they have a platform to come, learn free of cost and find opportunities through networking.

What are the entrepreneurial opportunities for entrepreneurs in data science? And how does WiDS contribute to that?

There was a time we use to say, “The sky is the limit.” But now I’ve started saying, “Imagination is the limit.” Data science is one such field where, once you understand what it is, then your imagination is the limit. You can design amazing solutions, ideas, concepts, etc., around it and this is where there is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur is the one who solves a problem, and this is an area where once you understand what are the different applications, how different people are using it, it can be used for anything.

 

How important is it to give women in data sciences a platform to showcase their skills?

WiDS is one of its kind initiatives, with an objective to recognise and encourage women and at the same time, they serve as role models to other women.

All our speakers are experts in their industries. And this also aligns with the International Women’s Day time frame. So it is to celebrate the success of outstanding women in the technical field. In our society in general, there are still biases. There are a lot of areas which have gender stereotypes. Even today, the technical field is considered to be male dominated. But there are women who have gone ahead and broken these stereotypes, they are going to come forward and showcase their skills here.

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