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Women in Data Science; an extensive analysis by SARAO


Rhodes University PhD student Isabella Rammala at the Big Data Africa School in Cape Town, 2019

Photo credit: SARAO

Women are under-represented in data science and steps urgently need to be taken to ensure that they are not left out of the inevitable transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). A detailed and rigorous report produced by SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) uses DARA Big Data as a case study to look at the wider picture of  women in technology. The report can be found in its entirety here






The report authors are Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital, and Monushia Zimri, an intern at SARAO in the Human Capacity Development division. Dr de Swardt has been instrumental in putting together the annual Big Data Africa Schools in South Africa and has worked hard to ensure that women are well represented at these schools. However, it is often the case that women do not apply to take part in data science activities at the same rate as men, making it difficult to balance gender splits. The report looks at why this might be and what can be done to address it. 

Some of the statistics included in the report are;

  • Women make up a minority of the STEM workforce internationally; less than a third of science researchers are female

  • The 2020 Global Gender Gap report showed that only 26% of professionals working in Data Science and AI are female

  • According to this same report, at current progress rates it will take 95 years for Sub-Sahara Africa and 140 years for North Africa to close their respective gender gaps in the general workforce

DARA Big Data's human capacity development programme aims to equip those in the African VLBI countries with the skills needed for data-driven science and working with big data. The project has been running since 2017 and works closely with SARAO to develop this training. Dr de Swardt saw that DARA Big Data 'represents a unique opportunity to gain early insights into the gender gap in developing frontier skills and data science capacity in Africa', looking at all aspects of the training delivered, including hackathons, workshops and postgraduate scholarships. 






The figure below (taken from page 11 of the report) shows the volume of applicants to the Big Data Africa School by gender and the resulting gender participation rates. Much progress has been made since the inception of these Schools, but it is clear that males feel much more comfortable applying to take part in this type of event than females.  

Similar rates persist across the board; DARA Big Data hackathons and scholarships also receive many more applications from males than females. Women are missing vital opportunities to progress in STEM fields; to find out why SARAO conducted a survey of female applicants over the last few years. Survey results indicated that 'many of the female applicants experience some form of self-doubt in their technical skills that may inhibit them from applying'. To try and combat this the survey asked what could be done to provide more support to women, answers included providing more mentorship, having a inspiring visible community of female data scientists and targeted marketing towards women with the potential of all-female events. A table with recommendations to build women's interest and confidence in STEM events (taken from page 26 of the report) is shown below. 






It is worth noting that the last 3 hackathons held by DARA Big Data (Zambia, SGAC and UEM) only had around 30% of female participants at each event, owing to lower application rates. However on average women made up almost 50% of the top placed teams, proving that any doubts about a lack of ability are completely misplaced. By implementing the excellent recommendations in this report it is hoped that women across Africa and beyond will realise their place in this technological age and will take every opportunity to build their data science skills and knowledge, becoming an integral part of 4IR.  The report, with full details of everything mentioned here plus a wide range of statistics and student testimony, can be found on the link below. 

SARAO Women in Data Science Report; March 2021


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DARA Big Data MPhil student Deborah Akuoko talks fellow students through her research

Photo credit: DARA Project


A hackathon participant at the University of Zambia 

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The winning teams from the SGAC virtual hackathon (above) and the University of Zambia hackathon (below), both 75% female

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