September 27, 2022

Breaking into Data Science – 5 Tips for Aspiring Female Data Scientists in Africa.

During our recent webinar, Women in Data Science: Breaking the Bias, hosted by Eunice Baguma Ball, co-founder of Ishango.ai, we were privileged to be joined by two brilliant female data scientists, Jessica Irving and Winifred Asante. They shared their journeys overcoming bias and charting their course with the data science field.

Here are 5 key takeaways from the discussion:

1. You Will Come Across Many Nay-sayers, Do Not Give Up

From an early age, women and girls are generally discouraged from pursuing or even excelling at STEM subjects by virtue of their gender. Jessica shared how she developed an interest in coding when she was about 9 years old. However at school, she found that computer science was heavily discouraged as an option for girls and she ended up abandoning the subject. 

She later found her way into the data science field whilst studying for a Masters degree in Psychiatric Research which included some statistical courses. Her passion re-ignited, she taught herself to code using free online courses and is now working as an applied research scientist.

2. Use Your Passion to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

In male dominated fields like data science, women are often unfairly judged by their gender and not their skills. This can fuel a sense of not belonging. 

Cultivating resilience and letting passion propel you forward can help to overcome imposter syndrome. You will not know how powerful or skilled you are until you start learning. Data science is simply a tool which can be combined with whatever passion you have to understand problems and find solutions in any space. 

Combining data science with the things that you are really passionate about can help to build a sense of belonging and also make you stand out and excel. For Jessica, her passion for solving health-related challenges has helped shape her career and enabled her to build unique expertise. 

3. Learn from Male Allies

Male allies are critical to levelling the playing field for women in STEM. Both Jessica and Winifred shared how male role models had played a crucial role in their career path. For Jessica it was her father, a computer scientist, who encouraged her interest in computer science. 

Winifred was inspired by her brother who studied Physics and Mathematics at university and encouraged her on her own path to pursuing a Bachelors  and Masters in Mathematics.

It may be quite unfair that female data scientists and women in other STEM careers have to keep proving themselves in order to belong, however, until some fundamentals in the system change it may take a while to see a higher level of equity. Until then, women are encouraged to identify their male allies in their respective fields. Talking to them can give you some insights on how to navigate the space.

4. Give Yourself Room to Fail and Learn.

Remember that you are not expected to be perfect, only willing to learn and evolve. Be okay with not knowing everything and keep learning. Talk to others about your doubts and fears; you may be surprised to find out that they equally have their own doubts and fears and are also learning each day. 

Ishango co-founder, Eunice, described how she was able to have a mindset shift just by talking to colleagues and mentors within her field. Soon, she discovered that some of the people she looked up to were comfortable with not knowing everything and were not afraid to fail. 

This was a turning point for her because once she resolved to emulate this confidence and accept that it was alright to not know everything she was able to overcome a huge mental roadblock. For her, embracing the fact that there was room to fail and owning her learning journey was very pivotal in her career.

5. Celebrate Your Career Achievements

Get the work done and let that fuel you. While at it, remember that your work speaks volumes about your capabilities so when in doubt, let your work do the talking. As a female data scientists It is easy to forget how amazing you are if you do not pause to take stock of your achievements and recognise that you actually achieved all those things because you put in the work. 

Every so often, you should take a step back, look at your accomplishments, celebrate them and remember you deserve to take up space because you worked hard for it. Winifred, for example, worked hard and got selected, out of many applicants, for the very competitive Ishango Fellowship; that is a remarkable accomplishment which deserves to be celebrated. 

Let the outcomes of your work give you a greater reassurance that you are where you are because you absolutely deserve to be there and nothing can take that away from you.