How to increase representation of women founders and CEOs in data

Only 10% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies identify as female. Pipeline problem again?
Last updated
May 2, 2024

Working in a male-dominated field

Back in 2011, when I started my career in data, it was not uncommon to be on data teams that were very male-dominated. Coming from an undergrad degree in Psychology (typically a female-dominated practice), I noticed the shift. My first role out of university was at a startup here in Toronto, a social media marketing company that was very heavily data-focused. Aside from my manager, who was also female, I was the only woman on the team of 5 analysts. When my manager moved on, a male peer was promoted to take on her role, making me the only woman on the team.

After moving on from that first role, I worked as a data analyst at a few different companies over the next several years. In all of my roles, except for one, I directly reported to male leadership and was the only female on my team. The one female manager I reported to was not in a data role.

At the time, this never felt weird, or necessarily a problem–I always got along well and fit in with my teams. But in reflection, this did mean that I didn't have female role models to look up to in data leadership positions.

Interesting statistics

Throughout my career, anecdotally it feels like the problem of gender representation in the data industry has gotten slightly better. In my most recent role before joining Secoda, I managed an all-female data team.

However, a quick Google search returns some stats that suggest the data industry is still a majority male-dominated field (especially in more technical roles such as data scientist or engineer):

  • “Women are hugely under-represented across STEM fields, and the Data industry is no exception – as things stand, male Analysts and Data Scientists outnumber their female colleagues 4 to 1.”–Women in Data
  • “Women hold just 18 percent of data science jobs in the United States, and the problem is worse in most lower-income countries, where women are less likely to have access to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that provides a gateway to a career in data science.”–CGDev
  • “According to WES, only 46 percent of girls 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 70 percent of boys, however, this drops even further in years 16-18 with just 25 percent of girls considering a career in engineering compared to 52 percent of boys”–Data Center Dynamics

But just wait, it gets (a lot) worse

A recent experience made me realize that this problem is a lot worse when you start looking at more senior data roles. Back in June of this year, I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend Snowflake Summit in Las Vegas. While attending one of the evening networking events, typically filled with many CEOs and co-founders of data companies, a male colleague of mine noticed it first: “There’s…almost no women here”. As I started to look around the room, it hit me–I was one of only a handful of females in the crowd of a few hundred people.

While this experience kind of sucked, it is pretty well known that this problem certainly isn’t unique to the data industry.

When you look at the C-suite or executive level, across all industries, the representation of women drops dismally:

  • Only 10% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies identify as female, and ¼ of them only became CEOs in the last year (source)
  • Only 23% of executives around the world are women. Alternatively, 29% of senior management, 37% of managers, 42% of professional roles, and 47% of support staff positions are held by women (source)
  • It took until 2023 for the number of women CEOs to outnumber “CEOs named John” 🤦
  • Women of colour accounted for less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs in 2020 (source)

Gathering some data of our own

Out of curiosity, and to add some data to my Snowflake Summit experience, I gathered information about the founding teams of ~60 data companies in the space (~120 individuals). Unsurprisingly, I found that 10% are female (disclaimer: I assumed gender based on LinkedIn profile information).

I decided to dig a bit deeper and looked at the investor and founder pages on the websites of companies in the data space…and, well, started to notice a pattern:

With dbt Coalesce just around the corner, I also decided to check out the speaker lineup and noticed that only 25% of speakers have she/her pronouns, and all CEO/founder speakers have he/him pronouns.

A panel discussion to shed more light on the issue

Snowflake Summit was a few months ago now, and I’ve found myself ruminating on this problem and noticing it a lot more. If women pursuing data careers have aspirations of reaching the C-level or founding a data company, it feels like the cards are stacked against us.

Luckily, the timing of all this happened right around the same time that Dexter Chu, Taylor Brownlow, and David Jayatillake, and I decided to host a community-led virtual conference, called MDS Fest. This provided the opportunity to organize a panel discussion to learn more about this issue and get other people talking with me about it.

I started to work on putting together the panel and found four wonderful women who were willing to participate–Gabi Steele, Leah Weiss, Mico Yuk, and Stefania Olafsdottir–all founders and CEOs of various business ventures. I intended to discuss how they reached their level, what inspired them to go on that path, what roadblocks or challenges they faced along the way, and any advice they had for other women looking to start their own company (or reach the C-level). Unsurprisingly, we had a great discussion and each panelist shared critical insights about how to pursue this path.

I learned so much in those 50 minutes, (in part 2 of this blog post I will dig into the discussion points and insights they shared), but I think the biggest takeaway, for me, was:

  • Less than 3% of VC funding goes to female-led companies (source)
  • This quote: “I also have to be honest that it is a bit complicated sometimes, to have to speak on behalf of these issues. There's a moment when you're invited to do something, or when you're invited onto a stage, and then you realize that it's like International Women's Day or something. It's hard, because it's important to speak about, but people who are not women are not held accountable for these things in the same way. It doesn't take up their professional life in the same way.”

Given how I had just started to dig into this problem for myself, both these pieces of information stuck with me, and I felt compelled to keep this conversation going.

I immediately felt the need to get more people involved in this conversation to continue the dialogue.

A lack of female leadership in the data community, let’s dig in:

So, with that background, I'm excited to announce the launch of a new podcast to dive deeper into this topic {{ the name is still a work in progress 😅}}. This podcast will have a central focus: What needs to happen to increase representation of female leadership in the data community, especially at the executive and founder levels? The goal will be to better understand the problem of under-representation and get more people involved in the conversation–not just the women who are making it to this level. I hope that bringing more awareness to the issue will help us understand how to improve the problem, and ultimately increase the proportion of female-led data companies. Because I believe we can, and absolutely should, be doing better.

If you're interested in telling your story, or know any great potential guests, send me a note on Linkedin and let's connect!

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