For Alyson Gaffney, Carlton University’s bachelor of engineering program provided an early glimpse at the gender imbalance which has long plagued the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
She estimates that during her tenure as vice president of social, the school’s Engineering Society included 10 women among its ranks – and 300 men.
That type of lopsided representation has persisted at conference after conference in Gaffney’s professional life, where she now serves as CMO of enterprise data storage and protection company Leonovus Inc. and principal of her own firm, Gaffney Consulting – and is a primary reason she led the charge to bring a regional offshoot of Stanford University’s Women in Data Science (WiDS) conferences to Ottawa, where it will make its bow next week.
“In STEM fields, appearing at conferences is critical if you want to secure funding for research, or build enough visibility to move forward in your career,” Gaffney tells IT World Canada. “I don’t think women always feel comfortable throwing their hat into ring at these events, so by doing this… we help normalize it. And maybe next time, they’ll think about giving it a shot.”
The inaugural Women in Data Science Ottawa conference, which is being streamed on IT World Canada and includes ITWC CMO Fawn Annan among its panelists, took place at Ottawa’s Science and Technology Museum on Monday March 5.
“Data science is a huge topic, so I decided to focus this one on AI, which the Canadian government has made a key strategy,” she explains.
Since beginning at its namesake university in Stanford, Calif. in 2015, the Women in Data Science Conference brand has expanded to include more than 150 events in more than 30 countries worldwide, including in Canadian cities such as Toronto and Calgary, though this will be the first held in Ottawa, Gaffney says.
She attributes the brand’s rapid success to an industry-wide recognition that landing on the speaker’s list at conferences requires networking – and “I don’t mean to be discriminatory, but the network in general is male to male,” Gaffney says. “Men were being invited to speak, and not women.”
Hence one of the only rules that every WiDS event must adhere to: only women can present, though Gaffney is quick to note that both sexes are invited to attend.
“I remember speaking with [Accenture Canada managing director for AI] Jodie Wallis, and she was saying, ‘you’ve got to make sure men are in the room,’ so that they see it as a normal conference,” Gaffney says. “Because as women in tech, we’ve gone to a lot of conferences where it was only men sitting out front.”
In fact, one of Gaffney’s key supporters is Eli Fathi, CEO of Ottawa-based analytics firm Mindbridge AI, who proved to be a key networking partner. His company is also serving as the event’s lead sponsor, to make up for the fact that it does not employ any female data scientists.
“I have had phenomenal support,” Gaffney says, noting that while the list of presenters wasn’t difficult to assemble – “The ladies just came together.” – she appreciates the number of men who have been supporting the event by donating, attending, or connecting her with their networks.
In addition to ITWC’s Annan, Accenture Canada’s Wallis, and Gaffney herself, other presenters scheduled to appear at WiDS Ottawa include Shopify director of data Solmaz Shahalizadeh, Element AI researcher Negar Rostamzadeh, Saleschoice founder Cindy Gordon, and Ottawa University masters student Anika Mukherjee.
“It was important to me that it not just be brand names who are already known presenting,” Gaffney says of Shahalizadeh, Rostamzadeh, and Mukherjee. “I have high school students attending, so it’s really important to me that we give up and comers – somebody who’s working on their doctorate, or somebody who is not native to Canada… that chance. I wanted to give attendees a 360-degree view of the Canadian experience.”
She “absolutely” hopes the conference becomes an annual event, with 200 attending this year, and thousands more watching online.
More than anything, Gaffney hopes attendees leave with “incredible knowledge,” both of Canada’s AI industry and of women’s contributions to its success.
“The idea is to get enough female brands out there that it becomes natural, and we don’t need to have these Women in Data Science events,” she says.