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What women can do for data and what data can do for women

For her work during wartime, Florence Nightingale is remembered as a founding giant of British statistics. Those who follow in her footsteps are using data to tackle the greatest health challenge of our time

This year marks both the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and the Civil Service Year of Inclusion. As such, under normal circumstances, May would have seen an important celebration in the UK statistical community – Nightingale is rightly regarded as a pioneer in the gathering and presentation of statistical data, famously reducing the death toll in the Crimean war with her painstaking efforts.

But with most hands on deck, collecting and analysing vital information about the spread and impact of Covid-19, this event passed by relatively quietly. Like Nightingale, our statisticians, which include talented women inspired by her work, were busy collecting data to address a profound health challenge

It’s important that we reflect on the vital role of women like her and continue to push for diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. A diverse workforce is a more productive one, bringing a mixture of different perspectives, experience and skills, making us better equipped for the big challenges.

Women in STEM

In 1858, Florence Nightingale became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS). With her skill for communication and mathematics she brought fresh ideas to the world of statistics, overhauling army and civilian healthcare and saving thousands of lives.

While Nightingale’s achievement was a big step towards the acknowledgement of the talent women can bring to the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), it wasn’t until 1975 that the RSS was to see its first female president, reflecting the slow progress in increasing the number of women in STEM careers and managerial positions in our country.

Research by the Wise campaign suggests that in 2019 women made up 24% of the core STEM workforce. And our own Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that only one in four chief executives and senior officials are women.

When it comes to STEM careers, female candidates can be deterred from entering the profession because they can’t picture themselves represented in it. You need to see it to believe it.  

Young women could also be made more aware of the opportunities available to them. Stereotypes persist and there is still an absence in the media of women being portrayed in successful STEM careers. This, in part, could also account for the take-up of STEM subjects remaining lower among girls than boys.

Thankfully, more is being done these days to attract and retain women in these careers, across government, industry and the education sector.

Opportunities for women

At ONS, around 55% of our workforce is female, and around 37% of our director-level positions are held by women. But why do we have fewer women in senior grades?

ONS is not alone here, and much of the private sector seems to have a similar issue – as you look at more senior positions, there are fewer women. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, says: “Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way, in a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. Opportunities – the good ones – are messy, confusing and hard to recognise. They’re risky. They challenge you.”

So why is it that women don’t benefit from those opportunities as often as men? Studies mainly drawn from the US, but likely to have wider relevance, suggest it is not just about women taking the opportunities but men viewing the behaviour of women and interacting with women differently.

Read more about diversity in tech

It is thought that women who try to be proactive or assertive are more likely to be viewed as “bossy” than men, and women are less likely to hear positive feedback from their managers, while men are less likely to hear the areas for improvement.

There are no easy answers or simple solutions to any of the problems here. But at ONS we have taken some steps, such as increasing representation of women on our National Statistics Executive Group, creating a Women’s Network and running several programmes such as “ONS women into leadership” and “Crossing thresholds”.

But that is only a start. We need to keep focused on the issue, ensure our processes are fair and open, and challenge our own thinking and behaviours.

Gender balance

I am fortunate as I grew up in a family where my mother was a doctor and my father a statistician, so it never occurred to me or my sisters that girls didn’t do science. My elder sister became an engineer and I ended up in tech and data. However, I suspect I am still fairly unusual to have grown up in that sort of environment.

To really address gender balance, it must stop being viewed as an issue for women “to fix”. We need to recognise the strength that diversity brings, and not just in gender balance, but also in terms of sexual orientation, ethnicity, social mobility and neurodiversity. Women can and should support each other, but only by everyone playing their part, whatever their gender, will this issue be addressed.

“At ONS, it’s not just about recognising and rewarding the great contribution women make to the data sector – the data we collect tells us a lot about women’s experience in the workforce”
Frankie Kay, ONS

At ONS, it’s not just about recognising and rewarding the great contribution women make to the data sector, it’s also about ensuring the data we produce reflects the true experience of women. We break down data by sex, whenever possible, giving us the best picture of women’s lives.

The data we collect tells us a lot about women’s experience in the workforce. For example, we know that in 1992 just 62% of women aged 16-64 were in employment, but now it’s 73%. In 2016, the number of women aged 16-64 not in the labour market because they were looking after family or home dropped below two million for the first time since records began. And In 1992 women made up just above a quarter of all self-employed people – by 2020 this was over a third.

Interestingly, we have also discovered that women carry out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men; possibly another factor that is holding women back when it comes to achieving upper managerial positions.

One of the biggest indicators of the position of women is the gender pay gap. Our data on pay suggests women who are working full time are likely to be paid around 8.9% less than men, on average. This is a decline of only 0.6 percentage points since 2012. The issue behind the gender pay gap seems not to be outright discrimination, although that probably does occur. Rather there is some disadvantage or a glass ceiling that means women miss out on higher paid jobs.

We might not have all the answers, but data, and breakdowns in this data, are essential if we want to understand more about inequalities across and within groups and find solutions to tackle them.

Using a variety of data sources and technologies, we can highlight inequalities between the sexes, generations, ethnicities and much more.

We still have a long way to go, but by mobilising the power of data to produce numbers that reflect all walks of life, we can hopefully turn things around and level the playing field.


Frankie Kay is interim director general for data capability at the Office for National Statistics.

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