This Women’s Month, QuantifyYourFuture is celebrating the efforts made by two of our partner universities to encourage girls in analytics and thus young women to enter into Quants Careers. Prof. Delia North , dean of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Prof. Renette Blignaut , Professor of Statistics at the University of the Western Cape spoke to us about their Women in Analytics programmes.
Professors North and Blignaut have run an annual Women in Analytics event, aimed at girls in Grade 11 and their teachers, since 2019. After attending a conference together in Dallas, USA, they decided to create an experience that would introduce young girls to the world of Quants in a unique way.
“I wanted to create something special to introduce them to analytics and to women who are succeeding in the field,” Prof. North says. “And not just the girls, but their teachers as well, so that the conversation can continue in the classroom.”
How the programmes work
Sponsored by SAS, both the UKZN and UWC events in 2019 took the form of a high tea, at the Oyster Box in Umhlanga, and the Life Sciences Auditorium in the Life Science Building at UWC, respectively. “The idea was not to have people standing up and talking; that’s boring,” Prof. North continues. “Instead, we created cells of people around a table – the five top girls from a school, their mathematics teacher, and a postgraduate student or a young statistician in industry who could answer questions and share their experiences.”
UWC followed a similar model of creating interactive cells. “We held our event on campus because we have beautiful buildings that could accommodate the 80 learners and their teachers,” Prof. Blignaut says. “We were targeting learners from selected schools in the City of Cape Town area, and we wanted to use the opportunity to give them a glimpse of the university as well.”
In 2020, the events had to take on a new format as the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person functions impossible. So, Prof. North set about creating “tea in a box”, while Prof. Blignaut ran a competition in which the girls had to submit a paragraph about what a data analyst does and where they work to win a prize. Both universities delivered eats, treats and information about the field of analytics to their target schools and, though hosting their events online made things a little more challenging, it also allowed both universities to reach a bigger audience.
One of the things that makes these Women in Analytics programmes special is the ongoing engagement with attendees and the professionals and academics they meet on the day. “We are still communicating with the girls that are interested in data science and analytics,” Prof. Blignaut points out, “so we can guide them through their university applications and answer any other questions they have relating to data science and careers in data science.” Attendees are linked up with mentors, creating role models who can continue to teach them about careers they may not otherwise have known existed.
“For every top achiever you can reach with an event like this, you create influencers amongst their peers,” Prof. North points out. “Other smart young people look to the top achievers to see what they intend to study and where, and I’ve been contacted by boys and girls alike to find out more because they spoke to someone who attended our event.”
“This is also why we included the teachers, and gave them teaching materials for their classrooms,” Prof. Blignaut adds. “We want to enable them to promote careers in analytics, for years to come.”
Why the programmes matter
The Women in Analytics events at UKZN and UWC are important for many reasons. Firstly, and a major driver for both Prof. North and Blignaut, is South Africa’s unemployment rate. “59% of our youth are unemployed,” Prof North points out, “and even more frightening is that 33.1% of graduates are unemployed. Career guidance at school is often poor, so too many young people end up studying degrees that are not in demand and won’t get them employed. So, we target Grade 11s to introduce them to the opportunities in quantitative sciences before they start applying to universities.”
She continues: “You don’t have to major in Statistics or Analytics to be more employable. Even an elective module or two, as part of any other degree, already makes your career prospects that much better.”
The demand for 4IR skills is another key driver. “Making sense of vast volumes of data is the most important thing for any company at the moment,” Prof. Blignaut says. “Young people who can analyse and interpret these volumes of data will be highly employable for the foreseeable future.”
Prof. North agrees. “Everything is connected, everything is electronic. It’s not just about numbers, it’s about digital fluency and enabling evidence-based decision making in all kinds of businesses.”
The flexibility of a degree in data sciences and analytics is another reason Prof. North is so passionate about this initiative. “If you’ve decided to do core mathematics at school, a degree in analytics teaches you general skills that can be applied in any industry. For example, if you’re interested in aeronautics, you can use your analytics qualification at an airline, an airports management company, in the air freight sector or at an aeroplane manufacturer – all in the same field, but very different applications.”
“It was a really rewarding exercise for everyone involved, and it’s broader than the university,” Prof. Blignaut concludes. “Talking to the kids and engaging with the teachers and principals, introducing them to career choices they didn’t know about and letting them know that they can earn a good salary doing analytics, was extremely rewarding.”
Both universities intend to host Women in Analytics again in 2021. Prof. North has also recently introduced a similar initiative for boys – Dudes in Data.