Data Science, Gender and Equality – Interview with Turing Doctoral Student Corinne Cath

Next week Turing Doctoral Student Corinne Cath will be speaking atFrom Chromosomes to KA-POW”, a special event organised by the Knowledge Quarter to celebrate and explore ideas of gender across science and the arts.

Ahead of the event and to mark International Women’s Day, we asked Corinne to share her reflections on data science, gender and equality.

Is there a scientist that has inspired you in what you do?Profile Corinne ATI

I have many different scientists who are great role models in my life. My current PhD supervisors at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) Victoria Nash, Luciano Floridi, and the members of Luciano’s Philosophy and Ethics of Information (EPIC) research cluster are squarely amongst them. But the most important academic role model in my life is my mother, Inez De Beaufort. She is a professor of medical ethics at the university of Rotterdam. My siblings and I grew up discussing the ethics of cloning and euthanasia. Through her, I developed a strong ethical compass, and a realistic understanding of the obstacles women, especially those who are single parents, face in academia. In my home country, The Netherlands, only 17% of professors are women.

What is your research area at The Alan Turing Institute and what does data science mean to you?

My research area is at the intersection of international relations and digital governance. My research focuses on questions surrounding accountability, power, and ethics in Internet governance and the management of the Internet’s technical infrastructure. This technology influences who can connect to whom, and how. I believe that researching the politics of the technology underling the Internet’s digital information flows is vital to understanding and ultimately improving current societal and political developments.

Humans have always generated data about themselves and shared information. But our current ability to collect, create, curate, and control data and information is revolutionized by modern computing. This increase in the amount and importance of data to our society raises many new questions for a variety of academic fields. And this is what data science is for me. It is the science not just of using data for prediction, or turning data in applications but the broad set of questions raised by the increased presence and importance of data to our most minute functioning as societies and individuals.

Few young women take up technology subjects and careers; just 16% of the graduates in computer studies are women and the figure is 14% for engineering and technology*. Why do you think this is the case?

I think one of the main problems is – to stay within Internet parlance – that there are very strong institutionalized “memes” about which type of people are expected to excel in what kind of professions. Unfortunately, these memes are often based on flawed stereotypes and prejudices. This holds not just for gender, but also for class, race, and a host of other issues. In practice, it means that for instance girls are often not encourage to the same extent as boys to pursue certain interests or careers at a young age. Over the years this adds up. Not just on personal level, but on an institutional level as well.

The challenges and obstacles that women face to access scientific fields vary. Like with most sectors, sexism remains a serious obstacle. But we need to be careful about defining gender equality as the barriers that women face. In my opinion gender inequality can only be tackled when we understand gender as a broad term that includes a variety of gender identities and expressions, and when such gender-based inequality is addressed in tandem with the other forms of structural discrimination like racism, classism, or ableism.

What can be done to tackle gender inequality?

 We need to devise both institutional and individual responses. Institutional in terms of ensuring that institutions, like universities, have good policies in place to ensure not just broad gender equality but equity, policies that ensure that people of all backgrounds can excel. The Athena SWAN charter is a good example of how to set the standard for such policies. Individual in terms of ensuring that on an interpersonal level there is a culture of support, trust, allyship, representation and amplification of voices traditionally underrepresented in academia.

A final word – why is this so important?

The benefits of ensuring that science becomes more inviting to a diverse set of people are plenty. Not only are diverse groups proven to be more creative and inventive, different perspectives invite better and more critical reflection on the issue at hand. The Alan Turing Institute is a good example of an academic institution that has achieved both diversity through institutional means, and by creating a supportive research culture for its students. Considering the immense set of unanswered questions posed by the digital revolution we are currently experiencing, we can simply not afford to lose such crucial perspectives and insights.

To attend the event, book your place here.

The Alan Turing Institute is proud to support the #beboldforchange campaign.

*Data is taken from the Higher Statistical Education Authority (HESA), January 2017, Table 12a.