Originally published in The Washington Post
LINCOLN, Neb. — The numbers of women in science and technology are dismal: Barely 18 percent of computer science degrees go to women. Women make up 11 percent of math faculty. Nearly half of the women who graduate with engineering degrees never enter the profession, or leave soon after. As the demand explodes for workers in high-tech professions who can analyze the staggering amounts of raw digital data produced every year, women barely register.
Except in one field: statistics.
The discipline, which used to have all the allure of an actuarial table, has been rebranded as part of the hot high-tech field of data science, or Big Data.
This is where the jobs are. It will take an estimated 2 million new computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers and statisticians to sort through the cacophony of data and find meaningful patterns that will help, among other things, to target customers, track diseases and find crime hot spots.
Here, women are a growing force. More than 40 percent of degrees in statistics go to women, and they make up 40 percent of the statistics department faculty poised to move into tenured positions. Several prominent female statisticians run the departments of major universities and lead major data analytics labs for industry and government. One, Susan Murphy, received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” last year.
There is no one magic-bullet reason why more women go into statistics than other Big Data STEM fields. (They are also well-represented in the health sciences.) Part of it is cultural: Research has found that women tend to be drawn to more collaborative sciences that rely on teamwork and communication.