Innovation Saskatchewan is responsible for implementing the province’s innovation priorities and helping grow Saskatchewan’s tech sector. Effective April 2022, this includes operation of the Innovation Place technology parks in Saskatoon and Regina.

WiDS Saskatoon Highlights Work of Women in Data Science

If you zoom in on this map, a bright blue peg stands proudly in the middle of the Prairies announcing the first Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference happening in Saskatoon at Innovation Place on March 2, 2020.

WiDS Saskatoon was spearheaded by Janelle Bersheid, a graduate student at the Computational Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics Lab at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), after she scanned the regional events for the closest conference to Saskatoon. “The nearest one was in Calgary, nearly seven hours away,” Berscheid told Innovation Place via email. “You'd never know that there was exciting and important data science work here or a budding data community.”

So, she decided to put on a WiDS event and suffice it to say, there was a lot of enthusiasm. “This event was not difficult to organize at all!,” Berscheid said. “When I put the idea of holding a WiDS Saskatoon event out there, four other wonderful women -- Czarina Catambing, Stephanie Goertzen, Ellen Hunks, and Karly Stack -- enthusiastically jumped on board right away to help plan and organizations were excited to support us right from the beginning.”

The conference features presentations from Briana Brownell, founder and CEO of Pure Strategy Inc., on the current state and future of data science, and Mayra Samaniego, computer science PhD candidate at USask, on data science and artificial intelligence for the agriculture of the future. It also includes a panel discussion on a day in the life of a local data scientist featuring Karly Stack, Business Intelligence Manager at Vendasta, whose work involves surfacing data insights to product managers and understanding user behaviour and customer retention; Kiara Calladine, Data Analyst at 7shifts, whose work involves measuring the success of new feature adoption and gather information on customer engagement; and Berscheid, whose work concerns how data is used within institutions and societies and the long-term impacts and ethical pitfalls of data collection.

Innovation Place is pleased to sponsor WiDS Saskatoon, an important addition to Saskatchewan’s tech sector that allows it to continue to shine a light on its success and an opportunity for its enthusiastic community to continue to grow.

“People are hungry for this kind of event in [Saskatoon],” says Berscheid. “[They’re] looking for more community and mentorship in data science locally, or are interested in data science but have no idea where to begin.”

“The tech community in Saskatchewan is rapidly growing and most companies are making their way to be a top tech company in the country,” said Stack in an email to Innovation Place. “WiDS Saskatoon provides key opportunities for people to share experiences, ideas, and knowledge.”

WiDS Saskatoon also addresses that thorn in the Saskatchewan tech sector’s side: location.

“Saskatchewan is fairly removed from the larger tech hubs and centres, so it’s important for us to band together locally to learn about data outside of academia and industry,” said Calladine in an email to Innovation Place. Calladine notes that though most events and conferences occur in large areas like Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver, Saskatoon serves as a natural meeting point for people across the province.

“The Saskatchewan tech ecosystem is very community-based right now [and], because we aren’t as large as some tech hubs, there’s this real sense of connection and camaraderie,” says Berscheid. “I hope we can continue to leverage the strengths of what is unique about Saskatchewan, even as the tech sector begins to expand.”

Yes we’re women and we’re in data science

The WiDS conference was founded in 2015 by Margot Gerritsen, Director of Stanford's Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, and is now the largest data science conference in the world and includes approximately 150 regional events. The conference aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide, regardless of gender, and to support women in the field through involvement and amplification of their work rather than an explicit lens on the issues of “Women in Data Science.”

“I most appreciate that [the WiDS conference] takes as a given that the women featured are doing excellent, technical work and have insights worth listening to,” said Berscheid. “Aside from the fact that all the speakers must be women, there is no explicit mention of diversity: this is a technical conference and the work stands on its own.”

This shift in focus speaks to the fact that women and marginalized people are often included in discussions only to speak about how their identity impacts their work rather than their actual work. WiDS tips the scales from tokenism towards balanced representation by providing space and a platform for women in data science to talk about their work and normalizing women’s inclusion. “[WiDS] shows people in the field that women are here, and we are interested in showing everyone else what we’re capable of,” says Calladine.

Paradoxically, more women are graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, yet STEM continues to be a male-dominated area, according to Stats Canada, creating what is known as the gender gap.

Underrepresentation of women in STEM is not a new phenomenon, but the focus stubbornly remains on factors surrounding women getting into STEM rather than women staying in STEM. “Retention problems are culture problems. Fixing some of the issues with tech culture, workplace policies, and the broader discourse surrounding women and their work would be a great start [in addressing the gender gap],” said Berscheid. Both Calladine and Stack agree suggesting that having discussions about STEM at the high school and middle school level and creating specific pathways for women could help awareness and combating biases. “Mentoring programs and communities around STEM could help,” said Stack. Studies also continue to show that diverse workplaces, including those with greater gender diversity, are on average more creative, innovative, and more profitable.

“That's not to say that diversity discussions don't have an important place in the discourse,” said Berscheid, “but WiDS is not that place. WiDS is important because it is inclusive, but not about inclusivity.” Instead she sees WiDS as more of an antidote to some of the problems facing women in STEM like retention and acknowledgement.

One key issue all women spoke about was the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome -- the feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. “Imposter Syndrome is very common and something I combat a lot -- especially at the beginning of my career,” said Stack. Berscheid agrees, noting feelings of Imposter Syndrome are “totally normal” and potentially better than the alternative of being a Dunning-Kruger -- someone who assesses their cognitive ability as greater than it is. But Stack is quick to note to not let Imposter Syndrome deter you from your goals or potential job opportunities. “Even if you don’t have every qualification, you could be the exact candidate they are looking for!”

Hope For A More Diverse Data Science of the Future

Bersheid, Calladine, and Stack hope the Saskatchewan tech sector is able to acknowledge the ongoing issues that plague the tech world and continue to work to address them. “I hope we see greater diversity across the board,” said Berscheid. “I hope that the industry embraces the myriad perspectives that a truly diverse workforce brings.”

The Saskatchewan tech sector has its work cut out, but the community seems primed to make those changes. As for the future women of data science, here are three pieces of advice to take to heart:

“Dive in,” says Calladine. “You might not see your own strengths at first, but they are there and they will take you places.”

“Don’t be afraid to sit at the table and voice your opinions,” says Stack. “You are there for a reason!”

“Let yourself be hungry and ambitious,” said Berscheid. “Be as clear as you can about what you're aiming for and don’t let other people limit you in the ways that are unacceptable to you.”

The WiDS Saskatoon conference is currently sold out! However, tickets are still available for the FREE after party sponsored by Vendasta and the global WiDS conference is available to watch on livestream.

- February 27, 2020