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Back to women in data

Gillian Docherty

Photo courtesy of the Data Lab, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Gillian Docherty

CEO, The Data Lab

We are Scotland’s innovation centre in data science and AI, with a mission to drive the world to a data-powered future

Can you tell us about The Data Lab work around Women in Data Science?
Part of The Data Lab work is aligned with the mission of the DDI Women in Data Project. Right from the offset, we have been dedicated to living and practising the principles and values around diversity – that’s not just gender but diversity of thought, race, socio-economic situation, religion. We always ask the question ‘are we asking the right diversity questions?’ and ‘are we practically demonstrating the diversity of data professionals across Scotland?’ At Data Summit this year (part of our DataFest programme), our speakers were 60% female. We think it is vitally important to have better gender diversity on stage and showcased, too often we hear there are no women speaking or on our panel as there are none or so few in the field and, frankly, we think that is just lazy.

For the last three years, we’ve ran a women in data science event at the Data Fest. We were the first UK organisation to partner with the Global Women in Data Science Programme running out of Stanford. In our second year, Judy Logan (co-Director of Global Women in Data Science) joined us in Scotland at the women in data science event.

At The Data Lab we showcase female role model data scientists, data leaders and experts and we involve schoolgirls, we invite them to the events to get them closer to Artificial Intelligence and Data Science. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

This year at our Women in Data Science event, there were 300 participants and 200 schoolgirls. We had female leaders, not just from Scotland, also people like Hannah Fry from the BBC’s Joy of Data. We worked with a group of senior school girls, who project managed the whole event. They pitched for the money, put together the agenda, oversaw the attendance. They ran a competition for schoolgirls nationwide to crack a cyber-code and to win tickets to the event.

What work does Data Lab do on the day-to-day?
We are Scotland’s innovation centre in data science and Artificial Intelligence, with a mission to help Scotland maximise the value of data and drive the world to a data-powered future. We do that through three pillars of activity – support to innovate, skills and talent, and community and events – all with the aim of driving economic and social benefit to Scotland. We’ve been going for four and a half years. When we embark on international travels, we have not yet encountered something like The Data Lab in terms of that collision of academia, government and industry. We have enabled a difficult trinity partnership to really work.

I came to The Data Lab from the corporate sector, IBM. I have a daughter and when I imagine the world she will live in, I think of how we need to set our strategy and goals to leverage the pace of technological change. We need to shape and lead it rather than someone coming and doing it ‘to’ us. It’s imperative that her generation has it better than we, and I, had. In the use of data and AI, we need to do it right.

What challenges remain for women and girls when it comes to data science and innovation?
There’s still a lot, broadly around STEM careers. We need to make sure the Arts and Humanities, the social scientists and psychologists are as involved in shaping this future. It is not just about STEM – I prefer the acronym STEAM [inclusive of Arts]. Think of how these disciplines can help answer some of the big questions on how we leverage data and AI. It is vital to have diversity of thought at the core to help us answer these questions. How can we develop ethical AI if we don’t have diversity of thought?
The challenge for my daughter is: can she see herself working in this field, and be attracted by it? We are continuing to see challenges, with girls massively dropping out from subjects like Maths and Computing – because they don’t see themselves within it. There is a responsibility on industry and professionals to demonstrate the opportunities that are there. We just worked on a project with Primary and Secondary Engineers called Stat Wars, which involved school children analysing film data to design the next movie hit, it’s very much like the Netflix model. I remember vividly there was a group of ten-year-olds wearing badges ‘I am a data scientist’, ‘I am a visualization expert’ and there were as many girls as there were boys.

Tell us about your journey to your role – and congratulations on your OBE!
Thank you (laughs) it’s still sinking it. I’m just so glad that the work of The Data Lab has been recognised in this way.

At school, I was better at sciences than English. I stumbled into computer science although when I was at school, computers weren’t widely available so all I could do was a short module in my final year. I then went to Glasgow University and did a BSc course. I started with Maths and Economics, and added Computer Science. I graduated with a degree in that rather than the original subjects I intended to do but that foundation of Maths was so useful. I joined IBM in a technical role in their headquarters in Portsmouth. I was a mainframe system programmer. I really enjoyed working with IBM clients and moved into a more client-facing roles. Within a year or two of doing that, I decided to move into the sales and client management side. My career went from technical to business very quickly.

I worked in the retail and investment banking sector for IBM in London then came back to Scotland to run different business units; client-facing teams, hardware and software. I was approached to apply for The Data Lab Chief Exec role and at first I honestly thought they got the wrong person – I’m a long, 22-year corporate person! The Data Lab is a start-up, a build-it-from-scratch! The exec search lead I was speaking to refused to get off the phone until I submitted an application – that was a Friday and the application was due on the Monday. It was an interesting journey.

I thought of my daughter and thinking about her future. I thought ‘why don’t I do something about it?’. As soon as I understood the mission of The Data Lab, I was hooked. I resigned much to my Mother’s disgust. She thought I was crazy ‘who is The Data Lab anyway?’ I said ‘Mum you didn’t understand what I did at IBM!’ I was the third employee through the door and took an excellent business plan, which had secured the funding of The Data Lab and helped bring it to life. I am exceptionally proud of what we’ve done and I have the most amazing, diverse team to do it with…

What would you say you’re particularly passionate about?
The opportunity to make a difference for the country is enormous. We have the opportunity to do things that are difficult in much larger countries because we’re connected and we can make it happen. You can get your arms around it.

What I get asked questions on in interviews like this is ‘what keeps you awake at night?’ Ideas. That’s what keeps me awake, not problems, ideas. It’s just really exciting times we live in and the pace of change is so fast, navigating that and making the best of it is challenging and stimulating at the same time. Data can be used in lots of ways to make a difference – economic prosperity, social benefit, for the environment.

Are there any particular projects that you’re especially proud of?
The Albyn Housing Project is one of my favourites, you can read about it on our website. I am also very proud of the Cancer Innovation Challenge and some of the amazing work done in that project using data to improve cancer treatment pathways and experiences. I am also very proud of the work Jude McCorry did to lead on creation of the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF which has been funded by the Scottish Government and DDI. That project epitomises us.

What would you recommend to women and girls that would like to be you!
Ooh, that’s a good question. A few things. I was really fortunate last year to get an honorary doctorate and I gave a talk on the things I have learned in my career. It covered things like: don’t ever lose your creative side, learn to work in teams full stop – life is not a solo sport – learn how to negotiate well and embrace being in diverse, challenging teams. Be comfortable with change – the only thing that is certain is change. Be resilient, pick yourself up, there will be things that don’t go as you planned. It’s so important to have those core resilience skills. If someone offers you an opportunity you aren’t entirely sure you can do, grasp it and try your best. Surround yourself with people who challenge you and give you diversity of thought.

You mention you thought the recruiters had got the wrong person when they approached you for the CEO job – do you think that’s gendered?
Good question, although I am not sure. However, there is research that says that women don’t apply unless they meet all the criteria and men will apply if they tick a few boxes.

The skills and capabilities I was taught at IBM were passed to me from some of the most amazing leaders and world’s best teams and I hope I have brought those to The Data Lab. It’s important to align yourself to ambitious and collaborative people to do well.

What is your vision for the City Region Deal?
The investment is so significant and it gives us the chance to make a difference to the region and there will hopefully be a knock-on effect to the whole country. The Data Lab’s work contributed to the science and innovation audit which has helped in its own little way to get the investment in the DDI Programme.
If we do it right and all pull in the same direction, it’ll be massively valuable for not just the region but the country and then also for the world.

What does ‘doing data right’ look like to you?
It comes back to ethics conversations, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We must think about what we do and are we doing it right and are we asking the right questions. We need to help everyone understand data literacy and we need to build that capability into our citizens. We need to think about the wellbeing economy – if you have a well country, you have economic as well as social prosperity. If we do it right, we can reduce the inequality gaps. The risk is that if we don’t do it right in terms of technology, we will leave people behind. The risk of job loss from automation is real but we can create new opportunity from the use of data and automation. We need to create a rising tide for everyone and being genuinely inclusive, diverse and reacting well to unintended consequences.

To finish off, do you have a hero/heroine or any fun facts about yourself to include in your profile?
I have a poem published in a book when I was 14. I won a WH Smith young writer’s competition and it was written in Scots. It was called ‘Na Big Man’ but my literary career never really took off.
My daughter, Charley, is absolutely my heroine.