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Deirdre Lungley’s Q&A – “more women should embrace a career in data”

As part of our special coverage for International Women’s Day, Deirdre Lungley, the Principal Developer at the UK Data Service, talks about her passion for data and why more women should choose a career in this area.

Q: How long have you been at the Service and can you tell us more about your role?

A: I joined the Service at the beginning of February 2014 and I am Principal Developer on the SERL project (Smart Energy Research Lab).  This involves ingesting smart meter data from participants who have agreed for their data to be used for research.

We currently have almost 12,000 participants and are ingesting and storing half hourly data for each of these.  This data of itself is not particularly useful but combined with weather, EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) and participant energy use survey data, it forms a rich dataset for energy researchers to explore ways for the UK to reduce its carbon footprint.

Q: What attracted you to the role?

A: The SERL project is one of the first Big Data projects the Service has got involved with and when in October 2015 the opportunity arose to move into this technical area, I jumped at the opportunity.  I joined the Service originally because of my interest in data and was particularly interested in the technical challenges of working with large data volumes. I also relished the opportunity to facilitate the surfacing of useful insights from it.

Q: Have you faced any challenges in the work place due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?

A: I do believe women have to work harder to be successful in technical spheres, where traditionally men have been more dominant.  I have been involved in technology either as a student, or an employee, for over 30 years and have consistently worked almost exclusively with men.  There appears to be a societal perception of men as being more technically competent.

Q: How important do you think it is on International Women’s Day for successful women like yourself to share your stories with younger women who want to break into the data environment and not feel intimidated?

A: Very important.  I have three daughters and I am consistently trying to interest them in technology and data, with varying degrees of success.  I also have a reputation for encouraging their friends but my daughters despair and say: ‘Here she goes again’.

However, I feel a lot of it is down to low confidence due to a lack of true understanding of what is involved. I am hopeful as young women see more technology being used in the workplace to harness data, they will be encouraged to experiment with it themselves.

I was very fortunate to be introduced to programming at my all girls Sixth Form by a very forward-thinking maths teacher back in 1981, before the arrival of the Internet.  He told us then that it was going to be very important for us to harness these skills.  I despair at times, that 40 years on, many girls do not get this opportunity.

Q: What advice would you give to women who want to make careers for themselves as developers or more widely in the data world?

A: I would be very encouraging.  In the UK and throughout Europe companies are finding it very difficult to find skilled people to fill technological posts.  This creates great opportunities for flexible working and for career progression.  But beyond that, women have a lot to offer in this sphere.  All teams benefit from diversity and technological solutions must work for every member of society, therefore, technology balanced teams are very important.  Many girls have the stereotypical image of the computer geek, banging away at the keyboard and magically coming up with a solution.  They do not see themselves in such a role, but such a role is not representative of the developer or data analyst, one in which many women can truly excel.

Q: How has work changed for you due to Covid-19?

A: I feel very fortunate every day to be able to work from home and work effectively – having both the space and equipment to make this a relatively seamless transition.  Instant messaging, Zoom meetings and screen sharing make the working environment almost as effective as working together in the office.   The only improvement I would make in a post-Covid-19 world is weekly face-to-face meetings to whiteboard development flows.

Q: Do you find you are having to work even harder in your career and run the family smoothly too?

A: Having spent many years juggling child rearing and either studying or working, I am very thankful that the pandemic did not hit at that point in my life.  Now, only two of my children are at home, one doing University studies remotely and the other embarking on her first graduate job remotely. Although they are both very eager to move on in life, we have settled into a good daily routine – I have plenty of help with dog walking and they both like baking.  It is providing an opportunity for my husband and I to spend more time with them.

Q: What are the challenges you are facing due to working at home and how are you managing to overcome them?

A: The main challenge I face is the tendency to work longer hours – just pop up the stairs and finish off that job.  Also, possibly need to be more disciplined with fitting exercise into my daily routine – my step count some days is woeful.

Q: Do you think men get off more lightly in the working from home environment because they just concentrate on their work and don’t get so much involved in family issues?

A: Unfortunately, yes, I think this is the case in many households – many women are not wired to switch off completely to what is going on around us.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to help women manage working from home better with home-schooling and general family life?

A: I struggled with this question a little as I am in a position to generally be able to switch off during working hours. I can only imagine how difficult this time must be for mothers with younger children.

I generally had a rule, when the children were younger to partition my day and not try to fulfil both roles at the same time – this often meant getting up very early in the morning!