Professor Jackie Carter talks about her atypical road to academia and how she is using it to promote greater diversity in STEM-related jobs.
Jackie Carter came to academia via a circuitous route, but is using her position to open the door wider for those seeking to work in the jobs of the future. Through a remarkable programme that gets students from social sciences degrees doing paid data-related placements in industry and beyond she is trying to get employers to think more creatively about who they recruit and to broaden and diversify the talent pipeline. The alternative is that a whole swathe of people get left behind in the AI revolution, with women more likely than most to be affected.
It’s a huge task, but Jackie is keen to scale up what she has been doing to have a wider impact. Her work has recently been recognised through an FDM everywoman women in technology award.
Jackie herself comes from an applied research and teaching background. She got what she says was a poor degree in mathematics with its applications and then moved to South Wales, following her boyfriend. There she signed up to do teacher training, having vowed never to be a teacher. In fact, she says, it turns out that “teaching has been my calling”. She started teaching maths in secondary schools. Teaching younger students was hard as many struggled with maths, but sixth formers were more engaged and interested. Jackie had found her passion.
After getting divorced and with two small children to look after, Jackie decided to try something different and left teaching with nothing to go to. She opted to return to education, moving from an NVQ to a master’s course [and coming second in her year] to being encouraged to think about a PhD. She was interested in the application of computing to complex social problems. It took her a while to navigate the system since no-one in her family had been to university and she had no support networks. Her PhD at Leeds University was funded by industry and involved her working for the National Radiological Protection Board in Didcot, looking at how to create a predictive model for how to respond to a nuclear fallout. It was the mid 1990s and the Chernobyl disaster had just happened. Jackie had to use the data available to work out how to keep livestock and people safe from radiation fallout.
She then worked as a data visualisation support officer on a one-year contract to design a system to help students work with census data and use that to inform decision-making. At the time there were not many web-based interactive systems to enable cross referencing of data. That role led to Jackie working on a project hosted by the University of Manchester to develop open education resources for academics to share socioeconomic data for use in teaching and learning.
In 2013 she and a colleague won a big sum from the Nuffield Foundation and became one of 19 centres funded under a £20m UK-wide programme called ‘Q-Step’. The aim was to create a step-change in teaching quantitative social science – something that is proving more and more necessary in the workplace. Through her contacts with data organisations such as YouGov, Jackie helped set up the flagship Data Fellows programme to help students practise those skills in the workplace and grapple with data analysis in the real world.
Jackie’s programme was the first Q-Step programme out of the blocks. Its prestige grew as more and more data organisations, government departments, the World Bank and others came on board. They supervise the students – the data fellows – who are all paid the living wage by the programme, which lasts for eight weeks. The programme is inclusive by design, something Jackie calls “deliberate diversity” and this has had a significant impact on the organisations the programme works with.
The data fellows – all from social sciences degree programmes – have been placed in public, private and not-for-profit organisations. Every placement has been designed to focus on data skills, mainly quantitative [numerical] skills and range from primary data collection through to statistical analyses. Apart from broadening the pool of people with the kind of data skills required in the workplace, Jackie says she has seen the students’ confidence grow as well as their understanding of the relevance of what they were learning in the classroom.
Jackie has faced a number of difficult personal challenges along the way. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 and in 2020 developed Ramsay Hunt Syndrome which has resulted in hearing loss, severe dizziness and balance issues. In 2019 her son was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour. “Things sped up for me,” she says. “I realised that the momentum we were creating had to matter. I decided to spend time getting involved with organisations that could make a practical difference.” Many of those roles are focused on equality and diversity. She is, for example, co-chair of the GM4Women2028 Comms group, which is committed to making Greater Manchester a better place for women and girls, is co-founder of the charity Equality Starts at Home as well as a board member of Lead5050, which aims to drive gender equality in the workplace through data. She has also been driving forward the diversity message of the data fellows programme and the idea that you don’t have to have a STEM degree to do a data-related job. And she has just been appointed at the University of Manchester academic lead for EDI, Disability.
From a first cohort of 19, the total number of students who have benefited from the data fellows programme so far is 330. At least 70% each year have been female and 25% come from underrepresented backgrounds or disadvantaged groups. Many are likely to have dropped maths after GCSEs. The programme has also generated short films, a series of academic papers and industry publications, an interview on the Women in Data podcast and Jackie’s book, Work placements, internships and applied social research, a theory and practice text full of case studies and vignettes from former students and those at the start of their social research careers. All of these are evidencing how talent can be drawn from the social science and humanities, and prompting industry to think about the over-reliance on STEM graduates for careers in data and tech. Jackie has also been working internationally, collaborating with the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia to challenge not just what is taught in statistics but how it is taught, supporting skills development for the Sustainable Development Goals.
She keeps in touch with the data fellows alumni and held a recent ‘Past, Present and Future’ celebratory event. One is leading an AI company in Canada, another is a senior analyst for Bloomberg and many are in senior analyst roles in government. Others have created tech start-ups in the third sector. She says: “It’s a programme that keeps giving. I maintain the relationship and they appreciate that. I try to be the person in their lives that I wish I had had. Many don’t have connections or confidence. The scales drop from their eyes when they realise they can do this and that they bring fresh thinking. It’s hugely rewarding.”
Jackie has brought in lecturers to embed the teaching of statistics and data analysis in the social sciences curriculum at The University of Manchester, for instance, in politics, sociology and criminology. Students have the option to specialise in data analytics. “It’s about forcing them to dip a toe in the water in their first year,” says Jackie. They can then opt to learn more in subsequent years. They may not become data analysts, she says, but they might become interested in issues such as data literacy.
For Jackie it’s about creating ‘circular bridges’, an image which is taken from a circular bridge in Uruguay which allows passengers to walk and cars to drive across a lagoon. The drivers, however, are slowed down to decrease emissions and preserve the natural environment. Jackie sees this as a metaphor for her own career and what she is doing with the data fellows programme. She says: “What if we extend this metaphor by thinking about the need for data and tech skills to be delivered according to who is crossing the bridge (from education to industry) and ensuring we allow some to walk whilst others can drive across?
“If we provide dual pathways into tech and data careers, and the support structures that respect the environments we work in, perhaps we can filter the talent pipeline by looking at the problem – and solutions – more intelligently and creatively. Perhaps the strategically important and vulnerable skills that we need to protect and develop are akin to the lagoon. But we have to be smarter in thinking about how we extend these to those outside of the STEM inner circle.”
Jackie is focused now on a book on female change makers and on scaling the data fellows programme. The FDM everywoman award will help with this, particularly when it comes to getting more women into STEM careers. “We need to offer people pathways to get from one side of the circular bridge to the other even if that means they cross it more slowly,” she says. It’s not the first award she has had – Jackie is a National Teaching Fellow and has won a Teaching Excellence Award as well as industry recognition such as being named One in Twenty Women in Data in 2020. But the everywoman award is validation of the wider social benefits of what she is doing.
“The most interesting developments happen at the intersection of subjects,” she says. “I have been in education for the last 30 years and my first dissertation for my PGCE was about girls in maths. To get more women into STEM we have to be more creative, develop a diverse pipeline and challenge recruiters to change what they are looking for. Some departments in government are doing that, but industry in general isn’t. That needs to change.”