Growth in big data draws women to statistics

The field of statistics is booming, thanks in large part to the increased need for data analysts.

You can't do big data without statistics, and increasingly, you can't do statistics without the contributions of women.

From 2010 to 2013, the number of people working in statistics grew from 28,000 to 72,000, and about 38 percent of them are women, according to Current Population Survey data. In comparison, women account for about 26 percent of the computer and mathematical occupations category.

Statistics is also the fastest growing undergraduate degree in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, with the number of undergraduate degrees awarded nearly doubling from 2010 to 2013.

"All else equal, it's a good idea to join a growing, dynamic field like statistics in the era of big data," said Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Erica Groshen. "So it's a great time for women to become statisticians because they'll have great opportunities for advancement and influence in business or policy."

The growth in both raw numbers and women's participation can be partially attributed to the way in which the statistics field has changed: The emergence of big data has increased the need for statisticians to turn raw data into useful information. When the federal government launched the Big Data Research and Development Initiative in 2012, it allocated $200 million for new tools and techniques to track, access, organize, store, model, and analyze information and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data.

"One telling sign about the potential rise of women in this field is that prior to 2013, the number of female statisticians was too small to publish," Groshen and Heidi Shierholz, the Labor Department's chief economist, wrote in a Feb. 4 blog post. "We look forward to making historical comparisons and tracking trends as we get more data on the number of female statisticians in the years to come."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the number of statisticians is expected to grow 27 percent by 2022, which is more than twice as fast as the projected growth rate of 11 percent across all occupations. "Growth is expected to result from more widespread use of statistical analysis to make informed business, health care and policy decisions," the handbook states.

Women are poised to profit from that growth. More than 40 percent of degrees in statistics now go to women, and women represent 40 percent of statistics departments' faculty members who are ready to move into tenured positions, according to a December 2014 article in the Washington Post.

Furthermore, the American Statistical Association co-sponsored the first national Women in Statistics conference in May 2014 and launched its "This is Statistics" campaign in the fall of 2014 to pitch big-data professions to girls and minorities in middle and high school.

More women are choosing statistics than other big-data STEM fields for a variety of reasons, but part of the motivation is cultural: Research shows that women are drawn to more collaborative sciences that rely on communication and teamwork.

"Society needs them around the proverbial table, adding their diverse ideas and viewpoints to key discussions," Groshen said. "Furthermore, as they join, they'll be able to mentor future generations as we work to recruit and retain women in STEM fields. As the fourth female commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I have certainly benefited from the support of those who came before me and paved the way."