Kate Land

Kate started off her journey into the sciences at Cambridge University, where she studied Mathematics and Astrophysics. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she went on to pursue a PhD at Imperial in Cosmology before heading to Oxford University to do Post-doc research. Having spent time at all of the top three universities in the UK, Kate is what the recruitment world would refer to as ‘worldly’ and it’s no surprise that she started her professional career at Winton Capital – one of Britain’s most successful systematic trading hedge funds – working her way up to Research Director.

Her experience at Winton, where she used her scientific background to research novel investment strategies has prepared her well for what she is tasked to do in her current job: detecting and preventing rogue trading for Signac (a tech start-up backed 50/50 by Palantir Technologies and Credit Suisse).  As a bad-ass woman in tech, and a mother of two little girls, it’s a no-brainer why we’ve nominated Kate as one of our 100 Inspiring Women. 

N: What inspired you to pursue ‘the sciences’ as opposed to the arts? Were there any people in your life that you think influenced this decision?

K: My family all enjoy science and maths; parents, siblings, cousins, and nieces. So you could say it is in the blood! I definitely grew up in an environment which talked a lot about the natural world (my dad is a biologist), and encouraged us to be curious about what was going on around us. Birthday presents I remember getting from my grandfather (a mathematician) include a microscope, calculator, star chart, telescope, and subscription to junior astronomy society - all before I was 10! It was maths, rather than science, that I particularly enjoyed at school. And my mum would also love pouring over problem sheets with me at home, teaching me things that I didn't know about trigonometry or probability. She also pushed me to be fairly competitive, particularly against boys, which perhaps stood me in good stead for the competitive male environments I have gone on to experience. So I guess I'm saying that for me it was a no-brainer to pursue the sciences and mathematics. Why wouldn't you?!

N: I agree, I loved mathematics and science at school, and was similarly competitive and driven to pursue sciences by my family members (who are mostly doctors, vets or accountants) which is exactly why I think role models are so pivotal in informing decision-making at a young age.

 ‘Bias’ is a term that every scientist is familiar with and makes a conscious effort to avoid; yet when it comes to gender, we see so much unconscious bias present itself. From my own experience, there have been instances where I’ve seen unconscious bias prevail. For example: my dad offering higher prize money to male mountain bikers at an event he organizes annually. After making him aware of the discrepancy, he came up with an algorithm that would calculate a fairer prize money for men and women based on a number of variables.  I’m sure you’ve seen examples of this, even in a scientific field.  How do you think we should go about ‘calling people out’ on the bias in a way that they will respond to positively and learn from?

K: Oh, unconscious bias is so interesting. To some extent it makes a lot of sense that we enter a situation with a rough idea about what to expect - it makes us smart humans, and can keep us safe. But, when presented with information we must learn to overrule the priors we hold. However, it can be hard. For example, when someone expects a woman to be unqualified for a role, to be convinced otherwise they will need a little more evidence than in the case of a man if they already expected them to be qualified. Logically this actually makes sense; in Bayesian statistics priors are updated with observations but they are not overruled! That is why stereotypes and role models are so important - we have to attack the priors people hold, and that is a challenge for all of us (and unfortunately stereotypes are a reinforcing feature in society). But more practically, we must use rational structured processes when it comes to making decisions about recruitment and promotions (and elections!). Less qualitative assessment and more fact based decision-making processes - do they have the right qualifications, yes/no?

N: I couldn't agree more. As a technical recruiter, I found that on the whole, there is a conflict of interest in recruiting and recruiting for diversity, as often recruiters are quick to let their priors inform their decision-making; as their priors are often founded upon values that serve their interests as opposed to the interests of the company they are recruiting for. To break this down into a more simple form: if the recruiter makes incorrect assumptions about the 'type' of candidate their client is looking for, they will exclude the vast majority of candidates that fall outside the lines of that assumption to both minimize their risk and maximize their chances of making a placement (and money). I strongly believe that employers should work with recruitment agencies that strive to understand all the assumptions surrounding the desired profile that the client is looking for and challenge assumptions when they aren't clear so that they can widen their search and deliver a more diverse shortlist. 

Moving on, who have been your role models (either in the industry, or generally)?  

K: I am always hugely encouraged and uplifted when I work with people who are brilliant at what they do while also being honest, open, engaging, and generous. People with skill and integrity, who don't pretend they know something they didn't, never put someone down, don't take short cuts, and just genuinely deserve to do well because they are very competent. Lots of good things happen near these people.

N: Beautifully said. So I have heard a lot about Signac, and love what you are doing to detect insider trading. I'm curious to know more about the day-to-day life in your current position as an analytical strategist for the fast-growing high-impact start-up?

K: Ah ha - well I am still quite new in this job, and in fact the company is very new, so there isn't much of an established routine. Which is fun! But one of the things I am often involved in is digging into datasets, trying to understand what they can tell us. This involves writing code that can perform exploratory analysis, producing useful statistics and visualizations. Inevitably, you are often cleaning data and digging into why it is not giving you the expected results! But that is all part of the job of being a data-driven researcher.

I like the process of starting with some data and not knowing what is in it - and then you slice and dice it in lots of ways, pivot and plot it from different angles, interrogate it, turn it upside down, have a cup of tea, maybe look at some other complementary datasets, or perform bits of analysis on the side to test your assumptions. And by the end of the process (which may takes days or weeks) you've pulled it apart and put it back together again and learnt something new in the process. The next challenge is to summarize and present the information you have gained to others - so they get all the important bits without doing the work!

N: You make it sound so fun and intellectually stimulating! Are there any books you can recommend that you feel have shaped your views, or taught you something new about the topic of gender inequality?

K:  "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine - a fascinating read. It laid out lots of evidence about the effects of stereotype pressure. For example, it discussed a study which gave groups of children a test to do. For some groups, before the test they were told that usually girls do not perform as well as the boys on the test, and in this case the girls under-performed the boys. But when they weren't told anything beforehand, the sexes performed equally well. I find that absolutely terrifying - because I see gender stereotypes on TV, in books, and even in toy shops. And these are feeding poisonous messages to my young daughters every day about what is expected of them. Argh! That is another thing that the book does well - ripping apart the pseudoscience that has over emphasized the differences between male and female brains. Stereotypes and priors; that is the real issue.

N: I've just ordered my copy :) On that topic, why do you think diversity is good for business?

K: As I understand it, there are studies that have shown that diverse groups tend to make better decisions because they are more likely to challenge each other. Further, those not in diverse groups are more likely to not only make poorer decisions but also be overly confident in the strength of their decisions because they all reinforce each other. To be honest, I think diversity is not necessarily something to aim for, but instead it should be a natural outcome of good hiring policies because talent isn't restricted to any one group.

...diverse groups tend to make better decisions because they are more likely to challenge each other

N: As a woman in a technical field using technology to tackle problems in the finance industry, you’re certainly a minority. I’m curious to know what your thoughts on the glass ceiling are. Going on what the statistics say, the odds of you ‘reaching the top’ are supposedly against you. Does that frighten you in any way or do you think it’s the very nature of how people have communicated the difficulties of ‘reaching the top’ to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that has resulted in many women dropping out before they have had the chance to be considered?  

K:  I think definition of 'top' needs to be reconsidered. I am not convinced that people at the top of a company are always winning, as getting there can involve a lot of sacrifice and stress. Saying that though, the option should be open to anyone up who is up for the challenge. But to answer your question, no I wouldn't say I am frightened. I am perhaps naive in thinking that talent and hard work will win the day, even if there are a few biases around to beat down in the process. But saying that, I have gotten frustrated at the challenges involved with having kids - the impact of taking time out from work and maintaining a balance going forward. I didn't really appreciate how much emotional energy and head space it takes up being responsible for other humans - even if you are not with them all the time. Fingers crossed that policies around parental leave, and flexible working for both parents, will result in a little more of the strain being shared between the sexes!

N: I do hope so, too. I am thoroughly inspired, and loved getting an insight into the gender gap from a scientific perspective and your thoughts on best practice and policy. Thank you so much, Kate. You inspire us.