Women In STEM — Examining The Inflection Points In STEM Careers

QuantumBlack, AI by McKinsey
6 min readMar 5, 2021

Diana Murgulet, Data Scientist, Viktoriia Oliinyk, Data Scientist, QuantumBlack With contributions from Helen Mullings, Head of People, Rashida Kanchwala, Software Developer and Helen Mayhew, COO, QuantumBlack

Helen Mullings at Women Transforming Tech event

Across the world there are promising signs that women are playing a larger role in the STEM workforce. Women now account for more than a third of STEM jobs across a significant number of regions, including Central Asia (48%), Latin American and the Caribbean (45%) and Central and Eastern Europe (39%). Last year UK campaigners celebrated a key milestone in the journey for parity in STEM — for the first time ever, more than one million women were working in core-STEM roles, a rise from 864,000 in 2017. Progress, although slow, is being made.

International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to explore the experiences of our colleagues and discover the various decisions that have shaped their journey along a STEM career path, from school years to later stages in their professional lives. These inflection points have had a decisive influence and examining them could prove hugely informative as we look to motivate more women into STEM careers. To achieve parity, we need to remove serendipity from the equation and create these inflection points more frequently for everyone.

In the first article in this series celebrating International Women’s Day, we asked our colleagues to describe their own experiences — and highlight the decisive career moments that put them on a STEM path.

Rashida Kanchwala, Software Developer

Rashida and her work from home set-up

I vividly remember the moment I decided I wanted to code. I was 16, sitting in a computer lab, being applauded by seniors and peers for doing a great job at my final year project. Four years later I was Product Marketing at one of the top tech giants, working in my dream company but not in my dream role. That ‘first job’ euphoria meant that it took me a while to realise that something was amiss. I missed being technical — I missed coding!

I was looking for new opportunities and eventually joined QuantumBlack as a Business Intelligence Developer, a more technical role than my previous one. The day after I was hired, I found out that I was expecting my first child.

I was extremely nervous on how I would manage having a family and progressing at work. I was just about to make a fresh start as a developer and didn’t want a career break. Luckily, with an extremely supportive workplace and a caring family, I was able to remain and thrive in a job I really liked.

Despite this, I still missed being a full-time coder. So while expecting my second baby, I decided to use my maternity leave to pursue my passion for coding, enrolling in software courses. Since returning from maternity leave, I have smoothly transitioned from BI developer to software developer.

Many women I know had to take a step back or left work completely upon entering motherhood. I’m thankful that in my case I had the opportunity to actively propel my career back into STEM, the area that I’m most passionate about.

Helen Mullings, Head of People

I studied Chemical Engineering at university but soon after graduating realised that hands-on engineering did not interest me. I joined the oil industry in the supply-trading function, where I enjoyed eight years of interesting, challenging work until the arrival of my first child when it became clear that this ‘man’s world’ was not ready to adapt to the needs of a new mother.

Angry and frustrated, I left STEM and joined McKinsey in a business role. However, I soon was drawn back to serving clients in chemicals, energy and mining. Eventually my second child came along and I started looking for other options that didn’t have such high travel demands. Throughout my progression to more senior roles, I’d particularly enjoyed coaching and mentoring colleagues and so made a radical pivot into people development and HR, discovering a new passion and set of skills. Fifteen years later, I was offered the chance to lead the People team at QuantumBlack, a dream job and a fantastic opportunity to once again work alongside technically minded people and enable their career success. I still love science and technology and do suffer faint job envy when I see colleagues doing what I always wanted to do — applying their amazing technical skills to drive impact on the world. In another life, I would have been a data scientist!

My mission these days is to ensure our technical people get to pursue their dreams and that parents, in particular, receive the support and flexibility they need to progress. I’m proud to have parented an electronic engineer, an aspiring data scientist and a passionate modern languages teacher. I never fell out of love with STEM and I’m thrilled by the amazing opportunities my teenage daughter has ahead of her. I will be cheering on her and my brilliant QuantumBlack colleagues all the way.

Helen Mayhew, COO

Despite performing well at maths in school, I did not pursue it at university. I thought the subject was too academic and didn’t see its practical applications. I decided to study law, as I wanted to do something that has real-life impact. My father was a lawyer and I could see the difference his work was making — although he was unhappy with my choice of degree, saying I would waste my STEM talent.

After graduating, I qualified as a lawyer, but I realised it was not the career for me. I wanted to create the strategy, set the direction and help companies and governments improve their performance. I decided to join McKinsey.

It was only several years later that I began collaborating with QuantumBlack, exploring how to improve the way McKinsey harnessed analytics. It was at that moment I realised the relevant, tangible impact advanced analytics could make, not just at McKinsey but throughout the world.

I had a lot to learn, but my inclination for maths, a range of online courses and the support of generous colleagues helped me. The lack of a STEM degree doesn’t exclude you from a later career in the space. Technical teams require a huge range of skills and there are always ways to change your path. Careers are long, so follow what interests you. Fortunately these routes have never been more available to women than they are today.

I recently found a letter that my grandmother, a teacher, received from her school informing her that she could not be employed anymore as she was now married. When disparity still exists it can be easy to focus solely on the negatives. But we should recognise and celebrate the progress we’ve made — while continually moving forward.

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None of these career paths are linear. Our colleagues may have nurtured an early passion for maths, science, programming, but for one reason or another they initially deviated into other areas before returning to a STEM profession.

How can we create and reinforce these career inflection points? It is clear that multidisciplinary collaboration — working alongside and coming into contact with a range of other skillsets — can spark inspiration and benefits organisations and individuals. However, it’s also crucial that parenting has a significant impact on career decisions. A recent study found that 40% of US women with fulltime STEM workers left the sector or went part time after their first child — compared to just 23% of new fathers. Progressive maternity policies which acknowledge and cater to the needs of working mothers — whether that’s by building in ways to remain up to speed with industry changes while on maternity leave or by adapting to new ways of working on their return — could make all the difference to encouraging more women to enter and remain in STEM careers.

The next part in this series will be published later this month and will focus on education. By reflecting on the stories of our colleagues, we will explore how we create inflection points that encourage girls to follow a STEM track early.



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