The only woman in the room

Women make up just 29% of the UK data and analytics workforce and hold 26% of leadership positions. But “we’re going in the right direction” says Michelle Conway (MSc Data Science, 2017), lead data scientist at Lloyds Banking Group.

Michelle was selected in this year’s top ‘Twenty in Data & Tech’ by Women in Data®, a platform for female and gender diverse data professionals to share knowledge and experiences, and to improve representation in the industry. As an ambassador for this community, she is eager to help make STEM subjects and data careers more visible to young girls.  

Michelle Conway in a portrait for Women in Data by Sane Seven

“By primary school I was working on secondary school maths textbooks,” says Michelle. “I just loved maths and numerical problem solving.” She attributes some of her mathematical talent to her “dyslexia superpower”, referring to those with dyslexia often being skilled in identifying patterns. She was diagnosed aged nine and told she had a reading age of six, but the maths ability of a teenager.

But going to university to study maths and statistics in Dublin was a culture shock. Michelle went from an all-girls secondary school to being the only woman on her undergraduate course. “I suppose I’m grateful. It gave me a heads up that this is what my career could look like too,” she adds.

After eight years working as a statistician for the likes of RBS, Amazon, BT and Communisis, she noticed a growing demand for data science and machine learning skills. For Michelle, upskilling with Birkbeck’s Data Science master’s was a “no-brainer”.

Birkbeck was also able to provide Michelle with the dyslexia support she lacked in her undergraduate studies. She was helped to access a disability allowance, set up with a laptop with specialist ‘read aloud’ software and supported with lecture notes. “I wish I’d had this 10 years ago,” she recalls. “Birkbeck is special because it takes into account every single person and lifestyle.”

At the College, Michelle learned programming language Python and became skilled in machine learning engineering. “Machine learning is essentially using heavy maths infused with computer science to predict things, forecast outcomes or organise data in a certain way,” she explains. Her increased technical capabilities laid the foundations for working with the latest technology in the industry. Now as a lead data scientist for Lloyds, Michelle loves the day-to-day problem solving of developing models to help the business make better decisions.  

“The biggest challenge … is probably my lack of football knowledge!”

Throughout her career, she has often heard the phrase ‘you’ll be the only woman on the team’: “You hear it when you are offered a job and the employer feels the need to warn you,” Michelle explains. “But more frequently it’s when I’m the only woman with technical expertise on a project.” Half-joking, half in earnest she adds: “The biggest challenge in these scenarios is probably my lack of football knowledge!”

Michelle has found Women in Data® a great support system which fills that gap in her professional life. She connects with people like her overcoming similar challenges. Being in the room with female CEOs and chief data officers has inspired Michelle to become a greater part of this mission to tackle lack of diversity in the industry.

According to Harnham’s 2022 Data & Analytics Diversity Report, nearly 40% of UK FTSE 100 board positions are held by women, compared to just 26% in data. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she explains. “That’s why it is so important for us to be going out to schools as strong female role models and showing women in senior positions.” The explosion of data-related business needs has also created more opportunities, “you can now work in data in almost any industry, and I think that will naturally attract a more diverse group.”

Asked about advice she would give to those looking to make a start in data or tech, Michelle says: “As long as you are willing to learn, don’t let not knowing something on a job description stop you from applying. Also, mentors are so helpful. Reach out to people. And obviously, sign up as a member of Women in Data®!”

Find out more about the Data Science courses we offer, and other ‘Computing Women’ at Birkbeck: