“It’s actually quite sad that we’re having to have this conversation,” says Dunola Oladapo.
“It’s sad that we actually have to ask people to include women.”
It’s 2017. Out in the world, we’re planning commercial charters to space and in this coffee shop in Canary Wharf, we are sat here discussing how to combat the gender pay gap. We can, quite literally, shoot for the stars, but we somehow can’t get women a fair deal in the workplace.
Oladapo, a 22-year-old recent Royal Holloway graduate and currently an analyst at Morgan Stanley, is the perfect sparring partner for this discussion topic. This weekend she will be the UK ambassador at the G(irls)20 Summit in Munich, a global event bringing together young women from all G20 nations plus a representative from the European and African Unions, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the MENA region. Ahead of the G20 summit in July, these delegates will work on a communiqué to present to the G20 leaders on the subject of increasing female labour force participation around the world. Helping women get into the workforce, and helping them stay there.
Born in Nigeria but raised in Luton, Oladapo has a thirst for social activism. She sits on the leadership board of the #iWill foundation, which aims to get 60% of 10-20-year-olds involved in some form of meaningful social action by 2020 and, back in 2016, she was one of a handful of students across the UK selected to participate in the Elevation Networks Leadership Programme, which helps young people from diverse backgrounds get their foot in the door of top employers. Her project, ‘Our Lost Stories’ set out to highlight the forgotten narratives of the world, chief among them the lack of diversity in higher education. “Did you know that we have 17 black female lecturers in the whole of the UK?” she tells me, aghast. “That’s not even one department in one uni – that’s the whole country!”
Her success with the project granted her a visit to the UN headquarters in Geneva, surely a precursor to the global platform that G(irls)20 will afford her. “When I first heard about Girls I was like, 'Where has this been all my life?'” she tells me. “We all have these ideas, but to really have the opportunity to put them into action is incredible.”
And trust me, Oladapo has ideas. It’s obvious why she was chosen for this summit – her enthusiasm is infectious. She’s very vocal about representation; in higher education, in her own industry – where she is greatly outnumbered by white men – and even in her chosen subjects at school and university (“Only 1-4 graduates who studied STEM subjects in the UK last year were women!” she practically yells at me). Quite simply, why are there not more women like her in her industry, running companies or becoming judges?
“Young girls need to see people like them in leadership positions, or in those industries – it consciously or subconsciously empowers them to think, ‘I can do the same thing’,” she says. “You can’t underestimate the power of being able to visualise something. It makes it real.”
I ask her about quotas, which seems like a natural, if controversial, jumping-off point for this topic. She purses her face a little, admitting that the idea has its shortcomings but she’s keen to stress that this solution, just one of many steps in the right direction, doesn’t have to be a long-term one. “The playing field is not even at the moment and it needs to be before you can be selective. Before people can come and have a seat at the table they need to be invited into the room.” It’s here that her activism takes a shrewd backseat to her clear business savvy: “It’s actually a strength for a company! Diversity of race and gender is synonymous with innovation and actually depriving yourself of that opportunity is so short-sighted.”
So why are we here? Why are so few women, and women from minority backgrounds in particular, succeeding in these fields? Oladapo laughs and says it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: “What came first?” she asks me, “Institutional racism or low socioeconomic background and opportunity?” While the latter seems like a fixable solution, with Oladapo pointing to free school meals and improving the involvement of parents and teachers at a very young age, it’s the former that seems to present an insurmountable barrier. How do you go about changing a mindset like that?
“It’s about lasting stereotypes,” she says, before telling me that, in Munich, she will be raising unconscious bias as one of the key issues facing women in the UK. “Sometimes, because something has been there for so long, you think it can’t change but it really can change. Sometimes people don’t even know why they think that, but I think a lot is to do with these persistent stereotypes. It’s like, ‘Oh that’s just the picture I have in my head of what a scientist looks like, a man in a coat’ and a woman doesn’t fit into that idea. People need to be evaluated and assessed based on merit and not a stereotype. It’s prejudiced visualisation.”
We discuss maternity leave, seen by so many women as the stumbling block in their career trajectory. That much-maligned phrase ‘Can women have it all?’ is as grating to Oladapo as it is to most of us. “Firms should allow flexible working hours in order to let their employees excel and have fulfilling personal lives,” she says. “Paternity leave is also something that needs to be taken seriously, because when it is, then we finally realise, ‘Oh it’s two parents!’ There’s no reason the burden should fall squarely on the woman.”
The summit is occurring at a particularly politically fraught time for women’s rights. The past year has shown us that the freedoms we fought for could be taken away in an instant. Oladapo agrees, saying that recent events have warned us not to get complacent: “It’s such an important time to not drop the ball. We can’t let down the girls of the future.”
Oladapo stands as an example of the success she is fighting for. She’s happy in her job but still sees that her industry has far to go and needs to “work harder to prioritise women and remove the barriers to their success.” Does she feel pressure to set an example?
“I take it upon myself to make sure that other girls, especially from Luton, where I’m from, can see this and realise that they can do it. I need to continue to encourage girls in sixth form and high school to pursue careers involving maths and in these fields.” Indeed, her next initiative after G(irls)20 will be to set up a mentorship programme for girls back in Luton.
“At the end of the day, it’s there for the taking – we’re doing it!” she says. “We just need to make sure that our voices are heard.”