Funke Abimbola’s deep commitment to diversity and inclusion permeates all areas of her work. A practising solicitor who also has legal and financial leadership responsibilities, she is General Counsel and Head of Financial Compliance for Roche UK, advising the company on a wide range of matters linked to business strategy and growth. Funke has been a professional ambassador for Aspiring Solicitors – the organisation working to improve diversity in the legal profession – since its inception, and is now a senior advisory board member.
She is also the very proud mum of a teenaged son.
“My fourteen year old son signed up to UN Women’s He For She campaign. He noticed that the girls in his class were very capable but lacked underlying confidence (and this is borne out by all the statistics about the differences between boys and girls at schools). He has pledged to support the girls in believing in themselves and in their own abilities. I would encourage other male gender champions to sign up to He For She.”
What do you do?
“I lead the legal team that supports Roche’s pharmaceutical business in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. I also have corporate and financial compliance responsibility for the UK pharmaceutical business. And I sit on three separate senior UK leadership teams.
All my diversity and inclusion work is voluntary and is fitted in around a demanding, full-time role and being a mum. I campaign for gender and race equality in the workplace with a particular focus on the legal profession. I hold more than ten voluntary, director level diversity roles outside my day job. As well as race and gender, I do work around social mobility to counter the ongoing discrimination faced by people born into a socially disadvantaged background, giving motivational talks to school children and offering mentoring, careers advice and voluntary work to young people.”
How and why did improving diversity and inclusion become so important to you?
“I have experienced both racial and gender discrimination throughout my legal career. Entering the legal profession was very difficult despite a good law degree from a top UK university and only requiring 6 months’ pre-admission experience (most graduates need a two-year training contract). I realised very quickly that my obviously African name was a real issue. I wanted to become a corporate lawyer and was advised by a recruiter that “corporate law is too competitive for a black woman”. I ended up cold-calling the top corporate law firms and companies in the country, making over 150 phone calls during a two-week period, to secure interviews and ultimately, my first job.
Once I qualified and was seeking a role as a corporate solicitor, I was outraged when the receptionist at a top 10 law firm assumed I could only be there to be interviewed for a secretarial position.
Cultural bias is incredibly strong and so many assumptions were made about me simply because of the colour of my skin. I had a similar experience once I actually started working as a corporate solicitor: people often assumed I was one of the legal secretaries.
My career was progressing well until I had my son at 28. I had no concept of the issues faced by ‘women returners’ until I returned to work after 12 months’ maternity leave. The firm struggled to support me working flexibly and no-one else was having children at that age and then continuing their career. Most women would wait until they became a partner in their mid-30s, or have a child and leave the profession altogether. I ended up having to leave the central London law firm where I worked and move to the northern Home Counties to live and work. I could then work regular hours and still be a hands-on mother to my son.
The whole experience made me very angry indeed but instead of staying angry, I decided to do something about it and became a diversity campaigner in my spare time.”
Why are diversity and inclusion so important to organisations and to society?
“As well as being the right thing to do, embracing diversity and inclusion leads to diversity of thought: the bedrock of innovation and the key to maintaining the competitive edge in business. Working with people who think the same way you do might be comfortable but is not very challenging and leads to the same sorts of decisions being made.
To stay ahead of the game and to maximise the potential of our talent, organisations need to fully embrace a diverse workforce. I work for a company that invests a significant amount of money into research and development. It is essential that we have as diverse a range of scientists as possible so we can continue to develop innovative solutions that are in the best interests of our patients. And we need to promote this diversity of thought and innovative ways of thinking throughout the business. It can’t be limited to our scientists. Innovation is key to the growth of any organisation and I do not see that being possible without truly embracing diversity of thought. And that requires a diverse talent pool.”
In what ways do diverse and inclusive organisations feel different to ones that are neither?
“There is a tangible buzz when you work in an environment that is both diverse and inclusive. I noticed the difference straight away when I attended my interview at Roche. In a diverse and inclusive organisation, differences become a strength that can be maximised. Different ideas and thoughts are given equal consideration rather than being dismissed out of hand. There is also a defined commitment to continuous improvement, an essential feature for any organisation.”
What is the difference between diversity and inclusion?
“I very much like Verna Myers’ description of diversity being an invitation to the party and inclusion being an invitation to dance. I would take that further and say that inclusion is not only being invited to dance but also having drinks brought to you and enjoying a canape or two!
Both diversity and inclusion are important and go hand in hand and both play an important part in organisations maintaining the competitive edge.”
How important are role models, mentors and sponsors in encouraging diversity and inclusion?
“Visible role models are vitally important – we all want to be able to see what we can become to motivate and inspire us. It takes courage to be a visible role model and to raise your head above the parapet but a world of opportunity truly awaits the visible. Everyone is a role model to someone and being visible is key to inspiring others – it’s not bragging or showing off but rather showing others that you are leading by example, thereby encouraging them to follow that example.
Mentors are role models who go one step further and pass the benefit of their wisdom through guidance. I have had several mentors throughout my career and their input has been essential to my progress. However, without sponsors (those individuals who proactively champion others, creating opportunities for others to progress and to shine), little progress can be made.
All three play a very distinct but equally important role in encouraging diversity and inclusion.”
Funke Abimbola’s 3 tips for improving diversity and inclusion
• Embrace our differences: just because someone is different to you does not mean they are a threat to you. There is much to be learnt from those who think and act differently to us.
• Become an advocate: if you find yourself in a position to speak up for an underrepresented group, do so. This is especially important if you are in a position of privilege yourself.
• Accept your biases: pretending we have no biases is dishonest and lacks authenticity. Accept your biases but be careful not to act on them irrespective of past experience.
Watch Funke Abimbola’s TEDx talk