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Case Study: Femi Bola

Femi Bola joined UEL in 2004 as a Head of Employability and subsequently became Director of Employability.

The following is a case study to understand some of the career challenges for Femi as a woman, how she has overcome these and what she would like to share with others.

What are your areas of interest and what made you interested in these?
I have a STEM background and studied Biosciences at university. Following my degree, I worked as a researcher for a year in Lagos. On returning to the UK, I worked for the Medical Research Council in their Toxicology Unit where I was the first black female employee. However I found working in a laboratory on my own quite isolating so I moved to the Institute of Child Health where I managed the main research laboratory and there were more links and opportunities to talk to Drs and scientists from all around the world. I started and almost completed a PhD but I felt though I loved science that I had a different purpose even if I wasn’t sure what it was! Leaving the scientific community was a really difficult decision as I was the first person in my family to have gone to university and people were proud that I was biochemist.

However, I secured temporary employment within the Human Resources department of one of the directorates in Lewisham Council, specifically within Learning & Development and this led to my interesting in people development which has become my real passion. Additionally, within the council there was much more emphasis on equality and diversity than had been in my previous roles. This was in the early 1990s when there was a lot of debate and changes in regard to equalities both at home and abroad!

Starting at Lewisham and leaving science meant that I had to begin my career again starting right at the bottom, however, I soon was able to learn the ropes and to work up the career ladder. I made the most of opportunities available to me to learn new skills and in particular relating to training and people development. After 9 years and by the time I left Lewisham, I was on one of the highest graded BAME employees. My science background has helped me to be a resilient problem solver; always curious, keen to ask questions and investigate further.

I went on to be an Assistant Director at Lewisham College where I managed a New Deal project which led to my interest in employability. Following this, I came to work at UEL as Head of Employability

What are some of the challenges you have faced? How have you handled these?
Working within STEM and science laboratories, which were white / male dominated and where on the whole I was the only black female certainly had its challenges. For example whilst working at the Institute of Child Health, when using the lift, people would assume I was going down to the catering department rather than up to the main research laboratory on the second floor!! Once I was asked to shorten my name because they were unfamiliar with it, a challenge as it only has four letters. It was these kind of experiences which certainly made me resilient and able to fight my corner.

How do you balance your career with life outside the workplace?
Sometimes with difficulty especially when my children were young. However through networking with female colleagues in a similar position to me I was able to get support and encouragement and consequently pursue my career.

Who have been your professional role models? Why?
My biology teacher at school, Mrs Evans, because she made me believe in myself and that I could rise above my circumstances. I am still in contact with her. Other mentors and role models have included Mushtak Malik, first BAME Director of the Direct Labour Organisation in Lewisham and his fellow director Phil Walker, and Ruth Silver the principal at Lewisham Council who made me realise the importance of getting the small things rights and to think big for the learners.

What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
Family, friends and also the belief of colleagues who encouraged me when I doubted myself.

What do you feel is the most enjoyable / rewarding aspect of your job?
Being thanked for things that I have not actually done i.e. by the learners when it was the learners who had done all the work themselves! While working at Lewisham Council, I set up and ran a Learning Centre which operated four evenings a week. I was working with manual workers (road sweepers, cooks, cleaners) who, for example, wanted to learn to read or improve other academic skills. They often went on to do amazing things, which was extremely rewarding for me. It has been a privilege sharing their successes with them.

What achievements are you most proud of? Why? What have you learnt that you would like to share with others?
I received an MBE in 2012 for services to diversity – having worked with learners from diverse backgrounds for many years. But again as I said above, it has been such a privilege to share the successes of these learners.

I believe that no learning is wasted. For example, while I didn’t in the end finish my PhD, I still learnt from that and indeed science has been a platform for me to do so many other things.

Now I go back to my former secondary school on a regular basis as an alumnus to deliver skills sessions and talk to the young women there about my learning journey. I explain to them the background I grew up in and that circumstances should not allow them to fail. I want to encourage them to take up all the opportunities they can through education. As the journalist and international newscaster Zeinab Badawi says – ‘Luck favours the prepared!’ and STEM was the preparation for me.