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‘My son is my greatest triumph’

MOTHER’S LOVE: Funke Abimbola is shortlisted for Tesco Mum of the Year

BATTLING THROUGH racist and male chauvinistic stereotypes about what black women can achieve, to become one of the most senior black lawyers in the UK pharmaceutical industry is an achievement that would make anyone proud.

But for multi-award-winning lawyer and single mother Funke Abimbola, her “greatest triumph” is her 12-year-old son.

The Nigerian-born legal star and supermum is in the running for the title of Tesco Mum of the Year in 2015.

She was shortlisted alongside 25 others for her ability to juggle motherhood, a position as school governor with a high flying career leading the UK & Ireland legal team in the world’s largest biotech company.

The St Albans resident also finds time to mentor, support and sponsor female solicitors, and act as a mouthpiece for diversity in the profession.

SUCCESS

But the Russell Group university graduate has had to manoeuvre barriers to secure her success.

She recalled: “I had just completed the bar and was trying to get an entry level position with a corporate firm, but recruiters were telling me that the profession was too difficult and competitive for a black woman.”

Abimbola, then in her early twenties, says she was undeterred.

She added: “My achievements at that point were the result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice, not just by me, but by my parents who funded my private school education and my university education at Newcastle.

“What they were saying made me so angry. I thought, ‘how dare they try to limit my progress?’”

The determined young lawyer decided the best revenge was to prove recruiters wrong, and began a cold-calling campaign to the UK’s top 100 law firms and corporate partners.

She explained: “I drafted a sales pitch about myself and cold-called each and every one of those companies.”

The result was several interviews, a choice of offers and the beginning of a successful career that saw Abimbola recognised for her expertise in corporate law.

But the lawyer was again forced to battle the equality and diversity challenges that plague the legal profession when she became a mother.

She tells The Voice: “My greatest challenge was when I went back to work after maternity leave. That is when I really experienced differential treatment.

“I was having to ask for flexible working and, at the time, I just never felt that I got the allowances made for me or the understanding that I was a working mother trying to keep her career.”

She adds: “I did struggle, but I was determined to keep my career going, and to do that and find the right balance I was forced to leave the city for a regional firm. But I have seen lots of women who were able to rely on their partners drop out.”

SOLUTIONS

As the Black Solicitors Network calls for solutions to address the lack of diversity highlighted in their Diversity League Tables (see box off), Abimbola agrees there needs to be some decisive action to tackle the “shocking” discrimination against mothers.

“I shy away from the word quotas because quotas has the connotation of having to fill places, but we definitely need targets to encourage that diversity,” she said.

However, Abimbola admitted that “there are practice areas of law that aren’t particularly conducive to part-time working.

“But there are many areas of practice where you don’t have to physically be in the office five days a week and where you can job share.  But, frankly, a lot of firms can’t be bothered to do it and will opt for an easy ride.”

The 41-year-old says she owes her determination and perseverance to the example that her parents, who were both doctors, set for her.

She says: “I grew up surrounded by people who had worked very hard and excelled to the top of their professions, and that is my frame of reference.

“If I hadn’t had examples of that in my parents and other family members, I would not have seen that as being possible. That is why I feel so strongly about mentoring and role modelling, because everybody should have that opportunity to maximise their potential.”

The proud mum is keen to pass on the same spirit of perseverance to her son.

“My son is such a delight and a good ambassador for young black men,” Abimbola said with pride. “He is doing exceptionally well academically, in sports, in music and everything else.

“My greatest triumph is definitely my son and the way he has turned out. My career achievements will mean nothing if he was not well adjusted, happy, confident and excelling.  It would count for nothing, because for me, the fact that he is the young man he is, is by far my greatest achievement.”

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