After studying chemical engineering and now working in finance, Atinuke Adeniji is no stranger to being the only black woman in predominantly white and male spaces. But that has never stopped her from pushing forward and excelling - what other choice has she had? “Obviously it’s not nice to be ‘the other’ and have to assimilate but you don’t really have a choice,” she says. “What is the other option? You cannot not do something if you don’t see people like yourself? You just have to keep going.”
There are a few reasons why Atinuke decided to study engineering. Firstly, she was good at science and maths, and engineering seemed to provide a good mix of both. It was also a good route considering she would have more freedom to pivot into other areas like Law later down the line - she wanted the opportunity to do everything. But it was also because she wanted to prove a point, that as a girl, she could do engineering. Atinuke recalls the moment she decided this - her uncle was telling her about his work as an engineer, and excitedly she responded that she would like to do that too. Her uncle laughed. Being 10 and stubborn, this dismissive reaction felt like a challenge to her, and she felt a need to prove herself. From that point, she decided she wanted to study engineering, and her path started to shape for her. She was known at school for her focus on engineering, her love and excellence for subjects like maths and science. When she was around 14, she was going around to other schools, trying to encourage girls her age to focus on STEM as well. One of her science teachers was a woman and aided this process, and this helped Atinuke to carve her own path in a direction that others had told her she couldn’t.
Despite the push that a lot of universities have to increase diversity in STEM courses, it is still an environment that is dominated by white men. “It's not just the numbers, it’s also the culture that comes with it.” Atinuke notes that in her course of 120, she was the only black girl - and one of five black people in total. And while chemical engineering has a higher percentage of female students (Atinuke reckons it is 65% men to 35% women), she noted that in her year’s mechanical engineering courses, there were only a handful of girls. “There were so few of them that they all knew each other and sat together.”
Nearing the end of her studies, Atinuke finds herself steering towards the financial sector and she has done internships at investment and financial firms such as Black Rock and the Macquarie Group. Her interest in this kind of work grew through knowing people in University that were doing finance, and finding resources and knowledge on how to get into the industry through them, as she notes “it’s all about having connections and access to knowledge.” As she finds herself doing more workshops and internships in the financial space, Atinuke is still finding that she is in rooms without people that look like her. “In most of these firms, all the diversity is at the bottom, with the analysts for example, but it becomes less diverse as you go up and up.” With all of these companies pushing for diversity, Atinuke can’t help but wonder why it seems the spaces have remained the same. She comments that it starts to feel preformative, that promoting their BAME recruitment numbers is pointless when they fail to retain any of that talent. Atinuke also points out the problematic nature of the BAME category, as it basically is just distinguishing every group that is ‘non-white.’ It just becomes the definition of ‘other’, and therefore holds very little value because it is lumping together so many different and distinct groups. “They will tell you that their board is 60% BAME, but when you look it up, there are no black women - so what does that mean for me if I don’t have anyone at the top?” It begs the question, when the amount of people you include under the banner is so broad, does it have any real value?
Experiences like those that Atinuke have had are not singular, and these are epidemic problems both in our education system and in organisations. While there is a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, it can often feel preformative for students like Atinuke who enter into the companies and find that nothing significant has changed.
Want to keep up to date with Atinuke’s work? You can find her here:
LinkedIn : linkedin.com/in/atinukeadeniji