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Lara Oyesanya says employers need to open up and allow their employees to challenge the established order. That way they will progress.
Lara Oyesanya was recently named Forward Ladies Outstanding Business Woman of the Year after leaving the judges “amazed and highly inspired” by her “drive, passion and determination”, the significant impact she has had on the legal sector and her advocacy of children’s rights.
For much of her career Lara, now UK Counsel and Director, Legal at Klarna Bank AB, has been the only black female lawyer at her level. Nevertheless, she thinks the fact that she has been very outspoken about her views has meant she hasn’t progressed in many organisations as much as she could have and that a more transparent, structured progression structure would have helped.
But that hasn’t stopped her having a hugely varied and accomplished career. She has progressed instead by moving around and gaining a broad range of knowledge. “It was important to me to continue to acquire knowledge,” she says.
Alongside her achievements at work and in the community, she has also raised five children, including twins, all of whom are now grown up.
Lara began her legal career in Nigeria, where she studied law, and then she and her husband moved to Edinburgh when he got a senior house officer post there.
It was in Scotland that she raised her first daughter. She took seven months’ maternity leave, but didn’t like being stuck at home. In her later maternity leaves she took much less time off: just six weeks with her second daughter and her son then four months off with her twins.
After Scotland, the family moved to Lincoln where her husband was working at a hospital. Lara worked in a small law firm, dealing mainly with family law and farmers.
From there her husband moved to Kings College Hospital and Lara got a job at British Rail where she stayed for over eight years. In that time she dealt with everything from privatisation contracts, Crossrail and property law to law related to the fatalities in the Clapham Junction rail crash. It was a hugely broad portfolio of different legal issues. “That variety made me,” she says.
It gave her the experience, confidence and resilience she needed for other roles which followed at employers ranging from RAC to Hbos. In 2008 she started work as Senior Legal Counsel at BAE Systems, which she describes as her most challenging role.
“It was a very male-dominated environment,” she says. “I felt totally inadequate. It was very technical, mathematical and physics based which are not my strong points.” However, looking back she feels a tremendous sense of achievement and pride. “I had to deal with huge contracts with different countries and with confidential information. I had to understand the ins and outs of detailed engineering contracts. I was also involved in some investigatory matters. I travelled a lot and went on a submarine. It was incredible,” she states.
Two of Lara’s children are lawyers and she tells them a legal career is not all about the money. “The breadth of knowledge I have acquired has been because I did not specialise too early. The beauty of law is in its application and law is more interesting if you don’t focus too narrowly in the early days,” she says.
Lara describes herself as fiercely independent and that independence has played an important part in her career pathway. She hates the idea of being dependent and not having her own income. Her experience working in family law highlighted the consequences for women who gave up their careers to be at home with the children and then found themselves in difficult financial circumstances when they separated from their husbands. “Their whole lives were shattered, broken into pieces,” she says. She tells her daughters that “all hell will break loose if you say you will become a housewife”.
Lara feels passionately about the need for greater gender diversity in law. One hundred years after the first woman qualified as a lawyer, she feels frustrated at the lack of progress, particularly at very senior levels, and the slow pace of change, even though she says things are moving in the right direction. “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with regard to equality. We should not pat ourselves on the back. It should be normal for women to be treated as equals and for the best person to get the job,” says Lara.
Her own experience has been mixed. For instance, although at the time she says British Rail did not do much to attract women specifically, once she got her job she was promoted quickly. She thinks this is partly to do with her character. “You have to be bold and have conviction. I think that kind of attitude helped me,” she says. She puts it down to the way she was raised and a strong belief that she could be whoever she wanted to be. “I didn’t see myself as a woman or black, but as a well trained lawyer,” she says.
She has worked more recently in financial services, including at Barclays, and says some of the older City institutions are not progressing, despite lots of talk about gender equality, due to their hierarchical structures which require a deference to people higher up the chain. This goes against her values. “Everyone talks about culture,” she says, “but a lot of it is lip service. I like to challenge that and ask what do you mean in practice. How do you measure that? They can have all the transformative programmes they like, but if they don’t look critically at their processes it won’t change anything. Diversity is about differences and accepting change. Independent thinking is a strength.”
She has seen the impact a different, more open approach can have. One of her daughters works for McKinsey where she was promoted to associate level in less than two years. “They don’t care about hierarchy. It’s about what you bring to the table,” she says. “Every member of the team has a voice and they are encouraged to challenge things. They put a lot of thought into talent attraction and retention. My daughter loves it.”
Lara herself is now working for the Swedish Klarna Bank AB and has found their transparent approach to pay very refreshing. “They are not interested in your previous salary and pay to match the competency they’re recruiting for,” she says.
Looking back, Lara – who is also a trustee of Plan International UK which advocates for children’s rights and equality for girls – believes she has shown that you can have a career and be a mother, although she is sceptical about the idea of ‘having it all’ as it’s difficult to fit everything in. What is important, she says, is to treat people the way you would want them to treat you and to never “know your place”.
“Being heard is a right of passage and we should stop considering it to be a privilege,” she says. She adds that she doesn’t consider herself to be superwoman, but she has made challenging, conscious choices. “That is what life is about, the choices you make. You need to own your actions and their consequences.”