'I am lucky that I’ve always known what I wanted to do’

Ian Florance interviews Doyin Atewologun.

Dr Doyin Atewologun originally suggested an article on the Division of Occupational Psychology’s (DOP) Leadership Development Programme, but her work with the British Psychological Society also involves the Diversity and Inclusion at Work Working Group. We settled down to talk about these and other topics in a pleasant coffee shop on the Mile End Road.

‘I’ve always known what I wanted to do – work with and understand people. When I was 11 or 12 my aunt told me that that was exactly what she did – she was a child psychologist working at a school. It made me very proud to be affiliated with such an encouraging and thoughtful profession.’

Like a lot of Nigerian children with her background, Doyin was sent to the UK to do her A-levels. ‘The aim was to be an international student dividing time between the UK and Nigeria. My cousins were returning to the UK at the same time, and I ended up living with them and my aunt in Northampton.’

Doyin made an early decision to be an occupational psychologist. ‘At the time I would have said I wanted to work with “normal” people rather than the ill or with children. Anyway, after A-levels I took a year out and worked in HR in Benin. I had done some research, so my psychology degree at Birmingham didn’t surprise me as it does some students – it certainly interested me as I discovered the reality of areas such as neuropsychology.’

Doyin then took another gap year working for what is now Connexions. ‘I deferred a place at Nottingham on an Occupational Psychology MSc to get the ESRC funding I’d qualified for with a first class degree. Nottingham had a good reputation but the classes felt too big for me. This made it difficult to connect with a wider group although I made friends there. Students should see their degree and postgraduate years as an opportunity to set up a peer network which can be useful throughout their careers.’

Did you want to be an applied or an academic psychologist? ‘It sounds funny now but I didn’t really see academics as true occupational psychologists. In my eyes, occupational psychologists were people who worked for consultancies and testing companies. But we were warned that the job market was going to be difficult – 9/11 happened a couple of weeks before we started the course. Once I’d finished the MSc I set about finding a job in a fairly organised, energetic way.’ She searched for jobs in the West Midlands, using BPS resources to find addresses and firing off letters to everyone she could think of. ‘I came to appreciate the value and skills of cold calling. Looking back I’m really touched by the number of people who sent me encouraging replies, telling me not to get put off but to persevere. I’ve kept those letters, and it made me very proud to be affiliated with such an encouraging and thoughtful profession.’

Doyin was finally made an informal offer of a job by a very major company she really wanted to work for. ‘They told me to hang on as there were “some things going on”. I’m afraid I’m still waiting. Then I was offered a job by OPP, the test publisher and consultancy who, among other things, are Europe’s distributors of the most widely used personality test in the world. I loved that job. Nowadays different individuals tend to specialise in either training or consultancy – I did both, which had positive implications for chartership and for my credibility. For instance, it meant that during training I could talk about my own experiences.’

Reflecting on her move into work, Doyin thinks ‘I could have been more commercially astute. I sometimes think a hybrid MBA and Occupational Psychology course would help newly qualified psychologists become effective quickly in the real world of work.’

Doyin’s interest in diversity and her PhD in the area started in her early years in work. ‘For a long time I worked with very few black or Asian colleagues, and there was very little talk about diversity.

I became aware that the same behaviours from different people would be rated differently by different bosses as well as by raters in assessment centres. I got fascinated with diversity as an issue and this tied in with authentic leadership, which was of huge interest at the time. It struck me that asking people to be themselves, to be authentic, was tenable if their identities aligned with society’s expectations. But what if the “authentic you” isn’t actually what people expect to see in leadership roles?’

Doyin’s PhD looked at the effect of micro-behaviours on minority ethnic leaders’ work identities. ‘OPP gave me huge support, and because I was working in training and consultancy I was able to work very flexibly alongside studying. I suppose I had early experience of a portfolio career. I finished the PhD in January 2012 and entered a whole new world of researching leadership and diversity.’

Surprisingly, given her earlier views, Doyin’s more recent career has been as an academic. ‘Not deliberately – I had received a lot of positive feedback about some of my academic skills like writing and presenting abstract information in an accessible way, so I was warming to it. And, soon after completing my PhD, I was offered a maternity cover job at City University, then another, and then I moved on to Queen Mary, University of London where I am now. I still do a little consultancy – as an associate for companies and some off my own bat.’

The diversity group has grown ‘with the support of the Society. But I’m surprised that this sort of work is only just beginning. At the moment our mission is very much to link diversity practitioners with academic research but, as well as this external communications role, we have an internal marketing mission – to make the Society itself more aware of and more responsive to diversity issues, like coaching minority clients, gathering evidence for interventions that work for heterogeneous groups, and training occupational psychologists.’

Doyin is also involved in the DOP Leadership Development Programme, which for the last three years has aimed at providing potential DOP committee members with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to become effective leaders. ‘I was on the first programme and volunteered to evaluate it, working with a team of volunteers. It’s taught me a lot about logistics, project management and motivating others. I think the course has helped participants to be more realistic through understanding the structure of the Society. The Society is run, to a great extent, by volunteers, and members’ fees are not thrown about. It takes longer to get things done than one might want but that’s understandable – everyone has their day job.’

You seem to get involved a lot with the Society. Would you like to do more? ‘The thought fills me with foreboding since I have enough to do! But I suppose if you complain you need to step up to the mark.’

Have you got any advice for someone starting in psychology now? ‘Make good friends on your course. Volunteer for the DOP. Do your research and really try to understand what sort of roles there are out there. And be careful about going into HR. It’s a different identity and you’d do better to get experience as a locum, associate or volunteer within our profession.’

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