Stylist’s Woman of the Week is Edwina Dunn, founder of The Female Lead.
Seven years ago, data scientist and entrepreneur Edwina Dunn was pondering her next move. She had worked in data analysis for more than two decades, having founded global consumer insights consultancy Dunnhunby – the company behind the creation of Tesco’s Clubcard – with her husband in 1989. By 2011, though, the couple had decided to sell their final stake in the business for £48million. Dunn had the money to do something incredible – she just had to figure out what.
“I was reflecting on what had been an amazing journey, and I realised that I’d spent most of my career in retail boardrooms made up entirely of men,” she says. “And I thought, why is that? Why aren’t there more women on the boards of retailers?
“That was the moment I realised that it’s really hard to imagine yourself in a space unless you see someone who looks like you,” Dunn continues. “We always talk about how ‘seeing is believing’, and ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. And I thought, I want to do something to increase awareness of women’s achievements in different roles.”
Dunn founded The Female Lead in 2017, a non-profit project designed to provide a wide range of female role models for both male and female students at schools and universities around the world. The initiative has a similar ethos to Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, which aims to raise the profiles of brilliant women from the past and present day and encourage future generations to follow in their footsteps.
The key component of The Female Lead project is a book highlighting the stories of 60 inspirational women from all walks of life, written by Dunn and featuring imagery by renowned French fashion and culture photographer Brigitte Lacombe.
Women profiled in The Female Lead: Women Who Shape Our World include photojournalist Lynsey Addario, Nobel peace prize winner Leymah Gbowee, England footballer Lucy Bronze, prima ballerina Michaela DePrince, The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner and Dr Deelan Dakhil Saeed, a Yazidi doctor who works with girls who have escaped sexual slavery in Iraq. One of the women in the book, film director Ava DuVernay, was so impressed by the project that she invited The Female Lead to co-host the European premiere for A Wrinkle in Time.
“There are women here whose stories have never been told alongside women who are hugely famous, and it was great to mix that up,” Dunn says.
The Female Lead book is being donated to 18,000 schools across the UK and US, alongside a teaching pack to help educators discuss female role models and the attributes and behaviours of successful women with their students. Supporters of the project can even donate a free copy of The Female Lead and teaching resources to any UK or US school, college and university.
Dunn explains that she wants the book to show that there is “no one-size-fits-all” model when it comes to achievement.
“There’s someone for everyone, and I think we’re revealing a side to success that’s not often seen. It’s not all about power and money, and it’s not all about business or the arts. There are all kinds of things you can do.”
Dunn started her career as a data scientist at the marketing, technology and data firm CACI, and went on to become the company’s youngest-ever vice-president. She cites “education, science and women” as her main passions – and it was her interest in all three subjects that inspired her to create her second current project, Future Finder. Launched earlier this month, the free web app links A-level subject choices with STEM jobs, to help today’s teenagers see clear paths to careers in science, technology, maths and engineering.
Women make up less than 15% of all people working in STEM in the UK, Dunn points out, something that’s largely due to a “huge drop-off” in girls choosing to study subjects such as maths, physics and computing beyond GCSE level. She hopes that Future Finder will encourage more girls to consider STEM careers.
“Every job of the future will have some element of tech involved,” she says. “So we wanted to effectively present these new jobs and get young people excited about them: make them understand that they’re creative, they lead to lots of international travel, they’re well-paid, and they’re the highest-growth industries in the world.”
To date, The Female Lead book has already reached over half a million children and young people around the world, partly thanks to an outreach programme in schools, colleges and youth organisations. There’s also a Female Lead website, which showcases the stories of inspiring women through online profiles and short documentaries.
“We want people to see that success doesn’t necessarily mean being a celebrity,” Dunn says. “You can be any size, any shape, any colour, any age, and you can still do amazing things.”
Images: Brigitte Lacombe / Getty Images / Courtesy of Edwina Dunn