Spotlight: Insights from Edwina Dunn

July 28, 2020 4 min read

Edwina Dunn’s current job is not exactly what she imagined for herself: as a girl she wanted to be a long-distance truck driver believing that it was glamorous to be your own boss, driving the highways in a big rig across the wide-open plains of America.  She’d watched too many movies! Her advice from school at that time was that she should aspire to be a secretary, nurse, or teacher – those were the options recommended.  This was a far cry from the life she forged in her own data science company, dunnhumby.  And the journey continues, right through to her current role in London Starcount. Both her early dream and the reality she subsequently created were not typically thought of as careers for women. Today, Dunn is working hard to showcase more opportunities for women in leadership positions, especially in STEM. She is the founder of The Female Lead which is an educational charity that focuses on highlighting the achievements of women and providing educational resources to young girls in school. 

“My motivation for starting The Female Lead was born out of spending most of my career in retail boardrooms, made up entirely of men. There were few senior females visible in business when I started out and when I sold the business in 2011, there weren’t many more. I believed that if we could surface more inspiring stories about women, it would create a more obvious and diverse pathway for girls planning their future careers. I decided to publish a book that celebrates female achievement, endeavor, and diversity and share it with schools, colleges, and universities in order to inspire young women; to encourage them to reach higher, be bolder and realize their true potential, not one that society may have imposed on them,” Dunn explained. 

Not only is Dunn an excellent example of a woman who is creating opportunities for others in STEM, but also of a pioneer in data science. In 2019, Dunn was recognized for her services to data and business in the UK by being awarded an OBE (Office of the Most Excellent British Empire). 

Dunn shared withBIOTOC Connectionsome of her achievements in data science, why it is important to create more opportunities in STEM for young girls, and how The Female Lead is helping to inspire girls around the world. 

On one of her proudest achievements in her career in data science:“In 1994, Tesco approached us (dunnhumby, the company I set up with my husband Clive Humby) about its plans for a loyalty card. Our defining and most exciting moment was when we analyzed their trial data and the then-Chairman Lord MacLaurin said to us, ‘What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.’

dunnhumby launched the world’s first supermarket loyalty card in 1995, propelling Tesco into a market leadership position and doubling its market share in just over one year. 

“By the time we stepped back from dunnhumby in 2011, we had 1,500 people (50% female), reaching 350 million customers in 25 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas. This makes me feel proud and fulfilled.”

On some of the barriers that prevent girls from pursuing careers in STEM:“The disconnect between girls and STEM-related career paths happens during school”, says Dunn, “74% of girls express an interest in STEM topics and careers, but only 0.4% of girls end up choosing computer science for a degree”. Young girls are rarely encouraged to pursue maths and science, meaning they are missing out on fantastic careers such as forensic scientists, web or app developers, project planning engineers, and data/software scientists. 

“Girls grow up seeing women in powerful positions as doctors and lawyers on TV, but the media continues to promote stereotypes in data and technology jobs, often portraying them as geeky men.”

Dunn believes that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and so for these industries, the lack of female role models discourages other girls from pursuing these better paid and growing careers. “When you meet or hear about people doing amazing things in a similar field to yours, it reminds you what’s possible. ‘If they can do it, then why can’t I?’”

On the role of The Female Lead:You can’t be what you can’t see – these words are at the heart of The Female Lead, an educational charity that shines a light on the breadth of female achievement, so that young women can discover the many ways to find success and happiness. We know that diverse role models are essential for inspiring future generations, and we know that girls are eager to see women who are different from those ever-present in the media – women who have found success from their work, not how they look.

We want to continue to find women with amazing stories, highlight their achievements, and then share them with as many girls and women as we can reach, around the world.  We want to prove that you can be a female and lead.

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