Ann O’Dea and Heather Melville offer their tips on encouraging diversity and inclusion in work, and explain why this is a winning strategy.
At the Inspirefest Leaders’ Lunch during the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), Inspirefest founder and Silicon Republic co-founder Ann O’Dea sat down with Heather Melville, director of client experience at PwC UK, for a straight-talking discussion on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
BT Ireland MD Shay Walsh welcomed the invited attendees to a session that promised to teach them winning strategies for building an inclusive and equitable workplace. Couching this theme in the context of BTYSTE, a national science competition running for the past 55 years, Walsh reflected on the diversity of the students who have competed over the years.
He told of how a painfully shy young transgender student, whose project tackled suicide among LGBTQ teenagers, gained enormous confidence after just a few days at BTYSTE last year. He also gave the poignant example of a young student from a Kenyan family who had put together an immaculate project and even met the Taoiseach despite being homeless and living in a hotel at the time. These students and their projects, Walsh observed, are a barometer of our times.
With a career spanning almost four decades, Melville’s background is largely in financial services and international sales, including a recent role as director of strategic partnerships and head of business inclusion at the Royal Bank of Scotland. In 2017, she was awarded an OBE for her services to gender equality in business and her passion for inclusion has led to myriad awards.
She joined PwC in November 2018 and, also that year, was named by Powerlist as one of the UK’s most influential black people and in the top 30 most influential black people in the City of London.
While we are still tackling diversity and inclusion issues in workplaces the world over today, Melville has seen some of the more antiquated and direct expressions of exclusion in her working life.
She spoke movingly about her own experiences breaking into the traditional British corporate world as a young single mother and a black woman. In fact, in the 1980s, an interviewer told her outright that he didn’t believe mothers should be working, to which Melville simply explained that, as a single mother, she was not afforded the privilege of even having a choice. While she left thinking the interview was a frustrating waste of time, she was later offered a job by the interviewer – a newly created role at a higher salary than what she was interviewing for.
Melville has seen progress happen first-hand. In 17 years at Royal Bank of Scotland, a proud moment came three or four years ago. “We got one of our first investors that picked us because of our gender policy,” she said. “[That] is a real-life story of your investors looking at you and deciding whether or not they will invest in you or do business with your company based on some of the things that you’re doing in this space.”
Back in the present day, Melville echoed the cry of the Time’s Up movement when she told the audience of leaders gathered in the RDS Minerva Suite that the time of industry minorities putting up with inequality and bad behaviour is over. She said that talent today is more selective, and people are actively choosing not to work with disreputable companies.
For those minorities in difficult workplaces, she warned of a common habit of accepting the unacceptable. “You feel like you’re on your own and so you accept bad behaviour because you think it’s normal and you don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to complain.”
Speaking out, however, is only effective if there’s an ear to listen. Emphasising that listening is actually the most important skill of them all, Melville assured that even the most stuck-in-the-mud traditional CEO can listen, be challenged and change. For that exercise, reverse mentoring is another powerful tool she recommends.
This can be transformative for C-suite executives who are unaware of what’s happening at grassroots level, and only notice issues when they see their employees leaving for their competitors. “You only really get to the root of that when you’re able to have reciprocal and reverse mentoring sessions with people where it’s open and honest,” explained Melville.
Right now is an “exciting time” for Melville because of the progress she has seen on diversity and inclusion, and her wisdom from experience can help continue that momentum.
“I can’t change my gender and I can’t change my colour … and my age – those are the factual things,” she said. “But, actually, what I can do is share with you some of the experiences that I’ve had. Some of them have been amazing and some of them not so good. The ones that have not been so good, well, actually they’ve been some of the best learning curves that I’ve had.”
Additional reporting by John Kennedy