Profile: Heather Melville OBE CCMI on gender, race and her one message to the wellbeing industry

Heather Melville pic

Heather Melville OBE CCMI, senior managing director, Teneo People Advisory, took part in MAD World’s recent keynote panel on “Call to action from the chief finance office” and was described, by one delegate, as a “breath of fresh air”.

In her current role she helps businesses to build inclusive and sustainable businesses. She is responsible for Teneo’s diversity and inclusion business, particularly around working with the c-suite.

Prior to this, she was director of client experience , PwC, head of business inclusion at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and is Chair of CMI Women, at the Chartered Management Institute. In 2017 she received an Order of the British Empire for her services to gender equality.

She’s also appeared on the Financial Times BAME Power List and Financial Times Empower 100 ethnic minority leaders rankings and is listed as one of the UK’s top 100 influential black leaders. We caught up with Heather just after her MAD World panel appearance to expand on a few of the topics she touched on there.

There has been much coverage about how women bore the brunt of the work/family juggle during the pandemic and the negative effect of this on their wellbeing, meaning many were furloughed or left their jobs. Where do you think we are with women in the workforce now?

When I look around me, at the moment, what I see is that women have fallen behind again. And yes, mainly women have been impacted, not just with the care of children, but also with the care of elderly relatives.

What was interesting during the pandemic is that if you watch videos of people working from their homes during the pandemic, you saw the women in the bedroom or the kitchen , with male partners located in the home office. It almost tells you that the male job was deemed to be much more important than the female’s job.

You also saw them feeding and home-schooling the children, meanwhile the men shut themselves off in their offices, only coming out to get a coffee – or to ask their wives for a coffee! That wasn’t everybody, but it was the majority. On top of that, many  women would have been going through the menopause.

Unsurprisingly a lot of women got burnt out. They made life decisions, then, which were about getting out of the office. Entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses has grown, for example. That’s left a big gap in the workplace and we were already struggling to get women into senior roles.

What role do you see women’s networks playing in supporting women’s wellbeing?

Their role is around supporting women to be the best that they can be as well as educating their male colleagues . If you can see others doing it, you know you can do it yourself. Companies need young women looking up at the older woman. This is where I think networks have a real place in society and why I’ve always been a strong advocate of them.

Covid has negatively affected women’s status and rights. Then Roe vs. Wade was also a massive blow in terms of rights (the decision by the US Supreme Court to ban the right to have an abortion). Some wellbeing experts argue that this lessening of rights generally has a detrimental effect on mental health. Do you agree?

Well, yes, because most women internalise stress and don’t always speak to their immediate families , but we know that they may sometimes speak to their friends, as that level of anxiety has to go somewhere.

So women are concerned about not being able to do their jobs, homeschool their children… and get the shopping done… and pop in and see their elderly parents and, by the way, their husband’s elderly parents as well….She is naturally going to be stressed out, especially if she’s not sleeping at night because she has hot flushes and is going through the menopause.

But when you can talk about something, that lessens the stress. What I’ve found is that women who talk about their experiences in the workplace, or their experiences with an employer or an industry, that allows them to become stronger because they realise they’re not the only one. Networks can absolutely be that kind of platform.

An issue that came up at the MAD World Summit was the fact that sometimes networks can be competitive with one another. For example, the LGBTQ network and the women’s network. What’s your advice if that’s the case?

That’s about not having the right sponsorship or right vision statement that is around the culture of the organisation. In terms of sponsors, this should really be a chief executive or member of the c-suite. That shows the importance to the members as well as the cynics in the organisation.

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Collaboration across networks is good because you find that they all cross-fertilise at some point; race and women, LGBT and disability, etc. They are there to give a sense of identity but they should be brought together too, focus must be on inclusion and not just diversity.

During your panel conversation at MAD World you mentioned October being Black History Month and said some companies just “put a label up” but this “wasn’t enough”. What would you like to see companies doing?

Firstly I want to get to the point where we don’t have to just celebrate Black History Month in October, because, when you look at the population of your organisation, it absolutely represents the communities and businesses that we serve.

I want to get to a time when Black History Month is not a tick box. It’s not about having one day where you celebrate and then forget about it for the rest of the year. It’s about looking at your culture and what it’s like for people to work in your organisation. Are the boards diverse? Are the teams diverse?

Also during your session you mentioned a young woman that you mentor. You said she was extremely upset and thinking of quitting her job after her line manager had said “how do we performance people who are ethnically diverse”. What did the line manager mean by that, because I don’t know if I understand the question?

Exactly! He needs proper coaching! You don’t say “how do I performance white men?” or “how do I performance manage young women”? Gender, sexual preference and race are irrelevant. We need to invest in Inclusive Training as part of the leadership development plan

The new World Health Organisation guidelines on mental health recognise that line managers need more training. You said, too, that managers need to watch what’s coming out of their mouths as this can have such an impact. Can you develop that point?

Yes – many of them are ending up, because of loose lips, in tribunals.

You also mentioned the cost of living crisis. You predicted that, in the next couple of months, we’ll see more absence due to stress. What do you think the role of the employer is here?

If companies are smart, they look at what causes people to have anxiety and other mental health issues. The causes are around how they get paid, job security, their performance, can they pay their bills….

The average person is going to find themselves facing much higher bills and have to find more money each month. And that’s without things like the car going wrong. Or the roof being damaged. Or the central heating not working. There are things that employers can do to acknowledge they have some responsibility to put things in place to help employees.

Like what, for example?

Like asking somebody how they are doing and waiting for the answer. Or not making them feel anxious about whether they’ve got a job or not. Giving them an outlet to talk to someone.

It’s important to remember, too, that some people have lost people through Covid as well. Now we’re coming into winter people are being encouraged to have another booster because there’s likely to be another outbreak. So companies also have to consider how to make sure that the place of work is safe for people to work in.

What’s needed is an acknowledgement that we are going through a really challenging time and that’s why companies need to employ good people officers.

What is the one message you would like to get out to the wellbeing industry?

People are fed up of just talk. Let’s get to some tactical action. Let’s not have 25 initiatives, but let’s focus on three to five that we can absolutely implement in our organisation, with accountability to deliver – and let’s share best practice amongst all businesses.



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