Diverse Insights: A conversation with Natalie Mellin

Published by:
Jade Allan
May 28, 2019
min read

#DiverseInsights - a series of conversations with the trailblazers turning diversity, inclusion and belonging ambition into action. Our second conversation is with Natalie Mellin.

Natalie Mellin has over 10 years of industry experience in Diversity & Inclusion, Communication and Employee Engagement. Her speciality lies in utilising Behavioural Economics in a digital space. She started her career in her native Stockholm with Gender & Art Studies and volunteering for Scandinavia’s largest Pride festival, before moving to London to consult for several blue-chip companies like GE Capital, Santander and AstraZeneca and many more.

Back in Stockholm since 2014, first with the game maker King to roll out an Employee Engagement strategy with a key focus on Diversity & Inclusion as well as overall Employer Brand. A strategy that delivered her team close to 20 nominations and awards. She also enhanced King's ways of measurement and introduced a new Inclusion Index, while many others still focused solely on diversity numbers. During her years there, she saw metrics consistently above the norm of high performing organisations. She now runs a consulting firm, working with large and small companies globally.

Most recently she was at Spotify setting up the R&D organisation to move from awareness to actual change. Natalie also headed up the design and running of the largest Inclusion Summit Spotify has ever held. She is a strong believer of 'sharing is caring'. Which has led to her being known as an inspiring and transparent facilitator, keynote speaker and panellist at events and forums like LinkedIn, Facebook, newspaper Expressen, The Gender Equality Forum and many other events.

What does D&I mean to you? What do you make of the changes in titles from D&I to I&D to belonging?

For me, inclusion is everything from truly understanding each other and moving beyond tolerance to embracing the rich dimensions of diversity contained within us all. It’s the term we use to describe organisational practices in which underrepresented groups are actively welcomed and accepted. It’s about correcting the long-standing issues we have in terms of inequities like ageism, racial, and gender inequality. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s how we unlock the power of diversity to improve not only our business results, innovation but also our own happiness and well being.

In regards to changing titles, I find it’s showing the evolution of this space. We started with realising that we need more diverse representation. Then we needed to focus on not just bringing in diversity but including diversity and now many of us have realised that we are still not truly getting the cultures fully right where you truly belong and feel psychologically safe to not censor yourself. In other words, language replicates norms and we need to continue to evolve our language to help us drive change for better.

In other words, language replicates norms and we need to continue to evolve our language to help us drive change for better.

Was there a eureka moment that made you want to address diversity and inclusion full-time?

Well, my mom tells me that I was questioning things around gender equality even as a young kid. But I primarily remember that I started to play around with both using the norm and stereotypes to my advantage as well as working against them as a teenager.  Thinking back I believe that’s where it started when it comes to gender equality. Other dimensions and intersectionality only really came in when starting at University. And somehow it fuelled my passion for working for change but it also made me think that I was not cut out to be working with this. I did not thrive in an academic setting and even though I find lots of the research extremely fascinating, my dyslexia made it harder to get through all the information I needed to learn more. So I took a break working as a recruitment consultant. And slowly I just started getting involved. First, it was volunteering, then it was a project at work, then it was 10-20% of my job until it took over all of the time I spent at work. And now sometimes a lot of my time outside of work.

Why have you shifted to thinking about these topics from an unconscious bias standpoint?

I think I’m constantly learning and growing in this space overall. But the key change happened when I started reading up more about Behavioural Economics.

I met Dan Ariely around the 2010 mark when reading his book Predictably Irrational. You could probably say that I ‘fell in love’ with Behavioural Economics at that point. And to this day I still very much find it to be the missing puzzle in how we should combat the long-standing inequities we have.

I say that, as despite years of diversity training and anti-discrimination policies, one could argue we have not come very far. In fact, the World Economic Forum suggests a 108-year wait for gender parity in their 2018 report. McKinsey also reports in their 2017 ‘Women in the Workplace’ study, that women only represent 18% of all C-suite roles. That number compares to 12% for men of colour and only 3% for women of colour.

I find the missing piece in how we should combat this is truly understanding how our brain works. You know that our brain gets hit by 11 million signals at any given moment in time. But we can only consciously process 40 of those, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. This means a tremendous amount of signals get processed by using prior knowledge and patterns. So trying to train our conscious minds to make a change is never going to work 100%.

What we need to do is focus more on how we nudge our ‘unconscious minds’ to mitigate more of the racist, sexist etc. behaviours that otherwise easily seep in.  I believe we can do that through behavioural economics.

Some people think that framing the case for diversity in business terms belittles the moral case for it. What’s your take?  

It’s interesting, as I actually don't get asked as much about the business case anymore. I mostly get asked about ‘how’. Something I completely understand and think is where we need to spend our time. But starting out in this space, the business case was pretty much all I was ever asked for. My response is usually that it’s time we move on from the business case. We have tons of research showing that diversity is correlated with both profitability and added value. Even so, for some companies or some executives, even the most compelling data seems to require additional rounds of convincing. And even after those rounds, more data is still required to convince them. This probably shouldn't surprise me, after all, hasn’t research shown that facts and data don’t actually change people’s minds. I found this quote the other day and thought it was good..

“The house burned in front of them but they wanted the data to prove it. That is the audacity and ridiculousness of making the business case: convincing one of the obvious. If the smoke doesn't alarm you, the fire certainly should.” Bernard Coleman III

What company do you think is doing this really well?  Why?

I find many companies are doing at least one thing really well. For instance, at Spotify we created a huge network of change ambassadors who work all over the organisation, in all types of roles, ensuring that this doesn't get labelled as only an “HR initiative” and gets embedded in a faster way. Other companies are doing really well at redesigning technical platforms to mitigate bias in, for example, the recruitment process.

I also want to give a shout out to Move the Elephant who is a global for-sharing change-organisation which shares actual examples of how to use behavioural economics for free.

If you had advice for people working in teams on D&I initiatives what would it be?

Dare to test new things. Maybe the goal shouldn't be to increase representation by X, for X underrepresented group. Maybe it should be to put a maximum limit on homogeneity in every team.

I also find that entering this space from the product space (instead of people space) has worked for some. Focus on how you can build the most inclusive products and make better product decisions first.  Finally, a lot of the requests I get at the moment are about toxic masculinity and an area where I hope to see many of us in the D&I space evolving in the near future.

What is one thing even well-intentioned organisations get wrong about diversity and inclusion?

I believe that many companies still believe it’s too hard to do anything about diversity and inclusion. Or that the slow rate of change is necessary. I think we focus too much on how to ‘speak’ to our conscious minds when trying to create change.

I hope that more companies will find learnings from behavioural economics useful and truly start to look at embedding their D&I philosophy to the business strategy.

I see this working best when a CEO is truly thinking about D&I being his/her secret sauce, part of their strategy for business success and not just a nice to have.

What about starting your own firm, how did that come about?

It grew primarily organically. I started getting requests a few years ago but sadly didn’t always have the ability to help other companies whilst working in-house full time. Last year, I decided I needed a new challenge and I wanted to free up some time to develop a free digital tool to help more companies, who may not have the funds others do. It’s a very exciting time at the moment. I get requests from the right and left and I think that is the key. No one will succeed here alone. We need to create a community and drive change on a bigger scale. That’s what I hope to do with my company.

We hope that after reading this conversation, you’ll be inspired to take action and make diversity a priority in your organisation. We think that our resource centre is a great start. It’s packed full with guides and studies for the next champions of diversity, inclusion and belonging.