Lady Nicola Mendelsohn: ‘Addressing diversity makes sound business sense’

Lady Nicola Mendelsohn Diversity

Facebook VP Lady Nicola Mendelsohn has spearheaded a series of inclusivity initiatives at the tech giant and beyond. The passionate advocate of the business case for diversity shares a blueprint by which any leader can create a more inclusive culture and attract the widest pool of talent

On the eve of Director’s interview with Lady Nicola Mendelsohn, the Institute of Coding published results from a survey seeking the views of 16- to 18-year-olds about the UK’s digital sector. Of the 1,000 respondents, 70 per cent believe the industry is run entirely by people of white British ethnicity; 56 per cent feel it needs to be more inclusive; 34 per cent think women don’t have equal opportunities in the sector; and 10 per cent are deterred from pursuing digital qualifications because of the field’s lack of inclusivity and diverse role models.

Indeed, how many female, Bame, LGBT+ or disabled directors serving on the boards of tech companies can you name? With 40 per cent of IoD members citing skills shortages as a top-three concern for their businesses, the finding that such a large proportion of the next generation of workers see this key sector as unwelcoming to them should be worrying indeed.

“It’s super-depressing to hear those stats, but it’s also not a surprise,” Mendelsohn says. As one of the tech sector’s few prominent female role models, the vice-president of Facebook in EMEA has used her position to become one of the UK’s most active figures in tackling the problem.

On the right lines

Making diversity a priority when she joined Facebook in 2013, Mendelsohn – who is also a non-exec at Diageo and a member of the government’s Industrial Strategy Council – now has figures to prove that the tech giant is more inclusive than today’s teenagers might imagine. The proportion of women in senior leadership roles increased from 23 per cent in 2014 to nearly 33 per cent in 2019, for instance.

“Yes, we are making progress at Facebook,” she says. “But there’s a lot more that we can still do.”

Recently ranked the number-one role model on the 100 Female Executives 2019 list compiled by HERoes and Yahoo Finance, thanks to her work to foster inclusivity in both Facebook and business more widely, Mendelsohn believes that any company can increase its diversity – and reap the well-documented financial benefits of doing so. Here she recommends 12 practical steps that leaders of all businesses, whatever their size or sector, can take to develop a more inclusive culture.

1. Start talking – and listening

One of the first things I did when I joined Facebook – back then, the London office employed about 200 people – was invite all the women who worked there to my home just to listen to what was on their minds. I told them: “There isn’t a set agenda here. I just want to hear what it’s like and how I might be able to help.”

After that, we set up women’s groups in each of our offices. It’s something I would definitely recommend in any organisation. These employee-led groups certainly work for Facebook. Ours include Women@, Black@ and Pride@. They are places for people from under-represented minority groups to come together and discuss the challenges they’re experiencing.

2. Establish a support network

From there, I brought together all our female employees in EMEA – of which there were several hundred – for a one-day conference. This enabled people to tell their stories and discuss issues they were facing. We then started to form a network in which women could learn from each other and see a path towards becoming role models. We created programmes for that internally.

One of the great things was that the men said: “If you’re doing this, we want to come along too.” A number of male leaders participated and from there we developed initiatives such as training in how to spot unconscious bias and a programme called “Be the ally”, which gives everyone the common language, resources and space to practise supporting others. This has had more than 8,000 participants to date.

3. Don’t just talk – act

It’s sometimes easy for people to sit in meetings and have conversations without then taking action. But I believe that interesting things will happen when you act, which is especially important in the realm of inclusivity. This is something that’s been with me throughout my career. I’ve always been the one who thinks: “Hang on, I’m not going to stand around on the sidelines getting grumpy.” If I think there’s an opportunity for change, I will get involved.

4. Operate a diverse slate

“Diverse slate” recruitment is an absolute insistence that you have a diverse pool of candidates when you’re getting down to the shortlist. This doesn’t mean that you have to hire a certain person to boost your diversity stats, but you do need to get to a point where you’re not creating a narrow funnel at the top of the process. You’re never going to fill leadership roles with both men and women if you’re only ever bringing men into the pipeline, for instance.

It’s also about what you offer people to come into the organisation. One of the most important things at Facebook is flexible working, along with what maternity or paternity pay we offer. You spend so much of your life at work that it should be OK for your family to come first.

5. Celebrate role models

Until we start seeing that it’s just as likely for a woman to lead as it is for a man, role models remain critically important. For instance, Alison Rose [who was appointed CEO of commercial and private banking at Royal Bank of Scotland Group in August 2019] has become the first woman to head a major British bank. It’s been viewed as a rare celestial event, but she was just the right person for the job, having 30 years’ experience in the industry.

This is not only a business problem: of the 149 countries in the western world, only 17 have a female head of state. And among the 100 highest-paid sports stars, Serena Williams is the only woman – and she’s 63rd on the list.

6. Reach beyond your business

I spend a lot of time going out and talking to owners of firms of all sizes. Many female business leaders who speak to me raise the very same points we’re focusing on here. They say: “I don’t have role models; please advise me; I’m finding it hard to raise cash…”

In 2016 I set up #SheMeansBusiness [a scheme helping women to start their own businesses, offering them guidance, support networks, partnerships and events] in EMEA. It’s now rolling out in 11 countries. Research indicates that these female founders have the potential to generate more than £10 billion of economic value. Many are now running successful ventures. It’s crucial to get more women thinking: “Yeah, I can do that…”

The full article can be read exclusively by IoD members in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Director magazine

Nicola Mendelsohn


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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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