In this interview, Helen Mellor-Mitchell, VP Brand Engagement & Communications, Dubai Airports, shares her experience of gender diversity in the workplace and details how she progressed into a leadership role.
1. Tell us about your progression into your current role
My current role was less of a progression and more of a giant leap! In February 2016, I accepted an executive role at Dubai Airports, a move that took me from London, where I had spent almost my entire career and adult life, to Dubai. It meant a switch from the entertainment industry to aviation, and from director to VP.
Never wanting to wonder what might have been, I have always believed taking risks is extremely important for career progression. It’s a belief I’ve had throughout my career, and one I took right at the start by moving from my home county of Dorset, where I had a promising first role with global brand Ryvita, to London to take a position at Paramount Pictures.
Starting in a junior role at Paramount Pictures, I was quickly awarded far more responsibility than the title suggested, managing huge entertainment properties such as ‘The Godfather Trilogy’ and the ‘Sex & the City’ TV series.
After two and a half years, a more senior role at Sony Pictures presented another exciting new challenge. Whilst leaving Paramount was a difficult decision, I knew I would regret not taking the opportunity. I worked across a diverse portfolio of film and TV at Sony, including the biggest Bond film ever, ‘Casino Royale’, and a global partnership with FIFA, which taught me the skills and knowledge for the next stage of my career.
After five years, a prestigious leadership role at Universal Pictures beckoned. This next leap meant I’d be heading up their classic and independent film division during their centennial year, reporting directly to the VP Marketing. After delivering an award-winning brand campaign to celebrate the studio’s 100th year, I secured the coveted Head of Film Marketing position.
In my tenure at Universal, my team delivered an unprecedented 25% of the top film titles in the UK market. Releasing successes such as ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Despicable Me 2’ and ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, meaning it was a hugely fulfilling stage in my career; however, after three years, opportunity came knocking once more in the shape of Marketing Director at Lionsgate UK.
When I was approached through LinkedIn for my current role at Dubai Airports, I was in conversations with Lionsgate International to take on a VP Marketing role at the studio’s headquarters in Los Angeles. It is testament to the inspiring nature of Dubai Airports as a company and the wealth of opportunity I believed it provided me, that, once again, I took a leap of faith to embark on an amazing new adventure in Dubai.
It has proven to be an incredibly rewarding opportunity. Being responsible for the brand and reputation of the world’s busiest international airport is a challenge I have embraced wholeheartedly and never regretted.
2. Did you always aspire to reach a leadership position in your career?
Even though I wasn’t the most studious at school, I was super competitive – I always took the lead in team work, strived to get the best marks in class and, as someone who is very opinionated, was never afraid to question the establishment!
I knew I needed to be successful in order to feel fulfilled, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was at university. I took a degree in International Business & Languages purely because languages were a strength and a passion and I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue as a career.
It wasn’t until a gap year in France that it became clear that marketing was my passion. And, once I started working, I realised that the ambition I had in achieving good grades also extended to career progression. I soon became determined to obtain a leading role.
3. In your opinion is there a difference between how men and women plan to progress in their careers? Do you think that there are any differences within the sector/industry in which you work?
I don’t think it’s a difference in how we plan to progress, it’s more a willingness in men to demand what they believe they deserve more easily. That said, I know plenty of assertive women who are not afraid to say what they want!
Working in marketing, I see a lot of successful women who have risen to the top. I think it’s a profession that requires a lot of empathy and emotional intelligence. And, in fact, in both my entertainment world in London and in my current role at Dubai Airports, I have been lucky to experience a greater than average proportion of female senior leaders. I worked for an inspirational VP Marketing at Universal, who taught me a lot – nurturing my marketing expertise and my confidence, allowing me to embrace my strengths and promote myself.
The dominance of women in senior leadership positions within the film industry, particularly in marketing roles, was also reflected at an international level and something that was a real motivation for my own career progression. As marketing director at Lionsgate, my MD, who went on to become President of Lionsgate UK, was another powerful woman but authentic, fair and so encouraging, and testament to the importance of people skills in being an effective leader.
I have observed the same trend at Dubai Airports, a company that is committed to accelerating the advancement of women in the workplace and actively celebrates that fact. I now report to one of the most supportive and inspiring women I’ve ever encountered.
To mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we released stats showing that 31% of our executive team is comprised of women. In fact, out of five EVPs, two of those are now women. It’s highly motivating to work somewhere that prides itself on developing female leaders.
4. Have you encountered any gender linked challenges or obstacles in your career?
I can honestly say that I haven’t experienced any challenges that I can directly link to my gender. I think in this respect, I have been fortunate.
I think the industries I have worked in and the fantastic bosses, whether male or female, I have been lucky to work for throughout my career, have meant that gender linked challenges have never been an obstacle.
5. In your experience, do you think women have the same career opportunities as men?
In my field I believe women have had, and continue to have the same opportunities, although this is certainly not the case in some more traditionally male dominated industries such as technology and banking or in Hollywood itself where gender bias seems to be far more pronounced.
Whilst my experience of the film industry was fair, the studio environment seems far less so. Clearly, we’ve seen huge controversy recently in regards to the abhorrent misogyny of some of Hollywood’s most influential men and this also extends to attitudes towards reward and recognition. I read a report just recently about the world’s 10 best paid male actors earning almost three times that of their female counterparts. In fact, the 13 top paid males on the list earn more than the highest paid and incredibly talented female star (Emma Stone), including the loveable but arguably less talented The Rock and Vin Diesel.
6. Have you noticed any differences in career opportunities for men and women based on geography?
In all honesty, I expected there to be a far starker contrast when I moved to UAE, considering what a liberal environment I came from.
In fact, women make up 66% of the UAE’s public-sector workforce, with 30% in decision-making roles. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is dedicated to the advancement of Emirati women and this is reflected at Dubai Airports, where 36% of women in executive positions are UAE Nationals. We marked Emirati Women’s Day with a special women’s networking event aimed at encouraging Emirati women to lead and succeed, with inspirational female panellists discussing their incredible challenges and opportunities.
I’m happy to witness such positive steps towards the advancement of professional women in the UAE.
7. Do you think flexible working has any bearing on career progression opportunities for women or men?
Absolutely! For parents returning to work from maternity/paternity leave, flexible working can be the difference between career confidence and progression, and a career abandoned. However, it’s still not easy.
Although I don’t have children myself, I have seen the resentment that flexible hours can provoke with some colleagues and the guilt that the women affected feel – both in having to leave on time, no matter what problem may have arisen, and in feeling they don’t have enough time with their children.
It’s vital that those on flexible hours are supported, not just by their line managers but by the work culture overall – where performance is measured on the outcomes of the work, not on the time spent in the office.
8. Does your organisation have any diversity and inclusion programmes in place? If so, what are they and do you think they are successful?
We have almost 200 Emirati women at Dubai Airports, with over 30% in decision-making roles. This figure will certainly rise in the coming years as more women advance in this rapidly growing sector.
Our HRD policies prioritise UAE Nationals in our recruitment processes; we’ve also enhanced our family friendly working environment with extended maternity leave and increased nursing hours. Looking ahead, we’re creating exclusive opportunities for UAE Nationals to pursue higher education by offering scholarships and study leave.
Our newly launched ‘Aspiring Women’s Programme’, which we are launching on Emirati Women’s Day, will also help to develop our top-performing Emirati women into the company’s future leaders.
9. Going forward, what more do you think can be done to create a culture that enables women to thrive in their careers?
I think the process needs to start at childhood. It infuriates me that girls’ clothing and books continue to promote them being a princess – who, by inference, need to be rescued by a prince - or toys that promote cooking and housework, whilst boys’ childhood things tend to predispose them to be adventurers, engineers or inventors.
Personally, I owe an awful lot to my amazing parents who didn’t see a precocious child, they saw a strong girl who could succeed at anything she set her mind to. They instilled and nurtured that in me from a young age. Yes I played with Barbies but I also loved Scalextric and Lego.
In business, as in life, men and women can each do whatever they set their minds to.
The world, in general, requires a more supportive stance on the fact that, for centuries, more domestic responsibilities have tended to fall to women. Their incredible power is in doing all that and still owning it in the office.
10. Do you have any advice for female professionals who are in, or who are looking to progress to a management or leadership role?
Be tough but true to yourself. Embrace your empathetic skills and let them work for you. Never try to be someone you’re not, but always strive to deliver above and beyond expectations.
Be assertive, know your strengths and nurture them. Continue to learn and grow, it doesn’t stop when you finish studying.
Get as much experience as you can – whether paid or not. Put your hand up for new challenges and responsibilities above your pay grade.
Be versatile, remain optimistic and persistent, even under adversity. Broaden your horizons, as only by embracing life and work’s many challenges, will you become a stronger person.
Take risks. Always think: ‘Would I rather do it and fail than wonder what might have been?’.