The Importance of Advocating

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with GSK's Training, Disability and Inclusion Director, Tracy Lee Mitchelson, on the importance of advocacy. Less than two years ago, Tracy transitioned to a brand new role within GSK to focus most of her time on Disability Inclusion, focusing on strategic efforts to drive Tracy Mitchelson sits in front of her laptop smilingaccessibility, process and policies across GSK and within the Worldwide Real Estate and Facilities (WREF) group.

"This new role created for the company makes me feel like GSK has really embraced Disability Inclusion and the work that I am doing." 

Tracy talked to me about her journey through GSK and how following her passion ultimately led to GSK creating a brand new role dedicated to Disability Inclusion. 

Kristen: Can you briefly describe your career background for me?

Tracy: My educational background includes a BA in Business Management, and a Masters in Public Health, along with clinical training as a Paramedic. As a lifelong learner I am a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and have attained certificates in Change Management, Business Coaching, and even a Diversity & Inclusion in HR certificate from Cornell University.

In my nearly 20 years at GSK I’ve held many roles leading global clinical trials and programs, clinical quality, risk management, compliance and governance and led process improvement and change management projects across GSK and R&D to increase operational success. I also founded and now Co-Lead our Employee Resource Group, Disability Confidence Network (DCN ERG). 

As an employee with a physical disability that is not always evident, my experiences have motivated me to want to educate and advocate for Disability Inclusion not only for myself but for others who may not feel comfortable doing it themselves. Having experienced firsthand the challenges in getting an accommodation for my disability, I was inspired to help others. For many years, my work in the Disability Inclusion space was above and beyond my day job. I followed my passion and now it is included in my day job.

Kristen: What 1-2 things about your role at GSK would people not know?

Tracy: Even though I have done it many times, I always tap into my courage when I am one of the few voices advocating for Disability Inclusion.  I help to ensure that people with disabilities voices are heard, and they can get what they need to be successful. Sometimes it’s a simple accommodations request such as the flexibility to work from home (pre-pandemic), or other accommodations needs and that they can work with their manager to get barriers removed.

"Because of my experiences with my disability I have always been passionate about making sure everyone felt included and not made to feel like they were different or less than."

Kristen: Is Disability Inclusion always something you have been interested in?

Tracy: Not specifically as I didn’t know it existed or that Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) was a focus in the workplace. Because of my experiences with my disability I have always been passionate about making sure everyone felt included and not be made to feel like they were different or less than, especially if they don’t feel confident to be able to do it for themselves. I was excited to find out that GSK had a strategy to address I&D. I wanted to then make sure that disability inclusion had an equal voice and that we were represented by an ERG.    

Kristen: What encouraged you to start a disability ERG?

Tracy: Early on in my career I did not disclose or share with my colleagues that I had a disability. My reasons for not disclosing were similar to what I hear from other people with disabilities. I was afraid that people may treat me differently, think less of me, and not consider me for opportunities. I was even worried about losing my job.  Eventually I had to disclose my disability when I started needing workplace accommodations. One accommodation I sought was to be a home-based worker due to my disability – a common request that doesn’t have a cost to the company. The global pandemic has proven that people can work just as effectively from home for many jobs. However, in past years work from home accommodations could be difficult to obtain and having one I felt limited my job opportunities.

Tracy mentions her reasons for not disclosing her disability.

Unfortunately, some of my experiences seeking accommodations were difficult and they reinforced my fears. I felt as if I was a burden when all I wanted was to be able to do my best. It also made me feel very alone and unsupported.

I started the Disability Confidence ERG so others would have a support network and would hopefully not have to experience what I did. I knew from other positive accommodations experiences how it really should be working, and I wanted to make sure that it was replicated.  

Kristen: It seems as though becoming confident in your disability is important for you and others. Is this the reason for the name of the ERG?

Tracy: Actually no. I named the ERG Disability Confidence Network because around that same time when I was just launching the ERG, I was so happy to find out GSK had signed a pledge on the Disability Confidence Scheme with the UK government. This idea of Disability Confidence just seemed like a perfect fit.

Kristen: How does your role support the wider business?

Tracy: Globally, over a billion people have disabilities (about 15% of the population). This is surprising to many people because most disabilities are not visible. Within that population, there is a pool of talent we can’t afford to overlook.

The work that I do helps GSK meet our internal and external commitments to become disability confident. Part of being Disability Confident means that we are recruiting and retaining people with disabilities and removing barriers so they can thrive in their roles.

I also work closely with our internal Global Disability Council which is made up of senior leaders committed to living our values through disability inclusion and accessibility. I see first-hand how GSK is aiming to be a more disability confident organization. It’s important that people at the top buy into the idea of a disability confident culture, but there’s always more work to be done to ensure our culture and behaviors reflect disability confidence.

Kristen: How as GSK supported you through your journey?

Tracy: Having the DCN ERG and the network of other ERGs is helpful as we are all experiencing similar concerns and difficulties. We are a network of like-minded people working together to affect change. I am grateful to have advocates like the executive sponsors for the DCN ERG who believe in me and what I am trying to do.

Being in a niche role can be lonely though.  When I took on this new role, I joined the WREF Strategy & Innovation team. I knew it was a very different role from others on the team but they have been very welcoming and I know I can always count on their support and encouragement.

Kristen: What advice would you give people who want to see more inclusion at their company?

Tracy:

Find your passion and your voice.

Speak up whether you are advocating for yourself or others even though it can feel daunting – the more you do it the easier it becomes.

Find advocates in the company who really believe and support you in the journey.

Don’t give up.

Make sure you take care of yourself and try to find an inner strength that can help you continue even when it seems like an uphill battle - it is worth it when you start to see change.

Learn to look back and to celebrate all the wins whether small or large.

Kristen: This has been so interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share as a takeaway for others reading this and interested in educating and advocating?

Tracy: For anyone thinking about doing this kind of work here are some important characteristics that are needed.

Resilience as sometimes advocating for change can bring out reactions and defensiveness.

Empathy for what others are going through when they share their story of the difficulties they are having. 

Courage to continue to advocate for change and in many cases being the only person to raise the concern. 

Perseverance for all the times you hear that we can’t do something or change a process/way of working/behavior.

Bottom line is despite all the challenges with this line of work it's all worth it when you can help people with disabilities thrive in the workplace.