myGwork’s George Wright sat down to speak to Deborah Waterhouse, CEO ViiV Healthcare about working to support people living with HIV, the importance of allyship and the damage that stigma does to a community

Deborah attributes her outlook on life and her values to her upbringing. Born in Birmingham, in the UK, and attending a local comprehensive school before studying at Liverpool University, she shares with me her father’s motto which has – in her words – shaped her life. “Never get above yourself.” From a working-class background and being the first in her family to go into higher education, to now being CEO of ViiV Healthcare, it is a story of the success of someone acutely aware of the needs of underrepresented and marginalised communities.

ViiV Healthcare is a global specialist pharmaceutical company 100% dedicated to HIV medicines and research and focused on people living with HIV, founded by a partnership between GSK and Pfizer in 2009, with Shionogi joining in 2012. Prior to becoming CEO at ViiV, Deborah joined GSK in 1996 and worked in several roles and departments around the world, including leading in Australia, Europe, and the US before heading up the HIV division of GSK in the early 2000s. “I really felt a deep connection to the community that we serve,” says Deborah. “I fell in love with the opportunity to help make a difference, alongside my colleagues, to support the global HIV effort.” Discussing the stigmatisation of people living with HIV, Deborah notes the need to do more for marginalised communities in general, and how this has led her to want to be a more active ally. In addition to her role with ViiV, she also chairs GSK’s LBGTQ+ Council and has brought with her a true recognition and appreciation for the strength of her team at ViiV and the role diversity has played in it. “That is a way to be incredibly successful, to have diversity. It is about personal connections and having connections to different points of view.”

Allyship, to Deborah, starts with meeting people where they are. “If I want to get to know someone, I don’t start by asking if they’re married or if they have children – I ask about their life outside of work.” Language, she says, is important, and being thoughtful about it goes a long way in demonstrating respect and understanding – such as asking people their pronouns, rather than assuming. This is a lesson Deborah knows all too well from the work that ViiV does: the language around HIV has evolved since the epidemic began to be more respectful and less stigmatising – no longer describing people as “suffering from HIV,” for example, instead opting to describe people as living with HIV, reflecting how with effective treatment, people living with HIV live virtually indifferently to people who are not living with HIV. “We need to watch out for situations where it’s creating a difficult or uncomfortable situation for others, to step in as an ally and be brave enough to say ‘I don’t think that sounds right’ and address why it might be misinterpreted or make someone uncomfortable.” Standing up in moments that matter and being ready to listen and understand the needs of people and their feelings, is all part of the journey that starts as being an ally and progresses into becoming an activist for people who need it.

Supporting people living with HIV is work that Deborah takes joy in. With 38 million people globally living with HIV, and almost 2 million new infections a year, providing medicines and therapeutics to improve lives gives Deborah a profound sense of purpose. She highlights that, for example, roughly 1.7 million children in the world are currently living with HIV and that often children are the worst treated because the medications are traditionally aimed at adults – so ViiV’s work includes exploring formulations of medicines that children can take – such as adding flavors, creating dispersible tablets that make the medicine easier to take for children who may find it challenging. “I’m proud of it every day, but I never sit here feeling it’s wonderful. I think what’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” Questions are asked about how to make access to medications easier, globally. “For 5 minutes, I’m proud. The other 23 hours and 55 minutes, I think about what more we could do.”

Obviously, a large part of supporting people living with HIV – much like supporting other marginalised communities – is tackling the stigma. Deborah points out that in addition to tackling wider, social stigma, we also have a responsibility to tackle self-stigma. Showing powerful, vibrant, amazing images of people from these communities goes a long way to addressing this stigma and changing mindsets. You may have a predefined idea of what someone living with HIV, or an LGBTQI person, or a woman in business, or so on, looks like, but we can address these assumptions and preconceptions by bringing people to understand that there is more to people than stereotypes. Addressing how people talk about themselves, and think about themselves, can create self-stigma and impact things such as people’s mental health and confidence – changing this for the better goes a long way to supporting marginalised communities.

Part of supporting marginalised communities in the workplace includes employee resource groups (ERGs), which Deborah discusses. “It makes you feel part of a community of people who are like you, who have the same challenges as you.” Having been a member of GSK’s LGBTQ+ ERG for almost 10 years, Deborah sees the importance of these networks as “challenging, in a visible way, what we’re doing each day to give us a chance to listen and connect.” Acting as a voice for employees with senior leadership, they are vital in informing and shaping workplace policy. Intersectionality plays a part in this, which Deborah believes is only going to increase in importance in the coming years, as we examine how different aspects of our identity compound the challenges – or lack thereof – which affect us. The question on everyone’s mind is asking how we build those links and represent the intersectional elements of ourselves and our colleagues.

As we move toward the end of our time, Deborah leaves me with a parting message that summed up – for me at least – our conversation. “So many people come face to face with stigma and discrimination every single day. I want people to know that many of us out there are fully committed to playing our part in challenging stereotypes and being champions for diversity.” Whether it is in the workplace, with the people ViiV Healthcare support, in the LGBTQ+ community, or beyond, challenging that stigmatisation and discrimination remains a key focus of the work that Deborah is doing.

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