Rebecca Dandridge from Gilead tells myGwork‘s Alim Kheraj about seeing the world of science through the eyes of art, culture and storytelling, the queer scene of Birmingham, and how being open about her sexuality helped her career to grow
When Rebecca Dandridge was a teenager, she wanted to be a designer for the queen of pop herself, Madonna. “I must have been 17 and I saw a late-night showing of In Bed With Madonna,” Rebecca recalls. “Before then I had liked her and listened to her music, but then she released Vogue and I was drawn to this whole theatrical presence that she had. She was this out there, authentic person who didn’t care about what people thought and supported gay rights. I totally fell in love with her. I found her liberating and accepting. It was a whole different lifestyle that I wanted to be part of.”
Now a mother of two working in the pharmaceutical industry for Gilead Sciences as Director of Public Affairs, UK & Ireland, Rebecca’s teenage ambitions didn’t quite come to fruition, although she did, initially, start her working life in the world of the theatre.
After leaving school, she went on to study Scenographic design at university in Birmingham before moving on to lecture in set and costume design at the Royal Holloway, University of London. The world of the theatre, she says, was liberating. “It was very different to what I’d experienced as a child because people were just so creative. Everyone had massive personalities and huge characters, but everybody was so different. I loved it.”
Rebecca says that while she had always had an interest in women – “Jodie Foster was my absolute hero and I had posters of her on my walls” she laughs – she realised that she was gay when she was 18, although it was in her early 20s that she came out fully. “It was one of those situations where there’s a fear of coming out, that fear of telling people – and I mean literally ulcer causing stress at the thought of it – and then everybody that you tell goes, ‘We know!’”
In Birmingham there was an amazing queer scene, she says. “It was just everyone mixing. It wasn’t predominantly gay. There were trans people, lesbians, gay men, bisexual people. It was just everyone together and it felt like you knew everybody. You’d dance with everybody and there was a real community feel. It was absolutely lovely. It was a really nice place to really come to understand your sexuality and feel safe.”
Working in the world of theatre and being a designer, however, wasn’t really clicking, and she wanted to communicate in a different way. “That’s why I lectured. I much preferred taking other people’s ideas and letting them explore what they could do to make themselves feel good and positive and creative, while I had no interest in doing that for myself.”
Rebecca’s pivot to pharmaceuticals came serendipitously. After leaving Royal Holloway, she worked a brief stint in outdoor events. While waiting for the summer season to start, she received a call from a pharmaceutical company who wanted her to come in and organise its events. “I went in for this interview and it was in an environment that I had literally never been in before. I showed up in a suit,” Rebecca recalls.
She got the job. Initially on a temporary contract for around six weeks, she extended for three months. “And then they asked me to do another job and then another job,” she says. “Then, because I loved communicating and obviously had a skill for it as well, they started getting me to do more communications style roles. I was still running events, but they were always colourful and theatrical and fun.”
In the end, Rebecca stayed at the company for 12 years. “I started to get a bit of a name for myself,” she says. “But it took me a while to realise that it was because I saw the world a little bit differently. I saw it through the eyes of art and culture and storytelling instead of drugs, science and medicine. Everyone would come to an event or see a film or a new website and it wouldn’t quite fit what had happened before. But people liked it, so that was great, although it took me a long time to get over that sense of imposter syndrome.”
One thing her change in industries did cause, though, was a slight retreat back into the closet. While Rebecca says she was out to people in her immediate team, she wasn’t always open about her sexuality with people outside of that group or from other organisations, often using genderless descriptions when it came to discussing her private life.
“I had a knot in my stomach a lot of the time,” she admits. “I grew up in the 80s and there was a lot in the news about Section 28 and HIV. Lots of things were happening around the gay community and subliminally you take that in. Then I went into this theatrical environment, a field I worked in that I felt so comfortable in, and you’re told that actors don’t come out because they will lose their career.”
Understandably, when Rebecca entered a more corporate environment, she was afraid that being open about her sexuality could cost her job. “Everybody had on suits and the women all had on dresses, long hair and heels. I just wasn’t that person,” she says. “I tried to be that person for a while, but it wasn’t me. I didn’t feel comfortable. I still had a fear that I could be discriminated against. Was it a genuine and real fear? I don’t know.”
When Rebecca learned that she was pregnant with her first child, she understood that something had to change. “I suddenly realised: how on earth do I expect to bring my children up proud of who they are if I’m not 100% out and proud?” she says. “So, I went into work on the Monday, and I literally told everybody. I told the person in the canteen, the person in the shop, the boss, the big boss. It didn’t matter who it was – I told everybody. I had my line: ‘What did I do at the weekend? Well, my wife Leanne and I…’”
Now, Rebecca says that within the first 30 seconds of meeting her people will know that she’s a gay woman. In fact, being open with people at work gave her a confidence boost. “The way I walked changed,” she says. “The way I talked changed and the way I dressed changed. I suddenly felt like I was being me. Then I watched my career go up and up.”
Part of this rocketing career involved leaving the company Rebecca had been with for 12 years and moving on to work at Gilead, where she has been since 2017. In her role as Director of Public Affairs UK & Ireland, Rebecca’s work is all around external communications, working with patient advocacy groups and charities to ensure that as a pharmaceutical company, Gilead is doing the best for the communities that they look after.
“I work within HIV which I find an absolute privilege,” she says. “My role is around ensuring that we’re working with the community to add value, to support and to ensure that everyone has access to the right levels of care. Because it’s an entirely non-promotional role, I just get to meet fascinating people on a daily basis who share their experiences and who tell me what it’s like to live with HIV. I meet people who support communities that are massively stigmatised, underrepresented and face huge health inequalities.”
Rebecca now leads an employee resource group for the LGBTQIA+ community at Gilead called Pride, a role she sees as an opportunity to show that the fight for LGBTQIA+ equality isn’t over. “We’re very fortunate to live in the UK,” she says. “But even in the UK there are still huge issues. And then you look at what’s happening globally, and it looks like things are going backwards. That’s crazy! You should always be moving forwards. So, I see the Pride employee resource group as a really good opportunity to shout about these things while also learning and listening. I want to help be part of a culture where people want to join the company because they see it as a place that really prides itself on its inclusion and diversity.
“I also want it to be a place where people who work within the company feel safe and supported so that they can be their authentic selves.”
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