There are many conscious and unconscious biases related to gender and “Break the Bias” is a call to recognise and acknowledge that fact and take action to reduce such biases.

Nita Forouhi

Professor Nita Forouhi works at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, where she is leads a research group in nutritional epidemiology. Nita has worked in research for more than 17 years and is an NIHR Senior Investigator. For International Women’s Day, Nita talked to the NIHR Cambridge BRC about what the day means personally for her – and why it’s still needed.

Before we get onto the topic of International Women’s Day, tell us what interested you about research and why did you choose to investigate the links between nutrition and diet with health conditions such as diabetes?

Medical research has the potential to make a really positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. I got an early glimpse of research when I was a medical student and had the opportunity to apply for and succeed in doing an intercalated BMedSci degree. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and I rekindled my interest a few years later after working as a junior doctor, when I got a fellowship from the Wellcome Trust to do a Masters and PhD in clinical epidemiology.

I wanted to put my training towards finding modifiable factors for the prevention of type 2 diabetes and related metabolic disorders which are massive health problems affecting large numbers of people in the UK and globally. This got me interested in public health aspects of diabetes and in finding the links between diet, nutrition and the development of diabetes, obesity and cardio-metabolic disease. This research has the potential to influence population health for people in the UK and in low and middle income countries where we also conduct research through collaboration with local researchers.

International Women’s Day (IWD) theme this year is Break the Bias, what does that mean to you?

There are many conscious and unconscious biases related to gender and “Break the Bias” is a call to recognise and acknowledge that fact and take action to reduce such biases. 

Have you ever experienced any bias/ challenges in your career? What were they and how did you overcome them?

Indeed I have experienced many challenges and biases in my career – too many to list, though I welcome one-to-one discussions with colleagues and particularly with those in training to seek solutions, learning from each other’s experiences. 

Some challenges that stand out include managing maternity breaks, child rearing and family life while maintaining a professional portfolio that can be very demanding; or being a woman of colour from a minority ethnic group at the receiving end of various preconceived notions. To overcome such challenges it is important to develop resilience, to have a support network of friends and family and colleagues, and to tap into institutional initiatives that can help. It has been wonderful to see the positive progress that has been made in my professional lifetime to-date, moving from very little support initially to a lot of good practice examples in the workplace such as through the Athena Swan charter for gender equality and other initiatives.

You’re working on the Athena Swan accreditation, could you explain what this means, why this is important and what it involves? What is the difference between Gold, Silver, Bronze?

As the Director of Organisational Affairs for the School of Clinical Medicine I lead many initiatives for a positive workplace environment and culture. Among these initiatives, I lead the application for the Athena Swan award for gender equality at the Clinical School. 

The Clinical School currently holds an award at the Silver level and we have applied recently to renew this award for a further five years. This is an important goal because it means we have to take the work for gender equality very seriously through looking at detailed data from recruitment practices through the entire professional journey, career development opportunities, career progression and promotion for all our staff including academics, researchers and professional, technical and operations staff, and also our students. Based on the data and consultation with our staff through surveys and focus groups we draw up an action plan for gender equality. We measure ourselves against the progress we have made and set new goals going forward to be more ambitious for gender equality.

Our goal is to move towards a Gold level award – which is given when an institution can demonstrate that they are beacons of achievement in gender equality and they champion and promote good practice to the wider community, and can demonstrate the impact of these activities.

Why do you think it’s important more women work in science/ research and how do you encourage them to work in this field?

Women make up half of society and it is important for them to be equally represented in science and research careers, not the least because it is morally and socially just to do so and to provide good role models for other women. Besides, women have tremendous positive contributions to make to advance science and if they are missing from the workplace this opportunity is lost.

To encourage more women to enter and remain in scientific careers we need to improve our working culture and environment, make it possible for women to succeed and to have fulfilling careers including climbing the so-called career ladder effectively. We need to start early on and give aspiration to girls while still at school. In the workplace we need to create a level playing field between men and women through equal opportunities at each career stage. Fortunately many initiatives have been launched at the Clinical School to help the careers of women (including but not limited to opportunities for flexible working, recognition of and support for childcare or caring responsibilities for both women and men as appropriate). We still have further to go but we are making progress in the right direction. 

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you were starting your career?

If I could turn back time I would wish I had secured myself female mentor(s) and allowed myself more time with my children through flexible working arrangements.

Why do you think International Women’s Day is important?

The IWD focuses attention on gender equality, creating a platform for discussion and structured activities to highlight both the progress that has been made but also to reflect on and plan action for the long way ahead to achieve greater gender equality. The IWD enables celebration of the vital role that women play in society and in academia and research. 

What three words would you use to describe working in research?

Stimulating, translational, impactful

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