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International Women's Day: How we can play our part in breaking gender bias in health and social care research

Professor Lucy Chappell, Chief Executive Officer of the NIHR, writes about her experience of gender bias in the workplace and as a female consultant and  calls for everyone in the research community to promote a gender equal world.

Despite leaps forward in gender equality, most women have their stories and experiences of unfair bias. I’ve been in many situations through my professional career where, when people become aware of my name, or I’ve walked into a room, people have made judgements about me just because I’m a woman. Not on the basis of my ability, or my potential, but on their preconceived opinion. 

I’ve sat in clinic as a new consultant while a couple addresses the young male medical student at the side of the room in preference to speaking to me. I’ve been spoken to rudely and abruptly by a young male trainee doctor when I was sitting at a secretary’s desk looking for a laser pointer, only to walk into the lecture theatre moments later to deliver the keynote speech. When we are all dressed in scrubs in the hospital, it is common for female doctors to be assumed to be a nurse, or a housekeeping assistant, further perpetuating stereotypes about all those professions. And sometimes other women are biased, and we fail to treat our colleagues equitably, recognising talent first rather than their gender. 

This year’s International Women's Day asks all of us to take responsibility for those unfair judgements, and to stop and think how we can break this bias. 

We also know that gender bias has a significant negative effect on medical diagnosis and the quality of healthcare people receive. It can lead to substantial delays in diagnosis, as well as misdiagnosis and even avoidable deaths. As we emerge from two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, to improve the health and wealth of the nation through the NIHR – we all have a role to play.

Leading by example

So what will I do? As Chief Executive of the NIHR, I can own my behaviours and actions, enabling women to flourish so that inclusion is the norm. I will visibly value and seek diversity of contributions in my decision making. As a leader I am looking for those who bring their expertise and experience, whatever their background, to the challenges of science and health that are so pressing.

This might entail giving appropriate recognition to other women’s work, ensuring that women can contribute equitably to meetings and conferences, whether as panel members or participants, looking at working practices to avoid disadvantaging those with caring commitments, and much more. We should recognise too where bias does not affect all women equally. 

Addressing gender equality and tackling disparities

I will ensure NIHR continues to make strides in addressing gender equality, particularly in terms of addressing barriers to career progression for female academics. A number of interventions over the years have successfully improved gender equality in our research workforce. Today half our flagship NIHR research professors are women, and two thirds of personal fellowships are awarded to women. As Chief Scientific Adviser, I will champion ‘breaking the bias’ in my advice to Ministers, for example through DHSC’s taskforce to level-up maternity care and tackle disparities.

We can be advocates to ‘Break The Bias’ in every single setting, calling out where we see gendered assumptions and asking how we positively promote a gender equal world.   

Professor Lucy Chappell, NIHR CEO


Find out more about how NIHR is promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in research

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