International Women’s Day: An interview with Prof Jane Speight

On #IWD2018, we asked our Foundation Director to discuss her inspiration, challenges and advice for women wanting to succeed in research.

The latest reports released by the World Economic Forum show that, at current rates of progress, we will not achieve gender parity for another 216 years! International Women’s Day is a timely reminder that there is so much more to be done and that we all have a role to play, regardless of our gender – a world in which women have equal opportunities is a world in which we all flourish.

So, who has helped me along my journey as a woman in research? First and foremost, I will always be grateful to my parents who believed in the power of education, and instilled in me that studying and working hard would give me the best start in life, enabling choice, opportunities and independence; these are some of the values that motivate me.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I was fortunate to complete my PhD at Royal Holloway University of London. RHUL has a long and proud history, formed by the merger of two of the first women’s colleges established in England, and a strong association with the women’s suffrage movement (through alumni: Emily Wilding Davison). Of course, RHUL is where I began my research career in the psychology of diabetes. I could not write this blog without acknowledging the undoubted influence of my PhD supervisor Prof Clare Bradley and PhD advisor Dr Alison Woodcock, and a wonderful team of inspirational and empowering women researchers in our Health Psychology Research Group (at the time), including Dr Shalleen Barendse, Dr Christel Hendrieckx, Dr Carolyn McMillan, Dr Jan Mitchell, Rosalind Plowright (sadly deceased), and Dr Harsimran Singh. How grateful I am to have known and learned from these women. But I must also mention my key influencers and mentors in diabetes research, with whom I was fortunate to work so early in my career: Prof Simon Heller, Prof Stephanie Amiel, and Dr Sue Roberts. Working with all of these powerhouses taught me so much about research and clinical care, but also about integrity, relationships, politics, and the importance of enjoying your work and your colleagues!

Fast forward another 20 years, and I am fortunate to live and work in Australia, where some inspirational women are breaking through glass ceilings: last year Susan Kiefel AC, was the first woman appointed Chief Justice of the High Court and, this year, Professor Michelle Simmons was named Australian of the Year for her pioneering research in quantum computing. However, there are still considerable challenges facing women in research today. In particular, despite there being more women than men among early career researchers, there are fewer women in positions of academic leadership, meaning that research funding is skewed towards men.

Two of the biggest challenges still facing women in research are: a) that the traditional caring role and responsibilities continue to lie disproportionately with women, and b) the trivialisation of women and their contribution. The two issues are intertwined. I know that I am incredibly fortunate to have never been told I couldn’t do something just because I am a woman. I grew up in a country where the head of state was a woman and, when I was 8 years old, a woman was elected for the first time as Prime Minister and became a dominant influence on the UK and world stage throughout my teenage years. Whatever your views on monarchy and politics, the power of these role models for a young girl was immense, and this is why I was so pleased to see Julia Gillard AC become Prime Minister of Australia, and so appalled by how she was treated and trivialised by some politicians and media commentators.

Moving closer to home, I am proud to work for two organisations that value the contribution and leadership of women: Deakin University has an excellent female Vice Chancellor: Prof Jane den Hollander AO, and, in 2017, a woman become head of the School of Psychology: Prof Jane McGillivray (a plethora of Janes!). Diabetes Victoria currently has four women serving on its board of 10 directors, as well as management team where women outnumber men, leading various teams in the organisation.

Psychology and healthcare are professions dominated by women and yet the leaders have historically been men. So, lately I am inspired by playing my own small part in changing this. Every time a woman in our field has an achievement, steps up/forward, and gets noticed, she is doing that for all women. There is something really motivational and inspiring about that, and yet (for some reason), we often feel embarrassed to share and celebrate our successes. Though it does not come easily to me, I think it is important that we overcome our somewhat gendered inhibitions! So, I am grateful to have a platform that enables me not only to promote the psychological aspects of diabetes but also to be a role model and mentor for some amazing women, including those who work in the ACBRD, our colleagues at Diabetes Victoria and Deakin University, and many other women working in our field around the world.

I end this piece with the immortal words attributed to Mae West, which I have always found inspiring: “I never said it would be easy, I just said it would be worth it!” Happy International Women’s Day!

If you would like to read more about Jane and her research/advocacy work, you can download a profile published in the Feb 2018 issue of The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology (the download is free but you need to register to access it).

#PressForProgress #IWD2018

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