Michele Acton – welcoming Women in Vision

05 January 18

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Michele Acton Chief Executive

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This blog is based on Michele Acton’s opening remarks at the inaugural Women in Vision meeting held on Friday 15 December 2017.

I was delighted to give a welcoming address at the inaugural Women in Vision conference. The organisation was launched with the aims of promoting connections between women working in the field of vision and eye research, fostering collaborations and mentoring and increasing the profile of women in the field.

Why is this needed I hear you say? Why do we need an organisation focussed on women when we have equality legislation and many national and workplace initiatives to address gender gaps?

For me, there are three key reasons – equality, economic success and above all, utilising all talent to deliver better outcomes for patients.

We don’t have equality. On a macro level in its Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the World Economic Forum gave the dismal prediction that the gender gap will take 100 years to close at the current rate of change. What is worse is that the workplace gap, which measures factors such as wage equality, seniority and labour force participation, will take 217 years to close. Whilst the UK ranks 15th out of 144 countries for its overall gender gap this falls to 53rd for economic participation and opportunity for women.

Looking specifically at the lack of equality in scientific research, Professor Shahina Pardhan of Anglia Ruskin University highlighted that in the EU female scientific researchers are paid 18% less than men per hour and in the UK female scientific researchers are paid 10% less than their male counterparts.

With regard to economic success, a report by McKinsey Global Institute published in September 2016 estimated that improving gender parity in work in the UK could realistically add £150bn to GDP in 2025. With Brexit looming, we have seen the UK government focus on a deal for the life sciences sector with the aim of making the UK a major global player. The challenge is there for the life sciences sector. In the vision sector we want to play our part in rising to that challenge. There are however more female optometry undergraduates than male and more women than men entering and graduating from medical school, yet, when it comes to increasing seniority, the positon is dramatically reversed. To be a global player we need to ensure that opportunities exist for everyone and that the sector can harness the contribution of women at all levels.

We know that more women live with sight loss than men, yet when it comes to addressing sight loss we are still not fully utilising all expertise to deliver the outcomes that we want for patients.

Women in Vision is not a nice to have, it is a necessity and one where the UK, given its high global profile in vision and eye research, can lead practice globally.

But what can Women in Vision do?
I believe that there is much that can be done and the launch of Women in Vision represents a great starting point. Together we can take action to ensure that we tap into all talent. We can start by ensuring that women have:
• the chance to network and connect with others in the field;
• female role models and mentors that can support career journeys;
• equal opportunities to sit on assessment panels;
• equal opportunities to present their work at academic and other conferences (sign up to the Fight for Sight Speaker Network!); and
• opportunities to be profiled in the media.

We can campaign for women and men to take a lead and make a stance. Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, tied National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) grant funding to an Athena Swan Charter mark. When there were no women on the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, the Chair of the committee, Norman Lamb MP, commented: “I don’t see how we can proceed without women on the committee. It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue STEM subjects. We will not be effective as a committee.”

What is Fight for Sight doing?
Looking at the gender balance at Fight for Sight, 7 of our 15 trustees are women, i.e. 47%. This compares to the average for charities of just over a third. 70% of people employed by Fight for Sight are women and three quarters of the Senior Management Team are female.

What about the research that we fund? This paints a slightly different picture.
When it comes to assessing research applications, a quarter of our Grants Assessment Panel is female. When it comes to current grant holders, a third are female. By comparison however only 15% of NIHR Chief Investigators in ophthalmology are female.

Over the last five years, sixty percent of students appointed to Fight for Sight PhD studentships were female and this year all seven of our new PhD students are female. For these students and others it’s about having choices and opportunities. It’s about ensuring women are able to start labs and to assume positions of leadership and influence.

At Fight for Sight we will play our part in effecting change. We are committed to equality, supporting economic success and above all, delivering better outcomes for patients. These will only happen if we harness the potential of all – male and female.

Women in Vision was launched on 15 December 2017 and organised by Maryse Bailly, Mariya Moosajee and Julie Daniels from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology

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