Why a trailblazing nurse and professor backs the Women of Sheffield Awards: ‘Don’t limit yourself – think about what you want to do’
It is less than a year since a stark figure sparked intense debate.
In the first national study of its kind, researchers found there were just 25 black female professors working at UK universities - and for Sheffield-born Dr Gina Higginbottom, who blazed a trail as the first BME nurse to hold a professorial role in a top-tier Russell Group institution, the statistic clearly highlights the progress that still needs to be made in addressing race inequality in 21st century Britain.
"There's a lot of rhetoric about these things - gender equality, and race equality," she says. "But when you look on the ground, the reality doesn't match it."
Last March Gina won the Dr Helen Mary Wilson Award for Health at The Star's Women of Sheffield Awards - and in just a few weeks the ceremony will return for a second time, celebrating the inspirational individuals who have made a difference to the city.
Gina, who grew up in Pitsmoor and went to King Ecgbert School in Dore, was the first of her family to go to university, was given an MBE in 1998 and went on to hold a prominent research job in Canada. She wants others to follow in her footsteps, and maybe even one day pick up a Women of Sheffield Award of their own.
"I can provide motivation for people in my community who feel perhaps their opportunities are limited," she says. "Don't limit yourself through your own thought processes - think about what you want to do, and set your stall out. It doesn't matter that you come from S1. Don't be discouraged. If I can provide some motivation to any young woman in those circumstances I'd be thrilled."
Gina is engaging company and a forthright speaker – no doubt explaining why she is a favoured guest on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Her dad is Ghanaian and was a steelworker, while her English mum worked at the Bassetts confectionery factory. She had to pass the 11+ exam to attend King Ecgbert's, which was a girls' grammar school at the time.
She remembers the Pitsmoor of her 1960s childhood as a 'vibrant place, with a wonderful shopping centre'.
"It was a highly respectable working-class area, it wasn't stigmatised in the way it is now," she says. "I was the eldest of five children, and my parents always worked. We didn't have very much money. Mum had a part-time job and was always washing and cleaning - I thought 'I'm not doing that'."
Gina left school early without taking her GCSEs and became an office junior, but felt anxious about her future.
"I thought 'I can't do this for the rest of my life'. In those days you could do an exam to do nursing if you didn't have the qualifications. So that's what I did."
She spent more than 20 years as a clinical nurse, midwife and health visitor, before switching to academia as the world of nursing changed.
"It was in the process of professionalisation - I realised I would have to get a degree," she says.
Gina studied part-time at Sheffield Hallam University, then took a master's degree. Her interest in research increased and, in an era when nursing schools were merging with universities and opening up jobs that were only available to graduates, she applied for a post as a lecturer.
She was successful, and Sheffield University hired her - but she then had to complete a PhD in 2004 in order to progress further. Her thesis - funded with a National Primary Care Fellowship - focused on hypertension in Afro-Caribbean patients in Sheffield and Nottingham.
"What I discovered is a lot of Afro-Caribbean people were using herbal remedies at the same time as the traditional Western medicine - or weren't using the Western medicine, and were using the herbal remedies," she says. "The patients aren't going to tell their GP, because they know the healthcare profession is probably going to look down on them in some way. By raising a level of awareness with GPs and practice nurses that they will say to specific patients 'Are you taking any home remedies?' in a non-threatening way, then the person's likely to tell you. But if you don't provide that opening you'll never get that information."
From 2007 to 2015 she was a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Ethnicity and Health at Alberta University, then in 2015 she was appointed as the Mary Seacole Professor of Ethnicity and Community Health at Nottingham University. She is now an emeritus professor at Nottingham, and carries out charitable work as the co-convenor of the International Collaboration for Community Health Nursing Research.
"To achieve a professorial role you can't do it by giving 100 per cent," she says.
"It's so competitive, and the benchmarks are so high. An academic role is not a job, it's a way of life. It's not nine to five. You take the rough with the smooth because you a lot of flexibility, and autonomy, and you get lots of opportunities to travel all over the world. I've been to so many different places for conferences."
The driving force in Gina's case was her 'recognition of inequalities in healthcare'. One of her most recent projects looked at immigrant women's experience of maternity care in Britain.
"We've got a fantastic NHS, but it's under great strain because of the size of the population and the investment in the service," she says. "One of the things we'll probably need to do is educate our health professionals more about cultural diversity. In 2016 one in four births were to foreign-born women in the UK, and in London the figure rose to 56 per cent. That's quite large percentages. And the thing about birth is it's like death, there are lots of rituals for different groups. Having a baby in your birth country might be very different from here."
Sheffield, she points out, is home to many Somali people.
"If you have a baby in Somalia, you have a 42-day lying-in period after the birth. All your female relatives look after you and you don't have to do anything. If you then find yourself in England because of the war, you go to have a baby in hospital and you might be discharged after 36 hours. And you might have to go to Tesco on the way home to do your shopping. That's a very different experience, and probably a shock to a lot of women."
Gina, who turns 65 this year, has three children and lives in Birmingham. Her partner Derek is a property developer.
Universities, she believes, will have to take on more BME staff to meet strict criteria for funding - and to make sure students reach their full potential.
"Around 23 per cent of the total student body are from BME backgrounds," she says. "If they don't see any role models around them in terms of lecturers and professors... I'm a great believer in the old adage, 'If you can see it, you can be it'."
The Women of Sheffield Awards will be presented at an event on March 8 - International Women's Day - at the Kenwood Hall Hotel, Nether Edge. There are 12 categories, all named after a well-known local figure in their field, past or present. Visit www.womenofsheffield.co.uk to nominate someone - the deadline for entries is Friday, February 8, at 6pm.