Professor Sally Theobald, Chair in Social Science and International Health

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Professor Sally Theobald, Chair in Social Science and International Health, Faculty of Clinical Sciences and International Public Health. Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).

I spent my teenage years in Malawi and saw first-hand how poverty was experienced differently for women and men. I became aware of a marked difference in gendered attitudes at school, and started to feel passionate about contributing to changing the situation. My undergraduate dissertation focused on women living with HIV in Zimbabwe, a project that intensified my determination. Following completion of an ESRC-funded MA in Gender and Development, I proceeded to a PhD in Gender, Health and Development, the research component of which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. My doctoral studies took me to Thailand, where I explored gender and occupational health in electronic export factories. I had an inspiring feminist PhD supervisor at the time, who further enhanced my passion regarding strengthening gender equality and health systems.

Professor Sally Theobald

I successfully applied for a Lectureship at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) in 1999. I applied for a variety of posts, but I liked the international remit at LSTM. I had carried out some teaching in development studies during my years as a postgraduate student, but teaching in a health setting was a completely different experience. At the time, we needed “to sell” social sciences to students and some colleagues from a medical background. The resistance was around social sciences not being seen as ‘rigorous’ enough, and we had to fight against a prevailing “it is just like journalism” attitude. I think the space for social science in health has now been much more firmly carved out, and gender analysis occupies the legitimate space it is entitled to: at the forefront of research. Being able to function in this legitimate space has enabled me to design and implement a wide range of research projects in health, equality, gender and governance in collaboration with a range of partners focusing on close to community providers, post conflict contexts, sexual and reproductive health and neglected tropical diseases.

In 2004 I moved to Malawi with my partner and 5 months old daughter, as I was seconded to act as Technical Adviser to the REACH Trust. We returned from Malawi in 2006 and the same year I secured a Senior Lectureship, and gave birth to twin girls. I again took 6 months’ maternity leave during which time my colleagues covered for me. The first time I travelled post giving birth to twins (to Kenya), I took all my kids with me. In this instance LSTM paid for my partner’s mother to accompany me, as I was breastfeeding and I needed another adult to be allowed to board the plane: you have to have a 1:1  adult: baby ratio.  It was a very tiring trip, but I was fortunate enough to have a solid support structure in the form of family and colleagues.

If you ask my daughters, they would complain that I travel too much. But I do take them with me when I can, though this is obviously expensive personally, and now they are all at school I can really only do this in the school holidays. It is important for me that my children understand the nature of my work, and see the social and medical issues I address through my research, and see understand why I need to travel. I have excellent supportive colleagues in the Department of International Public Health, many of whom have children of similar ages, and we discuss together the pros and cons of taking children with us on different trips and the juggling act this entails. I am always touched at how incredibly child-friendly my colleagues from Africa and Asia are, and having recently not been allowed to have my twins sit in a 2-hour meeting in London (ironically on gender), I wrote to thank colleagues in Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Thailand for their amazing and supportive approach to me travelling with kids. One of them replied, saying “it is our honour and our responsibility to inspire the next generation”, highlighting nicely the views and ethos of some of the amazing people I have the pleasure to work with.

In 2013 I became Reader and secured my professorship in 2015. I am blessed with a partner who has supported me throughout my career, including travelling with me and looking after the children so that I can progress with my research. He now works part-time and continues to support my career progression, though juggling family and travel continues to be a challenge; working it all out takes a lot of space in my head! I have also had the privilege of access to a brilliant line manager and role model, Professor Imelda Bates, who encouraged me to apply for promotions. There are solid informal collegiate support networks in our Faculty. Networks like this, alongside active positive support for women, is key to supporting  gender equaity. 

My work is highly collaborative, but when writing things like promotion applications, it is necessary to switch to first person and try and focus on your own role.  Some can find this very uncomfortable, and I have witnessed this discomfort in myself and other women colleagues I work with and have mentored. We now make a point of encouraging colleagues to focus on the ‘me’ when promoting themselves, and support each other in this too! Another challenge is the fact that a lot of research-active women are doing a lot of administrative and management work. I Chaired the LSTM research Committee for 4 years, and decided with the support of my Director and Dean to step down in 2016 as I felt I had done my stint and that it was time to move on.

Gender equality is clearly an issue close to my heart. While most health care providers are women (and unpaid health care is nearly always done by women), the significant majority of decision-making in health is carried out by men. In October 2016 I presented in the World Health Summit in Berlin on women’s leadership in global health and am involved in many gender-related health consortia, including Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs) which aims to understand how gender and ethics interface with health systems and which has recently established a partnership with Women in Global Health. We need to form and sustain multiple partnerships to address the ways in which gender equality impact on health and well-being, and support the next generation to do this too.

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