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We spoke to three inspiring female graduates based in different locations across the globe about how they are breaking the bias.

Despite all working in very different industries and being at different stages on their career journey, they all agreed on the importance of removing discrimination and gender bias, both in the workplace and society, in order to create a more equal and prosperous future. As well as sharing experiences and thoughts on inequality, they celebrate the achievements of women across the globe and highlight all the strengths that women have to offer in work, in society and in leadership.

Rebecca Aslakson, MSc Biomedical Science with Distinction, 2001, Coleraine

Location: California, USA

Rebecca Aslakson

What is your job?

I am a Critical Care Anaesthesiologist and Palliative Care Physician and I’m also a researcher at Stanford University in Stanford, California, USA.  At Stanford University Medical Center, I am the Chief of the Division of Critical Care Medicine in the Department of Anaesthesiology, Perioperative & Pain Management.  I spend a good deal of my time as a clinical researcher with my research addressing how to improve delivery of equitable and effective palliative care, particularly in intensive care unit and perioperative clinical settings.

What made you pursue your particular area of work?

I have been blessed and fortunate to have always known that I wanted to be a researcher.  At the University of Ulster and working under Professor Helene McNulty, I was able to complete my first clinical research study in humans and have now moved on to my own work.  I am intrigued, fascinated, humbled, and energised by exploring how individuals make meaning out of their lived experiences, particularly in times of strife.

Early in my clinical career, as an attending critical care anaesthesiologist, I found the field of palliative care and with it, a community of researchers, clinicians, and academics who were similarly drawn to these sickest-of-the-sick patients. I and they are compelled to find more and better ways to optimise their quality of life, no matter the prognosis, diagnosis, or circumstances.  I still awake each day excited and profoundly privileged to work in this unique space and at this intersection between the specialties of critical care, perioperative/anaesthesia care, and palliative care.

How did  you get into this chosen field of work?

In my residency training as an anaesthesiologist, I worked in intensive care units and cared for many patients who were pursuing surgeries for serious illnesses.  I soon realised that I was most intellectually and emotionally drawn to and compelled by the sickest-of-the-sick in the ICU: the 10% of our critically ill patients who consume 40% of our critical care resources. Despite the best treatments and medicines, this group just cannot seem to be able to get out of the Intensive Care Unit and the hospital.

After finishing my clinical training, I started working on a PhD in clinical research with my dissertation specifically studying the palliative care needs of perioperative and critically ill patients.  Since finishing my PhD in 2013, my research work has taken off and I’m fortunate and grateful to now be the top funded researcher in the world in my area of content expertise.

My research team is currently leading the first (ever) multi-site randomised clinical trial, exploring whether involving palliative care specialists in the perioperative period can improve patient- and family-reported outcomes, such as quality of life, mood symptoms, and caregiver burden.

Have you faced any barriers in your career due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

As a critical care anaesthesiologist, I work in a field with relatively few women in leadership roles, and the more I move into leadership, the fewer and fewer women and diverse individuals I see.  Many times I am the only woman at the proverbial “table” and sometimes the unconscious (and conscious) micro- (and sometimes macro-) aggressions can be strong.  Sometimes you are aware of the gender-related barriers hampering you, but others may be hard to discern.

My approach is to be true to my own integrity and morals, and to focus on the “long game” of the ultimate goal.  My favourite quote is from the American comedian and author, Tina Fey, in her memoir Bossypants, where she notes that, when it comes to gender-related barriers, your mantra should be “over, under, through”. Don’t let the barriers stymie or demoralise you on your journey- keep your eyes on the goal and find your way “over”, “under”, or “through” to get to that goal.

I am also a big believer in building allies- show and share your goal with others so that you are all moving towards and achieving it together. If you are an articulate and inspiring leader, pursuing a meaningful shared goal, others will want to help you or to join you on the journey.

What advice would you give to women striving to obtain leadership positions within the healthcare/higher education sectors?

Have a mission and a strong core of integrity – know why you are doing what you do.  I also repeatedly find that imposter syndrome stymies so many women in healthcare and higher education. Just because the leaders you see do not necessarily look like you and may have got to a leadership position via a way that is not really available to you, it does not mean that you do not deserve to be there or that you cannot be a wonderful and needed leader.

Pursue your training with your best effort and with your heart and goals close in mind and in hand. When you reach well-deserved accomplishments, such as finishing your training to be a fully credentialed physician or educator, know that you deserve to be there.  Lean into what you have worked for.

Share your vision with others, find your allies and mentors, and don’t get too bogged down by detractors.  Tune out the negative voice in your head.  Know that your best mentors can help you discern between feedback potentially requiring action and negative feedback that is only there to push you down or to remind you that you are doing something different.

We need different people and different ways to be leaders.  Own your journey.  Be true to yourself and your integrity.  Choose meaningful goals and then pursue them with the best of you.

What do you hope the International Women’s Day campaign slogan, #BreakTheBias will help to highlight/achieve?

The biggest thing is to inspire other women to step into leadership and to not consciously (or unconsciously) hold themselves back.  Dream big!  Our world is an amazing place, but it also has some pretty big problems.  Addressing those problems in an equitable, ethical, and meaningful way will require the best of all of us; we cannot do it without strong female leaders stepping forward.

As someone who is getting a little older, I very much recognise the importance of role models – for those of us who can, we need to step into leadership so that we can be the leaders that maybe we never saw or dreamed of when we were growing up.  It is hard to be what you don’t see and so we absolutely need diverse leaders representing varying genders, races and ethnicities, gender-identities and fluidities, sexual orientations, geographic backgrounds, abilities and disabilities, immigrant statues, and all other forms of diversity.

This diversity elevates our competency, resiliency, compassion, insight, and overall societal well-being; diverse leaders consciously and unconsciously inform who others see as “successful” and what the next generation perceives as “possible”.

Sinead Higgins, BA  Hons Humanities (English with French), 1990, Coleraine and MBA, 1991, Jordanstown
Location: Northern Ireland

Sinead Higgins

What is your job?

I am Business Director at Decision Time Ltd.

What made you pursue your particular area of work?

I am not sure I chose it to be honest. My husband has a technology background and set up the software business (then Team Solutionz) in 2003. It was five years and four children later when I officially became an employee. Initially looking after the finances, as we grew in size, I also became responsible for what I now call the People Pillar of the business.

How did you get into this chosen field of work?

With the MBA under my belt and some accounting exams passed, I knew I could help with finances in the business. As the business grew, I had to become more involved in recruiting and retaining good people which led me to my position today.

You and your husband lead Decision Time. Do you feel you personally have faced any barriers getting to this point due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

I didn’t face barriers per se, and certainly not any because of my gender. I would say that my achievements in the business, and in previous roles are more likely to be because I am a woman. Men and women are equal but we are different in many ways, I fully embrace this.

What advice would you give to women striving to work in leadership positions, particularly in male dominated industries?

Don’t see yourself as different. It doesn’t matter if your role is in a male or female dominated sector. Just work hard, be your best and you will be rewarded for that. I would shy away from any suggestion that I have had to work harder or that I had less opportunities because I work in a software firm - traditionally seen as male dominated. What I love about Decision Time is that we have attracted so many more women in the last couple of years and now almost 40% of our workforce is female.

What do you hope the International Women’s Day campaign slogan, #BreakTheBias will help to highlight/achieve?

I hope it speaks to women in general, but to everyone really, to encourage a view that all of us have something to contribute, regardless of role, age, gender, background and so on. What I would be uncomfortable with is a broad-brush view that all men have a bias that needs to be broken. I think women should embrace the fact we are equally yet different and use this to their advantage.

Diana Nakaweesa,  LLM Gender, Conflict and Human Rights, Jordanstown, 2018

Location: Uganda

Diana Nakaweesa

What is your job?

I am a Team Leader at Young Mothers’ Support Group, Uganda based in the Kamwokya slums, Kampala, Uganda.

What made you pursue your particular area of work?

In 2015 my best friend Harriet introduced me to feminism. I got interested and we started working together. In 2016 she died as a result of domestic violence from her boyfriend. I felt guilty that I couldn’t save Harriet’s life and bring her justice as I had no idea where I could find the boyfriend. I vowed that the only way I could repay my best friend was by fighting for the rights of other girls and women around me and protecting them from gender-based violence.

As I journeyed along as an activist for women’s rights, I met Jessica who has now become a good friend. She was originally from Rwanda and was only three years old when the Rwandan genocide took place. Jessica witnessed violence: she was a victim of sexual violence at an early age and more than 20 years later, she is still traumatised by what happened. Harriet and Jessica’s grave stories have fueled my passion for working to protect women from violence and supporting young people.

How did you get into this chosen field of work?

In 2015 I acquired a degree in Development Studies from Nkumba University. This multidisciplinary subject focused on addressing today's (and tomorrow's) most pressing issues by studying our cultural and political development. I then studied a LLM in Gender, Conflict and Human Rights at Ulster University.

I was interested in how women are affected during and after conflict and the concept of transitional justice so once I’d finished my studies, I started gaining a wide range of work experience at local, national and international level. This led me to my current position today and the work I’m currently doing hence my chosen field of work.

Why do you think it’s important to actively fight against discrimination in the workplace and community?

When there is discrimination in the workplace, you limit growth, development, and learning. Discrimination in the workplace makes women feel inferior and unsafe so it is important to create a good work environment that is safe for all and that supports personal growth, development and learning. In my view, the only way to create a healthy, empowered and respectable society is by fighting discrimination in the workplace.

What do you hope the International Women’s Day campaign slogan, #BreakTheBias will help to highlight/achieve?

The campaign slogan, if well represented, will help to address some of the gender stereotypes in our communities that have been a long-term roadblock to equality. On the other hand, the slogan will encourage women to look at themselves as able and equivalent to the men. Because of our cultural settings, most women grow up biased, thinking it is only men who are born strong, born leaders or brave. Yet there are so many women around the world who are more than men. It’s just a personality and shouldn’t have anything to do with our sex.