On International Women’s Day, Fiona Carragher, Chief Policy and Research Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, reflects on her career in STEM and why it’s important we support women working in dementia research.
Why is International Women’s Day important to you?
'What a fantastic opportunity to celebrate all the amazing work that women do to support those people affected by dementia; our staff, volunteers, supporters, fundraisers and dementia research community. All making a real difference.
'And if ever there was a women’s issue, dementia is that. Women are much more likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia and, of course, both the paid and unpaid caring burden generally falls to women.'
Have you ever faced barriers as a woman in STEM during your career?
'Before I joined Alzheimer’s Society I worked by entire career in the NHS.
'I started off training as a biochemist at Guy’s Hospital and in more recent years I went into more senior leadership roles, first as a Scientific Director for the NHS in London and then as the Deputy Chief Scientist for the NHS in England.
'I have had a wonderfully interesting and diverse career and I’m very fortunate in that I haven’t had external barriers put in my path.
The barriers I’ve faced have really been more about me and my confidence, particularly thinking about the balance I wanted having a family.
'I’m a mother of three boys who are 13, 11 and 5 and certainly after my first child, I really struggled with my confidence when I came back.
'I’ve had amazing mentors and supporters who encouraged me, championed me and helped open the door. They were so important in helping me to continue on in my career.'
How is Alzheimer’s Society supporting women in dementia research?
'At Alzheimer’s Society, we’ve done a lot so far, with significant portfolio of over 180 projects, 55 per cent of those projects are led by women.
'I’ve loved working with our care research leaders. We have three Centres of Excellence in care research, all of which are led by women; Professor Dame Louise Robinson, Professor Linda Clare and Professor Claudia Cooper. The most extraordinary women I’ve had the privilege of getting to know.
'But into not just about senior researchers. We are also supporting early career researchers through our Dementia Research Leaders programme and Doctoral Training centres so we are building capacity across the genders.
'We are fortunate that we have been able to introduce maternity, paternity, adoption and sick leave for our PhD Students just starting out in their research careers.
'We are continually reviewing our funding programmes to remove gender bias and support women in research. But there’s lots more we can do.'
Why do you think it is important we support women dementia research and STEM?
'Dementia is without a doubt is the biggest health and social care challenge we are facing.
'It is the most complex set of diseases, in the most complex organ, the brain.
We need a diversity of thinking to tackle the challenge of dementia. We need the best people regardless of who you are, how you identify or where you come from.
'It’s incredibly important that women follow STEM careers and this all starts with girls at school and how girls’ perceive careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. This is something that has been absolutely in my heart since I was a very young girl.
'So is it important? Oh my word, it is! The more we can do to get the next generation of scientists in, the better!'
On International Women’s Day, what is the most important message you want to share with women that are working in dementia research?
'The most important thing is just to say, thank you for all the amazing work you are doing!
'At Alzheimer’s Society, we hear day-in and day-out how challenging life is for people living with dementia and their families. So, to those working in dementia research, thank you so much.
'And please encourage more people to join you, encourage your academic and clinical colleagues to work in dementia research.
'Think about our next generation of researchers, this is the biggest health and societal challenge and we need the biggest and brightest minds.'
We can’t leave behind 50 per cent of the workforce if we want to tackle on this enormous challenge.