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  • Writer's pictureDr Christina Ekegren

“You fix the system, you don’t fix women”

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Photo credit: Florey Institute

Professor Julie Bernhardt will be well known to many of our followers and those engaged in stroke research. She is a physiotherapist and stroke researcher who has long-been researching physical activity in clinical populations. In recognition of her leadership in medical research and for being an advocate for women in science, she was recently named as a Member of the Order of Australia in the 2019 Australia Day Honours.

Physios4PA co-convenor, Christina Ekegren, spoke to Julie about the award, mentoring up and coming scientists and the challenges for women in STEMM careers.

In February 2019, I was fortunate to catch Julie on her last day of work before a well-earned sailing holiday in Tasmania. We spoke first about her response to being named as a member of the Order of Australia. She was unsurprisingly pleased and grateful for the recognition:

It's surprising, humbling and pleasing. I'm not very good at taking compliments - my husband has been working on me for years! He reckons you just have to say ‘Thank you very much’ and not cringe. It's lovely to have your work, that you passionately pursue, recognised by your peers and others. That is really nice. But, it's not necessary. It's not why you do it. You do it because it’s something you're passionate about and you want to make change happen, but to have others recognise the hard work you put in is obviously very nice.

Julie didn't know who nominated her in this year’s awards, but she suspects that perhaps a sponsor (similar to a mentor) nominated her:

You have to write a two-page nomination about the person that you’re nominating, but the way Orders of Australia work is that you're not allowed to tell the person that you're nominating them, even at the very end. So I can't tell you who's nominated me or who supported my nomination. But I’m very grateful to whoever they are.

I've been fortunate to have several ‘sponsors’. These are people who look out for opportunities for you, encourage you to apply for things and help connect you with others.

Julie, despite recognising her own achievements, continues to be surprised by her success especially in the face of tough competition:

My sponsors have nominated me for things in the past and I'm always surprised when I win them! Always! I always look around me and go, ‘They're amazing, what they're doing is amazing’. Often we don't recognise our own value to other people.

While explaining the role of her sponsors, Julie spoke about the importance of having mentors, and how the conventional view of mentors might not be accurate, especially as people progress in their careers:

A ‘sponsor’ is someone who is in your space who can use their influence to directly advantage you in some way, whether it's by connecting you to an influencer or suggesting you for an opportunity. While I think that a mentor is someone who can challenge you to think about what you're doing in different ways or ask lots of questions. You can have a mentor who is same age as you, or someone who's younger than you even. They just have to be very good at asking hard questions. In fact, the best mentors I've had have been people who I have nothing in common with from a research perspective. They've been really fantastic mentors just because they see the world differently to you.

See more on this from Julie here.

Julie speaking at the UK Stroke Forum (photo credit: UK Stroke Forum)

I then asked Julie what she was most proud of in her career. She told me about the AVERT trial which tested the impact of early mobilisation after stroke. She is proud of how the project has challenged current ideas and generated unexpected findings:

We did the first randomised controlled trial that had ever been done in acute stroke in this space [testing early mobility interventions after stroke] (AVERT). I'm proud of it because it has really changed the way people think. It's challenged ideas, it's put some really good science into an area where we had none before and it's not always generated the kinds of findings that people were hoping for. But that is science. And that's the goal of doing really robust and well-conducted trials. I think the other thing is that it created such a strong international collaboration and building that collaborative framework is something I'm really proud of. I'm proud of how it ran, the people that I worked with are outstanding.

Julie has also been instrumental in establishing international round-tables, responsible for identifying and addressing critical gaps in stroke research and practice:

At the end of the day for me, all of this is always about improving outcomes for people. Always. When I'm finished, if I can leave the field with something that can help patients have a better recovery, or the next generation of people who are happy to pick up that banner and keep working methodically and systematically through all the challenges, I'll be pretty happy.

“At the end of the day for me, all of this is always about improving outcomes for people. Always.”

Julie is passionate about more than just her research and progressing the field of care for people with stroke. She has also been instrumental in supporting the next generation of women in science and identifying what needs to be done to help women succeed in the field:

You can think of the problem of gender equality at lots of different levels. The system is part of the problem. [The system] favours people who have uninterrupted career paths for funding. So, how we measure success is part of the problem.

The other challenge that we have is that people do assume that leaders are men. And that leaders of research groups are men and that scientists are men in white coats. So we have a challenge in really breaking through those barriers as well. It is not just about having kids that is at the heart of the low representation of women in senior roles in science.

I decided to continue the discussion on gender equality by turning the topic from science to physiotherapy, which is a female dominated profession in Australia, although we see less women in clinical leadership positions:

I think you fix the system, you don’t fix women. We need to nudge the system at all times.

There are certainly things, on a personal level, that all of us can do things to optimise our leadership. That's men and women. But I think when you're looking at senior leadership, there needs to be really overt consciousness of who's going into the pool of people who are being selected and how people are being chosen to lead. Organisations may need to have targets for female leadership and senior roles.

What I do know is that once you start having more equality of representation in science teams, in leadership teams, the conversation is different and the feeling is different. The culture is different and often the questions are different. Diversity is really good for everybody.

In a profession that is so female dominated we should be seeing a large number of women in leadership. That's what should be happening.

Photo credit: UK Stroke Forum

Julie finished the interview by telling me that physiotherapists must own the physical activity and sedentary behaviour space. We need to step up and use our unique skills and talents to get the word out there that physiotherapy has a large part to play in improving health through activity:

Physios need to really own the [physical activity and sedentary behaviour] space. I think we are ideally suited, not wanting to exclude other people that are working in in the area, but we need to own this. We understand how pathology and ageing impacts people and so this should be a core business. We should recognise and celebrate the expertise we have in clinical populations and with older people, and make sure that we are using that knowledge and expertise to advance the science around this, in partnership with others.

I do see enormous potential for physios to take the lead with behaviour change interventions that are not just for 12 weeks, but are things that really can make someone change their health behaviour in the long term. That's got to be our objective. And I think we're heading down that path.

So, what did I learn from my interview with Julie? She is not just an inspiring physiotherapist and researcher, she is also an inspiring (and extremely humble) woman. She is using her talents and passion to inspire the next generation of women in science to take on challenges and succeed, while also using her expertise to help change the system. On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate all women, especially trailblazers like Professor Julie Bernhardt.

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