I am a Clinical Lecturer, working full time in the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing.
Following the birth of my children after a having a career break of 20 months in total I completed my PhD part-time.
My PhD was well received, attracting six national and international prizes and gaining a number of publications in the highest-ranking Respiratory Journal (AJRCCM), but undoubtedly one of best awards for Respiratory researchers in the UK was the Young Investigator Award for the British Thoracic Society. Sadly, the exclusion criteria for this award was anyone over the age of 35. At the time I was 37, but would have been under the age limit if I had not had children or taken maternity leave. This was frustrating but I didn’t know what to do about it.
I attended the first ‘Women in Academic Medicine’ (WAM) group meeting and brought this up at the Q and A session with Baroness Greenfield. She was inspiring and encouraging, suggesting that I tackle this form of discrimination head on. The senior academics within the group (Dr Martin etc.) suggested writing a letter in the first instance.
I wrote quite a gentle letter to the BTS pointing out the potential unfairness of this age-based exclusion criteria but heard nothing. I then discussed matters with Professor Stewart, the then Dean of the Medical School, saying that I wanted to robustly challenge the BTS but didn’t want to do this without the support of the University.
Professor Stewart was very supportive, so I sent another letter to the BTS, more challenging in nature and suggested the cut-off was a form of discrimination. Also, (enthused by discussions at the WAM meeting) I wrote to all the female lecturers that I knew in Respiratory Medicine who would fall foul of this rule now or in a few years time due to family plans. Some other people offered to write in as well. Within 72 hours I heard back from the BTS, saying this award cut-off was being studied and would be changed on the basis of the concerns that I (and others) had raised.
I was told to submit my abstract for the award and it would be considered despite my age, as would two peers who had also raised this issue with the BTS (but were also above the age cut-off). The BTS said the definition of the award exclusion criteria would change on the website and this would be publicised, but this didn’t happen. I challenged the BTS again, saying that it was good that I was now being considered for the award, but without publicly changing its entry criteria, there would be many other people who would consider themselves ineligible through no fault of their own, and who would not know the award system had changed. I wanted to improve things for everyone – not just myself.
I said that I had the support of the Medical School Dean and this was an active issue at the WAM. By this time it was too late to change things for the annual meeting that year, but I was assured that next year the now called ‘Early Career Investigator Award’ will have no upper age limit.