“With any kind of progress around inclusion, I feel you often go one step forward and two steps back,” says Professor Nicola Gale. “Movement in some areas, but not others.” This journey towards inclusion, with all its twists and turns, is an important part of her work.
Nicola has built a multidisciplinary academic career around three areas of research: sociology and social policy, applied health, and inclusivity. Now she’s putting that expertise to use as Head of the School of Social Policy.
“I’m looking forward to working with people—I don’t mean that in a cheesy way!” she says. “Although there’s a lot of admin to be done as Head of School, it helps you to understand staff and students in new lights. So many of my previous roles have been about building influence. To be in a position where I can take decisions—instead of just influencing them—is empowering.”
Inclusion work will be an important part of Nicola’s agenda. She has previously acted as School Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Lead, and ran a cross-University committee looking at inclusive education. “We have scholars here who are really passionate about inclusivity and improving our practice,” she says. “My work around inclusion really started with LGBTQ+ issues, but this has moved into other areas such as disability, neurodiversity and mental health. I spend a lot of time thinking about these aspects of inclusion. I’m currently working with the incredible Professor Kalwant Bhopal around addressing racism in the academy. We clearly have a long way to go.”
Nicola’s academic career began at the University of Warwick, where she gained a BA (Hons) in Politics and Sociology. She chose the subject based on experiences during sixth form. “I’d done my A-Levels in Pure Mathematics, Geography, French and English Language. The bits I enjoyed most were the sociological and cultural elements of Geography and French.” University was an opportunity for the then-extremely shy Nicola to find her people, and discover her real passions. “Intellectually and socially, university was a positive experience. It brought me out of my shell. I still go on holiday with people from my first year halls corridor.” But there were challenges, too. “I’d come from London, from a very diverse set of friends in terms of ethnic background. Then I got to Warwick and it wasn’t as diverse. That was a major culture shock.”
Epidemiology is the study of risk patterns across society; I’m interested in how it all plays out on a micro, interpersonal level.Prof Nicola Gale
Nicola’s third year dissertation on alternative and complementary healthcare sparked an interest in a previously under-researched area of sociology. “Sociologists love an outsider! Half of the population have used alternative therapies at some point in their lives; that’s a major sociological phenomenon,” she points out. “Women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds are poorly served by the existing healthcare system, so it’s not surprising that so many of them have tried alternatives.” Her passion for the subject led to a Masters, and then a PhD via an ESRC scholarship.
That PhD experience now influences her own supervisory practice. “I had two wonderful PhD supervisors, Carol Wolkowitz and Simon Williams. I got to know them during my Masters year. They were incredibly supportive and had a lot of faith with me. They were great at giving detailed feedback so I try to be proactive with that with my own doctoral students. You have to adapt your style to the student in front of you.”
“As projects come to their natural end, I like to see which doors are open,” she muses. “I only realised I wanted to go into academia towards the end of my PhD. I was just following my interests. It all emerged quite organically.” Nicola worked as a lecturer and researcher at several London universities, before moving to Birmingham. Along came a new challenge: balancing teaching with research. “This is one of the things I love about being an academic. I was lucky that early in my career, despite being on a research contract, I was given the opportunity to do some really interesting teaching.” One of the things she found most challenging early in her career was networking. As a natural introvert, reaching out required a lot of practice. "It was exhausting," Nicola admits. "Fortunately, I had a great mentor who showed me how to understand people's needs on an individual basis, and led by example when it came to making connections based on shared values."
During her career at the University of Birmingham, Nicola has built on her experience in research, teaching, and leadership. After joining the Medical School in 2009 as an NIHR CLARHC Research Fellow, she moved to the Health Services Management Centre to become Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, then Reader, and eventually Professor of Health Policy and Sociology. She embarked upon what would become a body of work on the sociology of interactions between service users and healthcare providers. “The bulk of my research has focused on front-facing professionals in healthcare services, looking at how they negotiate service user interactions, and how they balance the complexities of their roles—giving information, assessing risk, negotiating uncertain futures for patients—to develop human connection,” she explains. “There are all these social and organisational structures that they are dealing with. Epidemiology is the study of risk patterns across society. Policy tries to influence this; I’m interested in how it all plays out on a micro, interpersonal level.”
She also began to take leadership roles throughout the College of Social Sciences, serving as Director of Postgraduate Research and Deputy Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange. When it comes to leadership, she feels her sociological background is a real advantage.
“Sociological training requires you to step back from the immediacy of everyday life to see things in a wider context. It’s a really useful skill to have when dealing with challenges in a leadership environment,” she says.
As Nicola progresses, inclusion work becomes more and more important, professionally and personally. “Earlier in my career, I didn’t feel that I experienced discrimination as a woman, but I’ve felt it as I’ve become more senior.”
Now, EDI research feels urgent. “Inclusion is both interesting and frustrating as an area to work in. I love the quote from Austin Channing Brown that, “The work of antiracism is the work of becoming a better human to other humans." In the end, we should be trying to be better human beings for other human beings, but we have to find a way to get there first. When I worked with Nicki Ward from 2014-18 on an LGBTQ+ inclusion project, funded by the University’s Education Enhancement Fund, we had real difficulties with finding people willing to have open discussions about trans inclusion; fast forward to today, and problems with transphobia have increased at a public level. The work is never done. You can’t be complacent.”
Over time, people’s expectations change and they understand inclusion in new, different ways. Nicola is keen to understand how this progress is made. “The one thing I’ve learned doing inclusion work is that if you want to change things, you can’t shame people for their perspectives. It only produces a fight or flight response. Through sharing experiences and encouraging empathy, you can show people different points of view—that’s how you achieve cultural change. People need to take responsibility for their actions, but we must find ways to connect.”
In addition to her work on inclusion, Nicola is now Co-Director with Professor Willem van Schaik of Confronting Antimicrobial Resistance (CARe), a research theme in the Institute for Global Innovation which attempts to prevent the escalation of antimicrobial resistance. “We use antibiotics to prevent injury and death from infection, but when we use them too much, the microbes become resistant and then the antibiotics don’t work. This is hugely scary stuff. And at the heart of tackling this issue are real people on the front line of health care, trying to do the right thing for their patients today and in the future."
She has also re-entered education, and is currently studying part-time for a Masters in Creative Writing. “I have a double view on the world at the moment,” she says, referring to her positions as both academic and student. “I’ve always written and I’ve been part of a writing group in Birmingham for a while, but I reached the point where I wanted critical feedback. I hadn’t done any English Literature since GCSE and felt far away from it. Sociological concepts can be conveyed in a really visceral way through fiction.”
Nicola is a keen advocate for a healthy work and life balance, and outside of her university roles and studies, she looks forward to indulging in hobbies and spending time with her family. “Since having a baby, I have practically no social life anymore,” she laughs. “My wife Rachael is a GP, and we have a four-year-old son called Rufus. Weekends are spent gardening, seeing family and friends, or sometimes in Cornwall with my in-laws.” Getting moving is also really important to Nicola, who qualified as a yoga and mindfulness teacher in 2015, for her physical and mental health. “When I’m not writing, I love to do yoga or go for a run.”
As the new Head of the School of Social Policy, Nicola is looking forward to supporting staff and students. “I don’t think the job will be easy, but I’m eager to connect with everyone in the School. It will be satisfying to bring about positive change,” she says. “What is a university if it isn’t willing to look at its own practices?”