A pair of spectacles and a pencil rest on an open blank notebook. An old world map, camera and photographs are nearby.

The College of Social Sciences was delighted to host the inaugural lecture of Professor Nicola Gale, Head of the School of Social Policy and Professor of Health Policy and Sociology.

The event took place on Thursday 22 June 2023, with over a hundred staff, students and members of the community gathered to hear Professor Nicola Gale share five stories of a working life in the higher education sector.

Introducing the lecture was Professor Richard Black, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Social Sciences. Professor Black spoke of Nicola’s academic background and the valuable contributions she has made.

Setting the scene, Nicola explained that her lecture was to be structured around five short stories, a nod towards her passion for creative writing.

Story 1: The Scenic Route

Nicola began with the story of how she crafted her academic career.

Nicola enjoyed her undergraduate degree in Politics and Sociology at the University of Warwick. But it was when Nicola completed a module called Field Studies for Social Research in her second year that things shifted. The module changed the way Nicola thought about sociology.

Nicola went on to complete a masters, after which she applied for a studentship to do a PhD at the University of Warwick and began teaching in her second year.

Nicola explained that there have been three babies in her life so far; her PhD was her first baby. It was called Knowing The Body and Embodying Knowledge. Nicola spoke of the practitioners who were involved in her research and how they inspired her to take a leap. Despite her studentship funding running out and still having another year left to complete her PhD, she said no to teaching the following year to make space for other parts of life.

And things filled the space pretty quickly, Nicola explained. Two of which were new jobs as a part-time visiting lecturer at Birkbeck and University of Westminster.

This led to a role at the University of Westminster in which Nicola entered the world of policy and the NHS. Although Nicola valued the experience, she was still on temporary contracts, and so she began applying for new roles, one of which was at the University of Birmingham.

The role involved working on a project to ensure that new evidence about effective health interventions made it out of the University and into the real world. Nicola explained that what distinguished her from the other candidates was all the time she had spent in her previous role learning and understanding the real world of policy and the NHS. And so, the scenic route had proved its worth.

When asked for advice by postgraduate and early career researchers, Nicola explains that there is no one way to craft an academic career, that you never know how the different aspects of your life can come together unexpectedly and lead you to the next big thing.

Story 2: The Good Story

Nicola then moved on to her second story, a narrative about learning to listen, and how as a sociologist you can tell a good story.

Nicola began by defining qualitative research, “Qualitative research is words, quantitative research is numbers. I was trained in both, but I specialised in the words.”

The story starts in 2010 when, Nicola explains, the powerful idea of a hierarchy of evidence in health research still felt relatively unchallenged. This hierarchy placed subjective experience at the bottom. Nicola would get asked by well-meaning colleagues “What is qualitative research? How can any of it be generalisable? How can any of it be useful?”. At this point there were also a lot of social scientists that weren’t interested in methodology.

Finding that methods were a way into these questions, Nicola honed her skills in order to explain to non-social scientists how it works, and how qualitative research is in fact useful for explaining the world and predicting how it might unfold in the future. This resulted in Nicola writing her most cited paper: Using the framework method for the analysis of qualitative data in multi-disciplinary health research. The paper has become the go-to methods paper for this type of data analysis for students and researchers internationally.

Nicola explained how much qualitative research starts with people telling their stories. Then she asked, what should a sociologist do when becoming a trustee of another person’s story? She said they must understand it, and they must share it. Why? Nicola spoke of the access sociologists have to privileged spaces, granting them the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and amplify the voices of those who’ve been historically marginalised or minoritized.

But, as Nicola learned, to reach the people that need to hear the stories, the stories need to be told in a variety of ways. Nicola worked with artists, script writers, poets, and film makers to tell stories in new ways, a journey that she’s still on today as a Masters student in Creative Writing.

So, what did Nicola learn in this story? Nicola learned that stories matter, stories can change the world, that different people will listen to different kinds of stories, and that the job of an applied sociologist is to not only capture the essential essence of the stories but also find the right way to share them.

Story 3: All’s Fair in Love and Firsts

Spoiler alert: All is not fair, Nicola begins.

Nicola outlined the statistics when it comes to academia:

  • Only 28% of professors in higher education institutes are women
  • Only 11% are professors from a minority ethnic background
  • Only 4% have a known disability
  • Out of more than 22,000 professors in over 160 UK universities, only 41 of them are black women.

As Nicola explained, beyond this there are several dimensions of social difference for which there is no reliable data, including gender diversity, sexual orientation, and religion.

And for students, it’s a similar picture. Although inequality is endemic, Nicola doesn’t believe it’s inevitable.

In 2014, working with Dr Nicki Ward, as well as students and people from the local community, she sent out a survey across the University which received over 1000 responses from staff and students sharing their experience of negotiating issues with sexual orientation and gender identity at the University. One of the biggest challenges Nicola and Nicki identified was the invisibility of the issue, the silence.

This led to them taking the data and stories from the students to lecturers, and working with them to create more welcoming environments.

Nicola went on to share her work with Dr Adekemi Sekoni at the University of Lagos around equality in Nigerian higher education and the conferences that resulted, providing a safe platform for the voices of LGBTQ+ people to be heard in Nigeria.

Nicola recognises there is still a huge way to go in terms of equality but emphasised that limiting who we have and who we include in the academy also limits the chances of different and novel perspectives, which are sorely needed with the challenges facing society and the environment; diversity is not only the right thing, but it is also essential to our survival.

Story 4: The Tempered Radical

To introduce her fourth story, Nicola wrote a poem.

Nicola Gale's poem: The Tempered Radical
Nicola Gale's poem: The Tempered Radical

A year ago, Nicola said, she was asked if she’d be interested in applying for Head of the School of Social Policy.

Nicola explained why she nearly said no. At the time, she was working part time and didn’t think she could do the job to a standard she was happy with in four days. The other issue Nicola grappled with was how she would do the job and live with the inconsistences, such as the persistence of gender pay gaps, of challenging industrial relations, of institutional racism and a curriculum still shaped by colonial histories.

But Nicola considered the counter factual, that this would all still exist either way. And so, she recounted the many conversations she had with people who persuaded her that even with all the constraints and restrictions, there was still scope to have a positive impact.

It was then that Nicola was first alerted to the idea of the tempered radical which appeared in an article by Professor Fiona Mackay.

Now a year into the role, Nicola went on to explain how she had embodied the tempered radical approach. Tempered radicals work to change the world through leveraging small wins. A story Nicola had repeatedly heard as a junior researcher was “If you want to make it in academia, you have to be prepared to work evenings and weekends”. But Nicola decided it didn’t have to be this way and has worked to create balance.

To take on the new role, Nicola shifted to a ‘compressed hours’ contract in order to work flexibly around the other parts of her life she wanted to prioritise, particularly her young family. As Head of School, Nicola tries to visibly model that balance so that fewer and fewer people in the future will hear or believe the myth that a career in academia is all or nothing.

Story 5: The Cliffhanger

Nicola’s final story focused on what’s next. Nicola prefaced the story by professing her passion for the job and acknowledging how lucky she is to have a relatively safe job which enables her to pay the bills. However, Nicola said, that safety is not enough. Nicola explained that she still wants to do more but is not sure what comes next. Nicola goes on to suggest that perhaps the future of academia is the true cliffhanger, but she’s optimistic.

In exploring this, Nicola referenced the book ‘The Slow Professor’, which argues the case that small steps can be taken to make the university a place for more sustainable forms of work.

In Nicola’s first story she said her first baby was her PhD, her second baby is her son, and her third baby will be her novel.

To bring her lecture to a close, Nicola read the opening scene of her novel ‘Sketches of Ordinary Grief’ and shared what social science means to her: “We are exploring how things can be better, and we are working with others to change them.”

Vote of Thanks

Professor Sheila Greenfield then led the vote of thanks. Professor Greenfield spoke of the magic and entertainment that Nicola had conjured up throughout her lecture, taking all those watching on a journey where hard work, challenge, change and, above all, a strong sense of care for justice and inclusion have ultimately led to outstanding success.

With the lecture brought to a close, all speakers and attendees enjoyed a drinks reception to celebrate Nicola and her success.

Watch Professor Nicola Gale’s Inaugural Lecture.

The Scenic Route: an aerial view of fields, forests and a winding mountain road
Professor Nicola Gale's Inaugural Lecture: The Tempered Radical and Other Stories