Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Photograph of Rachel Ganly, Trishna Desai and Eloise Ockenden.

On International Women’s Day, we look at some of the research taking place at Oxford Population Health that focuses on women’s health and wellbeing. DPhil students Trishna Desai, Rachel Ganly, and Eloise Ockenden also share their experiences as women in science.  

At Oxford Population Health, we believe that no one should be disadvantaged because of their gender or background. This ethos underpins our research and the policies and procedures we have initiated to support all staff to achieve their ambitions.

The Million Women Study is one of the largest prospective studies of women’s health in the world. Over the course of five years (1996-2001), 1.3 million women from across the UK were recruited to enable the investigation of treatments (such as menopausal hormone therapy) and behaviours (such as smoking, alcohol drinking and physical activity) on the risk of women developing diseases.

The data collected in the Million Women Study have been used to investigate links between multiple lifestyle factors and cancer, along with other health conditions, such as heart disease, dementia and arthritis. The study found that women who were taking menopausal hormone therapy were at an increased risk of breast cancer that persists for many years, leading to changes in policy and practice. Study data were even used to determine that the use of mobile phones does not increase the risk of brain tumours

Our National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU)’s research focuses on providing evidence to improve the care provided to women and their families during pregnancy, childbirth, the newborn period and early childhood as well as promoting the effective use of resources by perinatal health services.  

A recent commentary piece published in The Lancet by NPEU, and other members of the International Network of Obstetric Survey Systems (INOSS), responds to UN data which show that improvements in maternal mortality rates have stalled in 133 countries and are getting worse in 17 countries.

Women in low- and middle-income countries continue to suffer the greatest burden whilst marginalised groups in high-income countries, such as the United States, are at a disproportionately increased risk. INOSS calls on governments to invest in better obstetric surveillance systems, break down barriers in data sharing, and eradicate a culture of blame to help address stagnating maternal mortality rates globally. 

Researchers at Oxford Population Health’s new Demographic Science Unit and the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science are exploring different ways to address the gender gap. The Centre’s research into global digital inequality, for example, has led to the creation of an interactive web dashboard that monitors global digital inequality in internet and mobile phone usage in real time.  

Ongoing research by DPhil student Xinyi Zhao (Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) shows that men self-promote themselves more on X, and that women are less likely to have a child during a PhD and at a later age than men – with fewer scientific citations for women with more children.  

Three of our female DPhil students share their thoughts on encouraging women into sciences and population health

Trishna Desai (Cancer Epidemiology Unit): It is essential to amplify the voices of women in population health science research because they bring both expertise and perspectives from their lived experiences that are paramount to addressing the complexities of global health issues. For example, in much of the world, women have historically served as the majority practitioners in both formal and informal networks of healthcare, yet continue to remain a minority of healthcare leaders in positions of power or decision-making in the very sector they navigate daily. These omissions lead to discrepancies in the effective care, prioritisation, and research of women’s health and generally undermine the progress of health for all by excluding the contributions, expertise, and needs of half of the world’s population. 

Eloise Ockenden (Centre for Doctoral Training in Health Data Science): Science needs more women so that inequalities in research can be challenged at every stage. Particularly in the health sciences, there is a mystique around many health conditions that primarily affect women, such as endometriosis, and having more women in prominent positions in the health sciences could lead to research focus being directed towards these under-researched areas. Further to this, it is important to ensure that this representation is intersectional so that women from all backgrounds are represented. Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. A more intersectional approach to health research could help address these gaps. 

More can and needs to be done to challenge the organisational and cultural barriers to gender equality worldwide, including in academia.  

Eloise Ockenden: Firstly, and most obviously, by having more diversity in the higher-ranking positions of the University and departments. Also, a more detailed assessment of how sexism affects academics at each stage in their careers, and departments and universities being confident to take bold steps to change the way things work. 

Trishna Desai: Visibility is one of the key factors that can start to change the (unfortunate) perception that women are often healthcare workers, but not leaders. Organisations must not only commit to hosting and creating pathways for women to attain positions of power with pay parity commensurate with equal work, but should also create a supportive culture to facilitate these trends.

These can include keeping group activities during core hours, building in flexibility for childcare and parental leave, ensuring the allocation of grants is equitable, and prioritising lectures and research areas that highlight women — all of which men can also support to build a culture of shared responsibility.

It’s also important to encourage strong mentorship and peer support systems for women to help navigate challenges and present encouragement as these norms will take time to transform. 

Rachel Ganly (Demographic Science Unit): I think role models are important. It’s important to have women promoted at all levels, and in different fields within science. We're lucky at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science that we have several female leaders which is inspiring for our junior researchers. 

Eloise Ockenden: Science is a good career because it encourages you to be curious which is often enjoyable! It is also rewarding to see your work contribute to a large body of research. 

Trishna Desai: If my daughter followed in my footsteps, I would advise her to invest in truly knowing herself and what she wants, and being brave enough to pursue these dreams unapologetically. I would encourage her to stay curious and cultivate in herself a sense of resilience, which will allow her to navigate all the impossible complexities of the world we live in and learn to appreciate them in their entirety. I would hope that she can nurture and practice kindness to all, including herself, and to remember that she is always enough and worthy of each space she chooses to occupy. 

Eloise Ockenden: I would tell her to be confident in her abilities and not to underestimate herself! 

At Oxford Population Health, we use the Athena SWAN framework to structure our work on gender equality, and have introduced initiatives to improve inclusivity for women in science such as monitoring gender parity in recruitment, career progression, and senior leadership in the department, and across departmental activities including mentoring, teaching, marking and assessment. 

Find out how we are promoting equality, diversity and inclusion and what it is like to work or study with us.