HRI Celebrates International Women’s Day 2024

The Heart Research Institute (HRI) celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) and gender equity with an inspiring seminar featuring three amazing women – Dr Sarah Aitken, Dr Connie Henson and Dr Vita Christie.

Prof Mathew Vadas, Director of Science Strategy, provided a welcome address and chaired the seminar, while Ms Jemma Chao from the Djurali Centre at HRI delivered an Acknowledgment of Country.

Each speaker shared fascinating insights into their career journey and the passion and values that drive them, all through the lens of IWD, which aims to recognise women’s achievements and drive gender parity.

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From left to right: Dr Connie Henson, Dr Vita Christie, Ms Jemma Chao and Prof Mathew Vadas

Dr Aitken is a researcher, educator and vascular surgeon at Concord Hospital as well as the Head of Surgery at The University of Sydney – the first woman to ever hold that position.

She is passionate about surgical education, patient outcomes and health policy. Her primary research focus is on care for patients with severe peripheral artery disease (PAD), work she has also carried out with HRI’s Assoc Prof Mary Kavurma.

Remarkably, there are only 12 female vascular surgeons in total in Australia. Dr Aitken was number 10.

“I work with a team of junior doctors, all women, and I love helping to train the next generation of surgeons,” she said during her presentation. “We still have a long way to go in terms of equity when it comes to practicing surgeons.”

Dr Aitken is deeply committed to addressing equity in the health workforce, as well as for patients.

“We need a workforce where all people are included. Everyone brings a strength. Patients bring particular strengths and doctors need to listen. Clinicians set the tone,” she declared.

“We need more female vascular surgeons. And we need a more inclusive workforce to deliver the best outcomes for patients. There is a legacy of bias in the clinical space that we need to address. We can all bring about change.”

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Dr Sarah Aitken is a vascular surgeon

The inspiring Dr Henson, a psychologist and public health researcher with the Djurali Centre at HRI, has a strong focus on health equity, evident in her interest in using digital health to improve heart health for older women.

“I love bringing about change,” she explained during her talk. “Social justice and equity are in my being and inform every decision I make.”

In collaboration with Indigenous colleagues, Dr Henson, who just completed her second PhD, is researching how older Indigenous women use digital technologies to improve health.

“We need to have older Indigenous women represented in our sample and as co-investigators as they are often excluded. We need to ask questions they are interested in having answered, and we need the right people asking the questions.

“That’s why a codesigned model is so important – that is safe, acceptable and valuable to the participants.

“The fact is that cardiovascular disease in women is understudied, under-recognised, underdiagnosed and undertreated globally. And Aboriginal people have the worst health outcomes of any people in Australia.

“We need to address this inequity.”

Dr Henson also highlighted the “elephant in the room” during her presentation – namely the gender pay gap figures that were released last week in a report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

“Here at HRI, the Human Resources team are already working hard to make a difference and bridge this gap, but we all need to take responsibility to address this inequity.

“We have the opportunity to lead the charge to increase health equity in heart research. We can lead in this space.”

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Dr Vita Christie presenting (left) and alongside colleagues Ms Jemma Chao and Dr Connie Henson

Dr Christie, also from HRI’s Djurali Centre, then shared details about her research into breast cancer outcomes for Indigenous women in Australia.

Having worked in the Indigenous health sector since 2009, Dr Christie has built many enduring relationships with the Indigenous communities of NSW and beyond.

She specialises in high impact translational research in Indigenous health, and previously trained and worked as a nutritionist.

“Indigenous women in Australia are less likely to have breast cancer but more likely to die of it,” she explained. “I actually have a strong history of breast cancer in my family, both my grandmother and my mum had breast cancer.

“But that’s not why I got into this area. I got into it because they both got great care and survived. However, Indigenous women have less chance of surviving.”

As part of her PhD, Dr Christie provided key recommendations for some practical ways to improve health outcomes and survival rates – including to ensure Indigenous women are involved in the formation of breast cancer policy.

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Just some of the women working at HRI

Prof Andrew Coats, Scientific Director and CEO at HRI, wrapped up the seminar with an important message for staff.

“This International Women’s Day we all need to recognise that there are inherent biases that women, and Indigenous people, face every day of their lives. We need to try and minimise every one of them.

“HRI will rise to the challenge and remains passionate and committed until the situation improves.”

In addition to the seminar, HRI also hosted a range of other events and initiatives for IWD 2024.

These include:

  • Developing and launching a Women in STEMM initiative-based program in early 2024 that will focus on uplifting and providing supports for women researchers and students
  • In HRI’s weekly Seminar Series, utilising the month of March as an opportunity to give a platform for women-only speakers to share their research
  • Launching an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy in early 2024 that will focus on several elements of EDI, one of which is to increase efforts to support women in the workplace, with a focus on women in STEMM.

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