International Women’s Day 2023: Catherine Ross profile

Catherine Ross is a Chartered Scientist and Clinical Scientist and has worked within the NHS for over 25 years. She is currently the Chief Healthcare Science Officer at Scottish Government, previously having held the role of Scientific Lead at the Office of the Chief Scientific Officer for NHS England, and has spent most of her clinical career specialising in Cardiac Ultrasound.

Catherine is Vice Chair of the Science Council’s Board of Trustees and Chair of the Policy Advisory Committee. She shared with us her thoughts ahead of International Women’s Day 2023.

What first interested you in science?

Science has always been a big part of my life and indeed I cannot recollect a time when that wasn’t the case. I have always been an avid reader, and I remember when I was very young constantly asking my parents to take me to the library to borrow more books. The librarians knew me very well and were always great at introducing me to new books, particularly anything new in the science section.

I have always loved the logic of science as well as the intrigue. It seemed natural that a career which involved science was always going to be a path I would choose. From a very young age my parents ensured that I never felt that there were any barriers to achieving what I wanted for my career, providing that I invested the time and worked hard.

What were your experiences pursing an education and then a career in science?

I attended all girls primary and grammar schools, and I was lucky that from an early age I didn’t really have any awareness of challenges to girls succeeding in science. Science was a big part of my life in school, I loved the science and maths clubs.

Having initially considered a career in medicine, my school careers’ department put me in touch with a female scientist who worked in a neighbouring hospital. She convinced me that there were many opportunities to combine my love of science with a career in health, and by chance would later become my first head of department. After taking her advice I decided on a career as a cardiac physiologist, and that was what started my journey as a Healthcare Scientist. I have never looked back!

At that time cardiac physiology was not a degree entry profession. I attended university part-time, completing the academic component alongside the practical training in the hospital. I later supported the  development of the first ever clinical physiology degree programme which was at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. I’m very proud to have been part of building the foundations for the educational landscape we have now in Healthcare Science in the UK.

Throughout my career I have always had a keen interest in the development of my profession and have held a number of senior leadership roles, including President of my Professional Body, Vice Chair of the Science Council and Executive Board member of the European Society of Cardiology Association of Cardiovascular Nurses and Allied Professionals. All of these organisations actively support equity and diversity in all of their work and which I am proud to be part off.

However, on my leadership journey I became more aware of the challenges faced by female scientists and in particular the lack of senior female leaders at board level.  Looking around a room and realising that you are in the 5% of women at the table really puts into perspective what more we all need to do to make seats at those tables more accessible.

Did you have women role models in science? How did they motivate you?

When I was beginning my career in science, I didn’t have any direct female role models. Over the course of my career I have been fortunate enough to meet some incredible women, some of whom have really shaped who I am today and have supported me on my journey.

The lack of female role models in my early career is definitely something which I have reflected on, particularly from the perspective of what I can do to ensure there are visible women who can and will support others. I feel that it is essential that we all work together to encourage a culture where we support the development of those around us and create a more collaborative future.

Can you tell me a bit about the initiatives you have been involved in to encourage women and girls into STEM?

I feel passionately about ensuring that children and families are aware that science is for everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic background. Sharing time with each other and having fun learning about science and the world around us is a great first step into opening up the world of science to the younger generation.

I am fortunate enough to have been a Girl-Guiding Ulster Brownies Leader, and during that time was able to create opportunities for my Brownies to take part in a number of science initiatives. These ranged from judging the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize to growing Seeds from Space in an experiment run by the UK Space Agency. One of the most exciting projects we were involved in was filming a science activity for Royal Institution, which involved a crew coming to film us taking part in an experiment in our Brownies’ Unit. I was very proud of how the Brownies were able to share their passion for our science activities more widely, and hopefully inspire others to try similar activities at home.

I am a STEM ambassador and enjoy sharing my career journey and supporting science activities with young emerging scientists. I am keen that young people are aware of the vast opportunities across scientific careers and the many access routes into those careers.

Your discipline of science is healthcare. There has been a lot of recent discussion around women’s health several national strategies in the UK, what do you see as the main reasons for this focus?

The publication of Women Health strategies by the devolved governments demonstrates increased visibility as well as a significant commitment to support the health and wellbeing of women and girls. The Women’s Health Plan in Scotland, the first of its kind for Scotland, importantly raises awareness of the specific health challenges faced by women and girls. The plan aims to reduce inequalities and improve access to health services and addresses key issues which affect women from puberty through to later years. The recent appointment of Professor Anne Glasier as the first Women’s Health Champion for Scotland is an important step in moving forward the work of the plan.

Thinking about Science policy more widely, what more can be done for women in science?

Whilst there has been significant progress in the last number of years to support female scientists, I believe there remains considerable challenges for women seeking to pursue and develop a scientific career. In particular there are significant barriers for women reaching senior leadership positions in some disciplines.

Addressing this will require sustained ongoing action to support women at all levels of the career pathway. Through increased promotion of STEM activities designed to encourage young women to consider scientific careers to supporting return to work for women with young children. There needs to be active mentoring programs where senior leaders encourage and support early career female scientists into senior leadership roles.

We all have a role to play in this. As parents encouraging our children to see no boundaries due to gender, to developing positive supportive structures within our own organisations and being visible leaders who actively support those around us.

What are your thoughts on the UN’s theme for International Women’s Day 2023, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”?

I welcome this year’s theme of digital solutions for gender equality, and in particular the focus on ensuring the safety of girls and women online. Safer access to the internet and social media platforms will be key to reversing the concerning trend of online violence against women and girls. Improving safer access to technology will create opportunities and reduce the growing inequalities we know that women face in many parts of the world.

What is your take away message for International Women’s Day?

We all have a part to play in creating a more inclusive and supportive culture, so don’t wait to be asked. Let us all look around to see what difference we can make through encouraging and developing others.