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Outstanding women award is for all, says eminent Scottish heart professor

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’ve enlisted renowned cardiovascular professor and gender equality champion Jill Belch to share her thanks to the women – and men – who have all played a part in enabling crucial heart research in Scotland.

Last year I had the honour of being selected one of Scotland’s ‘Outstanding Women’ by the Saltire Society. I’m a professor of vascular medicine and an honorary consultant at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School in Dundee where I treat patients and am involved in cardiovascular research.

However, where I am and what I have achieved could not have been done without the other ‘outstanding women’ in my life. As we mark International Women’s Day, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge them too.

I should like to start with my mother who, in addition to being the best mum, recognised my dyslexia at primary school. My mistakes had previously been attributed to doing my homework on the bus. But she noticed what was really going on and this put me in the academic stream which led to my career.

I’d also like to acknowledge my fellow female medical students. At the time only 15% of medical students were women. Through a ‘women in medicine’ dissertation we increased successful female applications to 38%. This was in addition to storming the men-only pubs but that’s another story!

I would also like to thank the Royal College of Physicians’ secretary who coped with the embarrassment of the President awarding my Fellowship to my husband, who was standing beside a heavily pregnant me.

I’d like to thank the female on the senate – the governing body for the university where I worked - who got the rules changed after I, the first pregnant female academic in the university, discovered there was no maternity leave.

There are many more ‘women supporting women’ who have helped me.

Over the years I have tried to ‘give back’ the opportunities I had by employing part-time women and allowing them a work-life balance between family and career. Often they worked far more than their allotted hours, answering emails while ‘out of office’ as well as writing papers and grants. I am so full of admiration for them, and I thank them most sincerely.

I’ve also tried to give back by working on the Athena SWAN project, which aims to help women progress in science careers, as well as other disciplines. One element of this is looking at the availability and take-up of flexible working. I know how much of a difference this can make.

I am now the mother of four grown-up children, all of whom stand up for women’s rights. I am very proud of them. However, I have to gently remind them that my generation fought too, and they are only the current generation in a long line of women’s rights fighters, many of whom helped me to where I am now.

I also have to acknowledge the ‘outstanding men’ who have been there for me too.

In particular, my science teacher, Mr Laing, who didn’t think physics mechanics was ‘only for boys’ and Prof Charles Forbes who offered me a job when the consultant I was working with asked me to resign when I announced my first pregnancy.

Now I am a professor of vascular medicine and the team I work with has carried out research to provide new treatments for many heart and blood vessel disorders. When I started, a blood vessel was thought to be merely a pipe carrying the blood. We now know it is the biggest organ in the body that modifies cardiovascular health. When rolled out, your blood vessel linings are the size of a football pitch and their health determines whether you have a heart attack, stroke or leg amputation.

The women – and men - I have acknowledged must all be thanked for the parts they have played. They have all helped to enable medical discoveries that in turn have helped reduce devastating heart disease in Scotland over the last 30 years.

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