One-to-one: why not you?

07 February 2020

Meet one of your new vice-presidents… Professor Gina Awoko Higginbottom talks to Aviva Attias about her career, inspirations and well-earned wisdom.

Professor (and Dr) Gina Higginbottom was the first BAME nurse to hold a professorial role at a Russell Group university when she was appointed as the Mary Seacole professor of ethnicity and community health at the University of Nottingham in 2015. Prior to this, she lectured at the University of Sheffield for 12 years, before becoming Canada research chair in ethnicity and health at the University of Alberta from 2007 to 2015.

Before making the switch to academia, Gina enjoyed a clinical career as a nurse spanning 22 years, and included working as a midwife (MW) and a health visitor.

Her academic career went on to be highly successful and included numerous awards such as a National Primary Care Fellowship (Gina was the first BAME nurse to hold this award) to an MBE. As I quickly learn during our chat, it’s Gina’s determination, focus and ‘why not me?’ attitude that have got her to where she is today.

While Gina officially retired at the end of 2019, she remains active in her profession. She is now honorary professor at the University of Sheffield, giving seminars and supporting students, and she continues to work as co-convenor of the charity International Collaboration for Community Health Nursing Research. The charity offer scholarships to community nurses from developing countries to attend their conferences. She is also now emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham.  

‘I’m still supervising PhD students, concluding research and writing up publications,’ says Gina. ‘I’m also a member of the chief nursing officer for England’s black and minority ethnic advisory group and I’m very active with their Midlands regional group.’ She is now also one of the honorary vice-presidents of Unite-CPHVA.

‘I strongly believe in the adage that if you can’t see me, you can’t be me. I hope that the younger CPs realise the possibilities that exist’ 

Making the switch  

So how did Gina move from experienced clinical practitioner to high-flying academic? When Gina was an HV in South Yorkshire, in around 1993, she saw a position advertised for a research project manager for a heart-health promotion research study. ‘It was two days a week, and I was working four days a week then,’ she says. ‘I had already gone on to do my master’s degree by that time and I thought I’d be quite interested in that type of work. So I applied and was successfully seconded to the post.

‘I really enjoyed all elements of it, and my write-up was in the Health Visitor Journal (which went on to be Community Practitioner). I became interested in academia and not long after that, many of the schools of nursing merged and became part of the universities.’

She explains that around that time, the University of Sheffield was advertising for lecturers. ‘I thought I’d apply as I’d already dipped my toe in the water with the research job.’ She got the role.  

However she soon realised that ‘in the wider university community, if you wanted to have a successful career you better get a PhD because you’re not going to progress without it.’ But by this stage she had two children and wondered how she was going to do this part-time for seven years. ‘I thought the only way I was going to get to do this is if I get an award or a fellowship, to support full-time study over three years,’ she says.

A PhD however ‘wasn’t originally in my vision’, she says. ‘I was the first person in my family to go to university – my dad worked in the steel works and my mum worked in a factory making liquorice allsorts. So when I was doing my masters and the lecturer suggested considering a PhD, I thought she’d got me mixed up with someone else.’

Going for it

To support her PhD, Gina looked around and found a National Primary Care Research Award, which was the precursor for the National Institute for Health Research Fellowship. ‘However I was in a school of nursing and you had to really be in a community or primary care department,’ says Gina. So I went to talk to the head of primary care and told him I wanted to apply for this award, but that I had to be in a different department and he said: “Oh fine, brilliant, come to our department.” I then spoke to my head of department at the School of Nursing and explained she’d have to sign the form and I would have to be seconded. “Oh fine” she said. I don’t think she thought I’d get it! I then had to seek out some high-profile supervisors.’

Gina found a professor who was one of the leading experts in ethnicity and health. ‘I thought I’d email him, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. He said yes, so I was really thrilled.’ Gina received the award and was able to complete her PhD full time. ‘They paid the salary, my research and research training costs. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.’ Gina finished her PhD in three years.

I tell Gina she was very proactive in funding her study. In fact her first degree was ‘the same price as our monthly mortgage!’ so she successfully applied for the Health Visitors’ Association (which went on to be the CPHVA) and Bounty Professional Development Award. Gina sees herself as very fortunate in having won the awards and scholarships, but agrees you absolutely have to go for it if that’s your goal.

‘Somebody has to get these awards and it could be you,’ she says. ‘Yes, there will be a set of criteria to judge suitability and of course you’ll have to do some preparation, but don’t rule yourself out before you’ve started on the journey. And don’t be deterred by negative comments either.’

Turning it round

What other advice does Gina have for CPs wanting to move from clinical to academia? ‘Establish connections with your local university,’ she advises. ‘For instance, they often look for guest speakers.’

And what about members who want to submit their work to Community Practitioner but feel a little unsure? ‘Definitely submit your work. It really was Community Practitioner that set me out on my publishing and academic career. It can be terrifying – you have to get over that psychological hurdle to begin with. A mentor or a buddy can help you.’

Gina has long been a mentor. ‘I’m part of a formal mentoring scheme now, while in Canada I mentored many research trainees. Four of these are now professors around the world.’ What does she enjoy most about the process? ‘Absolutely the growth of the individual. If you mentor someone you have to understand it’s likely their achievements will be greater than yours and that’s a good thing. They haven’t had to reinvent the wheel and make the mistakes you’ve made. You’ve facilitated their growth.’

Gina has also been on the receiving end of mentoring. ‘My own amazing mentor who I still meet annually is Dr Nola Ishmael OBE. She was the first BAME nursing officer at the Department of Health (and also an HV) and has been my mentor since 1997. Nola helped me to set very high standards and helped me to recognise my visibility and how I’d be scrutinised as a BAME nurse leader academic. She provided me with those unique insights and excellent guidance.’

Still a way to go

While Gina felt fortunate in getting into academia, she concedes there have been challenges in navigating the career pathway. ‘There still are only 25 to 27 black female professors in all disciplines and only around five of us in nursing and healthcare.’

‘I know when I looked around my university I didn’t see anyone else who looked like me. I didn’t know how I was going to navigate the career path.’

She says there’s a complex range of factors as to why these inequalities still exist. ‘The evidence, extensively researched by Dr Nicola Rollock, tells us that we still have issues with forms of institutional racism in academia that we need to attend to, especially in the senior levels of universities in respect of representing the diversity within wider society. It’s pretty much parallel to the NHS where there’s a wide acknowledgement of the inequalities.’

When Gina was first awarded her MBE in 1998 for her services to health promotion, she felt ‘a bit ambivalent about it. The MBE model conjures up images of empire and colonialism so I had difficulty accepting the award at first. Eventually I decided to accept it on behalf of all the nurses, midwives and HVs of BAME origin who are not acknowledged. I decided it wasn’t just for me but for everyone who went before me and paved the way.’

Looking forwards

‘My proudest achievement is attaining the professorial role,’ says Gina. ‘I strongly believe in the adage that if you can’t see me, you can’t be me. So I hope that younger nurses, MWs and HVs who have observed me in my professional role will realise it’s something they can do and the possibilities that exist for them.’ Gina says: ‘It’s amazing how many HVs rise into leadership positions in nursing - maybe someone should research it!’

What’s next for Gina? ‘I’m so thrilled to have been appointed as honorary vice-president of Unite-CPHVA. I have a long association with them and they have always provided me with support. I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to pay it back in some way.

‘Ever since I was a student HV, the profession has faced threats of diminishing numbers yet we’re still around, doing excellent work and still supporting vulnerable families at a critical time of their lives.’

She is also hopeful there will be a renewed recognition of the value of health visiting, and has committed to supporting Unite-CPHVA in all their endeavours.

Gina highlights that the ‘scientific and robust evidence of the enhancements CPs make is out there now. It didn’t exist when I was a student HV. It’s really emerged in the last 10 to 15 years and we need to utilise this in our case.’

And what about her retirement from academia? ‘I still have many connections to my profession through all the activities I’ve mentioned. But yes, it’s been a demanding academic career where it was normal to work weekends and evenings. So I’d like to invest my time and energy into my family.’  

About Gina

  • Gina grew up in inner city Sheffield, and now lives in Birmingham with her partner, but has travelled the world with her academic career. She has a son and daughter and three grandchildren.
  • The biggest lesson she’s learned in her career is that ‘we all have the right to self-determination. And to achieve the roles we aspire to. We don’t have to be determined by other people.’
  • Her biog on social media says ‘Deconstruct the stereotype’. She says, ‘It’s my mantra because of my own social identity.’
  • When she left school, she wanted to feel she was making a contribution to society, and her career as a nurse, MW and HV enabled her to do that.
  • Gina unwinds by dancing. Old school reggae and soul are her favourite types of music to dance to.
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