Letters from the Field Phase is an opportunity for the 2015-17 Sauvé Fellows to share their takeaways from the residential phase of the Jeanne Sauvé Public Leadership Program and showcase their applicability in the field.

Here is Rachel MacNeill’s story:

The fall of 2016 has been difficult for many of us who share progressive values. Personally, I feel like I’ve been forced out of my cozy social media echo chamber to reckon with the deep socio-political and cultural schisms in the West as well as throughout the world. Given the recent political upheavals and public displays of hatred that only year ago seemed impossible, I’ve been reflecting on opportunities and challenges to creating culture change.

One of my most important takeaways from the Sauvé residential year was the importance of taking a holistic approach to culture change. I’m now working to apply that learning in my role as Communications Specialist at the Institute of Gender and Health in Montreal. The job is fast-paced and diverse, and most importantly, I feel like I’m contributing to a more equal and healthy society for Canadians. Our goal is to support science and researchers who integrate sex- and gender-based analysis into their research. Before starting here, I never would have realized how important this is. But now, I know we need to have our health researchers, policymakers and service providers apply these lenses across disciplines.

For example, most biomedical research is done on male mice. This means that not only do we know less about female physiology, but also that when drugs make it to clinical trials they may never have been tested on a female sample. This can both be dangerous and lead to drugs that are less effective for women. Further, men are diagnosed with depression less than half as often as women, but commit suicide between three and four times more than their female counterparts. Part of my job is supporting research that explores these sex- and/or gender-based differences and how to account for them in the health sector. Essentially, we’re trying to change the culture of health research, policy and systems to create better health for all Canadians. And for me, this fits into my personal goal of contributing to a more just and equal world.

Entering the health sciences field came with a huge learning curve for me. Thankfully, the Jeanne Sauvé Public Leadership Program helped me lay the groundwork for taking on complex, ambitious projects. Throughout the Sauvé year, we explored the concept of change from multiple angles. My most significant insight from these reflections resulted in a three-pronged approach to culture change: changing self, changing community and changing systems.

I’ve applied this framework to how I think and act in my professional life. On the individual level, we show researchers hard evidence to make them realize how important sex and gender inclusion is in health research. At the same time, we offer resources to raise the bar in terms of skills and create a community of champions who act as allies and resources. Finally, we work as advocates for policy change at an institutional level. Work at all three of these levels inform and build on each other to create genuine culture change.

It may seem obvious, but this three-pronged approach has changed the way I approach my work. Each level of involvement comes with its own challenges and obstacles, of course. But by seeing three dimensions at once, I’m able to work towards the goal of culture change in a way that suits my hyper-organized mind. When the end goal is something that can seem as amorphous and intangible as culture change, that perspective is invaluable. I believe that without genuine culture change, social justice work will not get the support it needs to have long-lasting impact. I hope that an approach that allows us to account for both the big picture and the individual hearts and minds will help us all along that path.

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