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Mar 7, 2024 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Marking International Women’s Day: Women in wellbeing

Since 1911, International Women’s Day has been a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, as well as a call for equity and inclusion.

Across the Centre’s 10 years, we’ve had the privilege to collaborate with a diverse roster of leading female researchers and be part of their impactful careers in wellbeing.

So, in the spirit of 8 March, we’re in conversation with Professor Anne-Marie Bagnall, Dr Bryony Davies, Professor Louise Mansfield, Dr Helen MacIntyre and Professor Alita Nandi to celebrate their experiences, accomplishments and ambitions.

How did you get involved in wellbeing and working with the Centre?

Anne-Marie: I’d been working on systematic reviews and evidence synthesis since 1998 and I’d previously used some wellbeing measurement scales in work evaluating community centred approaches to health, such as health champions. I was really excited by the opportunity to put all of that together at the Centre with a fantastic group of colleagues as part of the Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed an interview more than I enjoyed the one with the Centre board. The air was crackling with possibility!

Bryony: I initially became involved with the subject of wellbeing as a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, where my PhD explored ways to reduce the negative impact of social media use on women’s body image. As a woman I was acutely aware of the impact of societal appearance ideals and the pressures on women to look a certain way. My research was driven by a desire to combat this. I was also keen to create impact from my work and reach a wider audience to encourage positive change, so I approached the Centre to collaborate on impact-oriented projects.

Helen: My focus is on social relationships and loneliness. For many years I worked as an education researcher on projects that focused on children’s interactions and peer relationships in schools. Then, I worked on social isolation and loneliness among older people for Ageing Better in Camden. I became Head of Evidence for the Campaign to End Loneliness, hosted by the Centre, in April 2022.

Louise: I was first involved with the Centre at its inception in 2014, with the ESRC call for evidence programmes. The one for culture, sport and wellbeing reflected my own interests and the growing developments on evidence-informed policy and practice. I became the Co-Principal Investigator of the programme, leading a group of senior academics in the fields from Brunel, the LSE, Tampere and Brighton in designing and delivering systematic reviews of evidence that could inform policy and practice.

Has your role changed since working with us?

Helen: Working for the Campaign has meant a shift away from my own research activity to working with researchers, practice and policy professionals, and funders to share and think about evidence on loneliness and how to build it.

Anne-Marie: When I started working with the Centre I had recently been promoted to Reader, or Associate Professor, and was just starting to develop and lead my own research programmes. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a Professor – they work too hard don’t they!  Despite my misgivings, I was promoted to Professor of Health and Wellbeing Evidence at Leeds Beckett University in 2017 and took over as Director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research in 2019.

Bryony: Since working with the Centre, I’ve completed my PhD, and body image has continued to gain traction as an important area of wellbeing. I’ve remained keen to contribute to impact-oriented research projects. I’m now working as a Knowledge Transfer Research Associate on a project centred around financial wellbeing. Together, with a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia, we’re working on a project with wealth manager RBC Brewin Dolphin, which is exploring how financial education can help to increase subjective financial wellbeing. 

Louise: My long-term work has been in exploring the social, cultural and political interconnections between community sport and public health. I have always had a specific focus on understanding inequalities in this regard. When I joined the Centre, the wellbeing agenda for sport was starting to develop through sport policy, and the funding for the sport, culture and wellbeing evidence programme was a part of my career trajectory towards Professorship. My Professorial appointment reflected at least 15 years of funded work, publications and impact in the sociology of sport. This was broadly focused on building evidence to inform policy and practice about community sport-health issues. 

What are you most proud of in your career?

Louise: Building a high-quality body of evidence and established scholarship about sport, culture, health and wellbeing. This has included high-profile funding for primary research, secondary evidence analysis and – crucially – public engagement across policy and practice over the past decade. Recognition in the form of being appointed a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS) is one of my proudest moments; but so is every time I see people taking part in culture and sporting activities when they did not think it was for them because we have designed and delivered it to their needs and wishes.

Bryony: I’m most proud of putting myself out of my comfort zone and using the expertise and understanding I’ve developed to help create insight and impact in a number of areas of wellbeing.

Helen: I’m probably most proud of my doctoral work – using observation methods to give insight into the kind of interactions that take place between children in informal school spaces and their importance for social inclusion and exclusion. I’m also very proud to have made a contribution to the valuable Campaign to End Loneliness’ wider body of work.

Anne-Marie: I’m most proud of the body of evidence on community engagement and community wellbeing that I’ve been part of building, and the brilliant and inspiring colleagues I’ve been privileged to work with over the years, both academic and non academic. Seeing our work being used by colleagues in public health and the voluntary and community sector to have a direct impact on those who need it most is very rewarding.

Tell us about your ambitions for your future research, and how you’d like to see wellbeing research develop more broadly?

Helen: I would love to integrate work on children’s loneliness into my work on peer relations in school.

Louise: My ambitions are to ensure that high-quality evidence – both quantitative and qualitative – reach and serve the people who are making decisions about culture and sport in communities and Governments around the world. To achieve this, it is centrally important that wellbeing evaluation is supported in local and global contexts by developing researchers.

Bryony: I hope to continue working within wellbeing – body image, financial wellbeing, and beyond – and that in the future wellbeing research continues to encourage positive change and policy.

Anne-Marie: For my future research I am working with colleagues in community spaces – both outdoor and indoor – to further explore the impacts of the spaces on wellbeing, how these impacts can be captured, and the mechanisms by which they take place. My focus remains on social relations and their impact on loneliness, particularly regarding intergenerational interventions. I see and hear about the impact of social relations on wellbeing and health in almost every community research project I’m part of, and it is very powerful, yet hard to measure. I’m also interested in whole system approaches to public health and wellbeing. 

I’d like to see wellbeing research develop further in the direction of tackling wellbeing inequalities, evaluating the wellbeing economy approach, and exploring the relationship between wellbeing and health.

Can you share any advice with aspiring female researchers and academics?

Louise: Be creative and share your expertise. Do the work you want to do in the way you want to do it. Always aim for quality. 

Alita: My own journey has taught me how important it is to fight, resist and overcome self-doubt, persistently and stubbornly. I have learnt from and been inspired by strong women, within and outside of academia. They were from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds, with very different life trajectories but what they all had in common was their persistence, determination, and stubbornness in overcoming, often insurmountable challenges to reach their goals.

Helen: You can create great impact from your research by working with civil society organisations that bring together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and funders. Seek out organisations or projects that hold those networks and share your research with them. 

Anne-Marie: Believe in yourself! It’s easier said than done, particularly in an academic environment. So get yourself a mentor who believes in you, preferably another female academic who understands all the conflicts and pressures life as a female academic brings – spinning all of those plates whilst juggling all of those balls. 

Take your time, there’s no rush. Remember to live your life as well. Do the work that makes you happy. Look after your own wellbeing. Don’t let rejections get you down. And practice saying no – or at least not saying yes straightaway – sleep on it first. I’m still learning some of this, particularly the last one!

Bryony: Enjoy the journey – it’s easy to focus on the next step or the next challenge, forgetting to be proud of what you’re doing now, how far you’ve come, and the worthwhile contributions you are making.

Professor Anne-Marie Bagnall

Our collaboration began in 2015, as part of the Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme.1This was made up of a large consortium led by Professor Peter Kinderman and Professor Rhiannon Corcoran from the University of Liverpool; with Professor Jane South, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), Locality, the University of Sheffield, Goldsmiths University, Happy City and Social Life. 

This work in the focus area of place and community, has produced a theory of change of community wellbeing, and a scoping review of what works to boost social relations. As well as a systematic review of community infrastructure – which was updated in 2023, used most often to support the impact of community hubs and community events. A scoping review of indicators of community wellbeing has been used to develop tools such as the Coop Community Wellbeing Index which is widely used; including by Mind in a research project. 

Research also produced an innovative methodology for synthesising practice case studies, and guidance on synthesis, used by organisations such as:

  • The Wales Centre for Public Policy in a review of volunteering and wellbeing in the pandemic, and one on resourceful community partnerships.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council, to synthesise the learning from its ‘Mobilising community assets to tackle health inequalities’ funding programme.
  • Spirit of 2012 and our own research team at the Centre who are looking at the rich evidence that case studies can provide for trusts and foundations. 

Dr Bryony Davies

Together we explored the role that body image plays in women’s broader wellbeing, specifically their life satisfaction. The project found that how women feel about their bodies is linked to how satisfied they feel with their lives as a whole. 

Findings from this work were used to produce recommendations for future action by researchers and policymakers. It was also used to contribute to the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee exploring the impact of body image on physical and mental health.

Professor Louise Mansfield

We have worked together over the last 10 years, with Professor Mansfield leading on areas of our work on loneliness and connection, producing a Tackling loneliness review of reviews and a Conceptual review of loneliness. She also produced our first systematic review on music and singing, and subsequent ones on sport and dance, visual arts, and outdoor recreation, among others. Many of these produced sector case studies, translated briefings, and blogs to support policy and practice. Much of this programme of work was used to develop methods guidance for the Centre, delivered stakeholder involved priority reviews, and supported the translation of evidence into visual summaries. 

This year, Professor Mansfield has led our creativity and wellbeing review, which aims to better understand the pathways that link them. We launched a summary briefing, pathways model, introductory blog and full report as part of the project.

Dr Helen MacIntyre

Dr MacIntyre is Head of Evidence for the Campaign to End Loneliness, which is hosted by the Centre. A key joint project looked at tackling loneliness interventions and their evaluation. It involved two research and policy forums discussing loneliness measurement and then stakeholder research on what makes interventions effective. Another main piece of work involved bringing together tackling loneliness through the built environment.

Professor Alita Nandi

As a researcher on our former ‘Work and Learning’ research team at the Centre and the University of Essex, Professor Nandi contributed to one of our key focus areas, working age. As part of her research, she conducted secondary data analyses on how work and learning affect wellbeing for different populations, leading to our Learning at Work and Wellbeing resources.


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Aug 28, 2018 | By Andrea
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