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Leaving a legacy of a healthier life

11 November 2022 at 10:00 am
Danielle Kutchel
Sarah White’s career has spanned various industries, but the common thread has been helping people to lead a healthier life. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Danielle Kutchel | 11 November 2022 at 10:00 am


Leaving a legacy of a healthier life
11 November 2022 at 10:00 am

Sarah White’s career has spanned various industries, but the common thread has been helping people to lead a healthier life. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Sarah White is just a few days into her new role as CEO at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, but she’s hit the ground running and is already making plans for equitable women’s health resources and how to build on the groundbreaking work the organisation has done.

Her path to the role hasn’t been what one might expect, and she brings with her an expansive skillset drawn from a wide range of disciplines.

She originally studied science at the University of Melbourne and completed her PhD in paediatric genetics with what’s now known as the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. That led to a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer research in the UK. 

Around that time, Andrew Wakefield’s now-discredited study into vaccines and autism was published, and there was concern amongst the public about genetically modified crops. 

But that concern wasn’t reflected in the scientific literature that White was reading, which instead pointed to how those crops could be used to cure certain health problems like vitamin deficiency-related blindness, and how vaccines did not cause autism.

The lack of health or research literacy inspired White to change careers. She re-trained in public relations in an effort to move into science communication, taking up a role at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research where she helped translate scientific findings into information that the public could digest.

Eventually, she moved back home to Australia where she worked at the Royal Women’s Hospital, then as director of Quit Victoria — and now, as CEO of Jean Hailes.

What are your plans for Jean Hailes, where do you want to take it from here? 

Well, the organisation has a really long, proud history and has done absolutely amazing things. So I don’t think there’s anything that fundamentally needs to be changed. It’s an extraordinary organisation. I guess what I would like to do is to see how we increase our reach and our influence so that we go beyond “just” listening to women and girls and gender diverse people. And we do that through our National Women’s Health Survey. I want to go beyond listening and responding with really great health information and really great health professional training. I want to see how we can use some of that information to remove some of those structural barriers to women, to women’s health, but also some areas that are part of women’s health but that we don’t think of, like workforce participation, for example. Workforce participation allows women to bring home money and to be socially engaged as well. And if you’re being taken out of the workforce because you have a women’s health issue and the workforce is not able to show any understanding or empathy for that issue, that’s a real problem. I think we have to get to the point where these “women’s issues” are normalised.

We’ve seen a few setbacks around the world for women’s rights lately. Obviously, the big one is Roe v Wade. What do you think are the most pressing challenges for Australian women from all cultures and backgrounds, and how do we address those? 

The Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey from last year really showed that access to health care is still a really big issue for women — being able to access the health care that they need. But also we have the health impacts of violence against women and girls, which is still a really big issue that we have to address. And then, how do we ensure that women are not being disadvantaged because some do experience disorders that men, by and large don’t understand, don’t want to discuss, that even some women don’t understand and don’t want to discuss? How do we make workplace conditions equitable — not equal, equitable — so that women who are experiencing… anything as simple as hot flushes can take a little bit of extra time, and how do we make sure that they are comfortable in the workplace so they don’t leave the workplace? But that’s not a conversation that happens. We obviously need to be doing more to make sure that women from different cultural backgrounds and language backgrounds have the information they need, and not just the information on the page in their language, but information that actually is culturally safe and accessible. I think we really need to do more there. 

There’s so much bad news and uncertainty in the world. What gives you hope? 

One of the things that I think is really exciting about coming into this role is that we’re seeing a recognition that women’s health issues have been underfunded for a very long time and that there is a need to make redress there. We’ve seen the New South Wales government announce $16.5 billion over ten years, with women’s health being one of the four pillars and one of the others being workforce participation, which of course is closely connected to women’s health. We’ve seen Assistant Minister for Health and Age Care Ged Kearney announce that we’re going to have dedicated clinics for endometriosis and pelvic pain. It’s really an exciting time. And we’ve got a really big elephant to eat, but those legs are being chewed off as we speak. 

What are some of the big changes that we have seen recently in women’s health? 

I think it’s an understanding of the need to change things. I think that is just the start of where we’re now going. [Look at] the fact that we are talking about… funding women’s health quite separately and investigating it quite separately. One of the things that certainly springs to mind is the recognition that heart attacks are different in men and women, and we now see clinicians trained and we’re starting to see the general population understand that those classic symptoms of a heart attack in a man are different to symptoms for women. 

How do you wind down at the end of the week? 

I try to look after myself. I try to practise what I preach. I try to get a walk in [and] I play tennis. I just try to get out of the office, get out of an office mindset and try to take that mental refresh. 

What do you want your legacy to be? 

I  would like my legacy to be that I’ve made it easier for people to enjoy a really good, healthy, long life. Whether that’s through empowering people with information, whether it’s through changing laws to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke or it’s changing workplace policies, or normalising a discussion of menopause or endometriosis or any of those disorders as just another thing that people deal with, I think that legacy is what I want to see. 

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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