Tackling COVID-19: Dr Emma Williamson

Dr Emma Williamson

As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research. 

Dr Emma Williamson, a Reader in Gender Based Violence and former head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, has been working with Women’s Aid to highlight how the pandemic has affected those experiencing domestic violence.



Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on domestic abuse. Could you tell us a little more?

We were aware quite early on that any lockdown was likely to have an impact on those experiencing domestic abuse. So we worked quickly and closely with Women’s Aid to look at how they could collect data in order to influence policy. A report called ‘A Perfect Storm’ came out in the summer based on a number of surveys with support services, victims and survivors. We found there was an increase in coercive control, with perpetrators using the restrictions as a tool to stop victims from leaving or seeking help. Many people didn’t realise that domestic abuse was an exemption, so they were worried they would be arrested if they left. This, coupled with a stark increase in homicides during the first six weeks of lockdown, showed there was a major issue. Some of our data was used in a Panorama documentary and we were able to feedback these crucial insights to policy makers.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?

The biggest triumph for me was when Boris Johnson announced the second national lockdown and explicitly said that domestic abuse was an exemption. That was amazing and so important. It felt like we’d come a long way from it not being mentioned or discussed, to it being said to the nation by the Prime Minister. That’s testament to the hard work of people in the sector, collecting data and ultimately presenting evidence to the government to show what’s happening on the ground.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

There have definitely been times when I’ve been sat in a room as one of the most senior people and there’s been an automatic assumption that I am more junior. I tend not to get it in my day-to-day work thankfully. Because of my area of research, I work with a lot of really great senior women and professors.

I think a lot of female academics experience discrimination, especially those with children. Take lockdown: there’s a lot of evidence that suggests women have picked-up more of the caring responsibilities so I expect we’ll see fewer publications from women because their research activities have been put on the backburner. The gender pay gap is one example, but there are other inequalities in academia that the sector needs to deal with, particularly around ethnicity. Although I think we have come quite a long way, there’s still a long way to go.

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

When I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, I travelled to London two or three times a year to attend meetings of the British Sociological Association’s Violence Against Women Research Group. It allowed me to meet the women whose work I’d been reading – the big names in our field of research such as Marianne Hester, Liz Kelly, Betsy Stanko amongst others. I feel lucky that over the years I got to know them and ultimately work with them.

Our PhD students here at Bristol always inspire me. Many are from overseas and have chosen to come to Bristol because of the expertise in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research; they want to take what they’ve learnt here to bring about positive change in their home country. The risk to them as individuals can be quite high but they’re absolutely determined to make a difference. I enjoy learning from them and vice-versa!

And, ultimately, I’m inspired by the bravery and courage shown by every single one of the victims and survivors who I’ve ever spoken to as part of my research.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

Not to worry about things you can’t change. When we’re younger, we spend a lot of time when we could spend that energy on other things. It’s easy to get frustrated by everyday things but sometimes you have to accept them and focus on the things that really matter, the things that you can change.

What are you most proud of? 

I’m proud of what myself and colleagues have achieved in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Domestic abuse can be a tough area to work in but we know our research makes a difference. The Centre was due to celebrate its 30th birthday in the first lockdown, which obviously didn’t happen, and I guess ultimately it would be nice if our work was no longer needed. But for every step forward, a new challenge presents itself and we need to keep listening to the voices of people who experience domestic abuse and try to make a difference to their lives.

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Tackling COVID-19: Dinithi Wijedasa

Dinithi Wijedasa

As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research.  

Dinithi WijedasaSenior Lecturer at the Children and Families Research Centre is surveying the mental health of children in State Care in England through the COVID-19 pandemic




1. Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of children in care. Could you tell us a little more? 

Understanding whether COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on more vulnerable child populations, such as children in care, has been identified as a national-level priority by the SAGE committee.   

At any given time in England, there are nearly 80,000 children being looked after by the State (also referred to as children in care). Although high prevalence of mental illness in children in care is widely acknowledged as a serious concern, the current evidence base lacks understanding of long-term mental health trajectories and mental health service provision for children in care. Before the pandemic, we had already started two research studies funded by the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation to answer these two questions.  

We were already planning to carry out a survey of children in care in 2020 for the ESRC funded study. This therefore provided a real-time opportunity to collect information on mental health and wellbeing of children in care during the Covid-19 pandemic. We were also able to collect information on other aspects of children’s lives, which have previously been associated with mental health such as the strength of their relationships with carers; their feelings about school; social work support; friends; access to green spaces; access to support; and their wishes and feelings. These are aspects in children’s lives that would have also been impacted by the pandemic.  We are currently analysing the data from the first wave of data collection where we had responses from 930 children in care from 18 local authorities. I am pleased that we also received further funding through the UKRI Covid-19 call to extend this survey to a longitudinal survey so that we can collect this information two more times to look at mental health of children in care over a period of 18 months.  

Our other research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is a collaboration with colleagues at the Bristol Medical School where we are working towards creating a new national-level linkage between the national pupil data held by the Department for Education and national mental health service data held by the NHS. As mental health service data on children are collected monthly, we are hoping that a successful linkage will enable us to establish a new and relevant evidence base on the characteristics of children in care who are referred to mental health services, their prognosis and pathways through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on mental health of children in State care. We are currently working closely with the Department for Education and NHS-Digital to agree the way forward as we are using new legal gateways and data sharing processes to access and link national-level inter-Departmental datasets.  

 2. What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

The biggest research challenge was having to adapt our methodologies to suit the restrictions that came about due to the pandemic.  

All research fieldwork was stopped by the University as well as Government Departments as we went into the first lockdown. This had a drastic impact on the research timelines. We had to pause recruitment for the survey on the ESRC funded project and pause all project activities on the data linkage project as the Governmental Departments that we are working with paused all research activities to prioritise the Covid-19 response. All of us in the research teams were also working alongside extra pressures brought on by the pandemic such as adapting to homeworking, home-schooling and illness within the team. It was also a steep learning curve for us all in digital engagement and communication 

 For me, it is a triumph that despite all these challenges, we have been able to support each other with empathy, kindness, and trust through 352 days of home working and teamworking (as you can see, I have not been counting!). Not having face to face meetings has not been a barrier to team working. It is a triumph that the University was able to switch swiftly and provide us the right digital platforms so that we can continue with our research activities. Despite the setbacks at the beginning of the pandemic, it is a triumph that we have achieved and celebrated research milestones such as receiving NHS ethics clearance for the data linkage project with no amendments and having 18 local authorities and 930 children and young people opt-in to our research! 

 It is a triumph that I am working with such hard-working colleagues who share the same vision as me to make real change with research. There is a huge responsibility placed on us to give timely and accurate information on this vulnerable group of children, which we hope to deliver throughout the next two years.  Although it is extra pressure on the teams to report continuously rather than publishing end of project reports, we believe that sharing timely research information is important. We are continually engaging with local authorities at grass-roots level as well as well as the Governmental Departments at policy level and we will directly feedback our results at policy and practice levels so that we can help enable positive change in the mental health management and  service provision for children in care.  


Links to the research studies: 






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Tackling COVID-19: Angeliki Papadaki

Dr Angeliki Papadaki

As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research.  

Dr Angeliki PapadakiSenior Lecturer in Nutrition, has been Exploring the experiences of community service providers delivering meals to self-isolating adults during COVID-19



1. Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the Meals on Wheels service. Could you tell us a little more? 

 At the beginning of the first national lockdown, around 1.5 million people were instructed to shield and around 17.7 million adults aged ≥65 years, who were also at increased risk of infection, were instructed to stay at home as much as possible. Many of these people might not have had support from carers and community resources and/or enough money to be able to access food, nor the ability to prepare meals for themselves. So we realised early on the impact that the pandemic and this lockdown would have on these people accessing nutritious meals. But we also realised that this increased demand for meals will have an impact on Meals on Wheels services (local authority services delivering meals to older, vulnerable and housebound individuals). So we worked closely with different partners to explore this important issue.   

We just submitted evidence to an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee on ‘COVID-19: Supporting the vulnerable during lockdown’, on why Meals on Wheels should be supported by the Government to ensure the wellbeing of older, vulnerable, and self-isolating adults during lockdown. This was based on our qualitative research findings with service providers (drivers who deliver the meals, service coordinators and managers) in two local authorities in South West England. We found that Meals on Wheels exert important benefits to clients (by conducting welfare checks, encouraging independence and identifying and addressing isolation and loneliness), service providers (via a sense of pride, giving something back and developing reciprocal relationships with clients), but also the wider community (by reducing pressures on carers and the need for residential care). The pandemic brought many challenges, such as an increase in service users, concerns with sourcing food, increased demand on human resources, and uncertainty about how the service will cope in continuous lockdowns.  Although the service went above and beyond to continue supporting the most vulnerable, time to interact with clients decreased and there were concerns about clients’ wellbeing because of this. I specifically remember a driver sharing that for some clients of the service, he is the only person they see on any given day. So the importance of the service was even more profound during the national lockdown.  

As Meals on Wheels have been facing funding cuts and closures both globally and nationally, these findings are extremely important and provide crucial insights to policy makers for the need to protect, enhance and financially support the continuation of the service, in order to protect the most vulnerable during national lockdowns, and beyond.   

 2. What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?  

 During the first few weeks of the first national lockdown, and while we were all adapting to the new restrictions and working from home, I was trying to think of how I can use my skills and research experience to make a difference to people’s lives. I met with a colleague and after a long discussion, he casually suggested I do some reading on Meals on Wheels and establish what the evidence is in this field. I blocked my calendar for two days, read and researched. Within two weeks, we had together a team of four University of Bristol academics, a research associate, two local authorities who agreed to support the project, one national charity to help disseminate the findings, two collaborators from Brown University with expertise in the field and direct links to Meals on Wheels America, a grant application to the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and noted ideas for future research on this important service. I consider it a triumph that we all met under challenging circumstances but discovered we have a common vision and developed this important piece of research to help the most vulnerable.  

3. What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

I have often felt that being a woman, and a non-British woman, can be a challenge. In the past, I have had colleagues talk sarcastically about my ideas in public and in front of me. I also find that more males than females ‘are in love with their own voice’ and barely leave time for you to speak during meetings. You have to learn how to be thick-skinned! Although these are challenging situations to be in, I have learnt to overcome it by acknowledging my weaknesses, but also reminding myself of what I’m worth. Nobody is perfect, but we all have our unique skills, strengths and personalities that are valuable in academia. We all need to remember this more often.  

4. Which women have inspired you in your career?  

I think the first woman who inspired me was my PhD supervisor, who was the most supportive but in her own way inspired my confidence, showing initiative and taking ownership of a project. I cannot pay this forward enough!  

A more recent female colleague, and her saying ‘you have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth; use them in this proportion’; showing me that keeping silent and digesting information before you speak does not indicate weakness as many think, but indeed the opposite.  

All my official and ‘unofficial’ mentors throughout the years, whose advice helped me look deep into myself, reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, speak out when necessary, and realise that we all have something valuable to offer. 

 5. What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

To be patient. To keep eyes and ears open as opportunities might arise from literally everywhere. To listen to your gut feeling. That’s it’s fine to not know where you want to go just yet, and that following the flow can also lead you to great things.  

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Tackling COVID-19: Karen West

Karen West

As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research.  

Karen West, Professor of Social Policy and Ageing, has been looking at the impact the Covid-19 pandemic on bereavement in retirement communities.




1. Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic on bereavement in retirement communities. Could you tell us a little more? 

We have been working with the ExtraCare Charitable Trust and Cruse Bereavement Care for three years now on a project that is about developing a volunteer peer bereavement support programme and general ‘grief literacy’ for staff and residents in the retirement villages run by the Trust.  When the pandemic came, we weren’t able to continue the face to face field work that we had planned.  On the other hand, Covid presented us with an opportunity to try out some different methods of data collection and we applied for funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to collect diaries of the experience of supporting people through bereavement.  This turned out to be a great method for gaining the kind of real-time insight into the work and thoughts of the volunteers that we hadn’t really been able to capture before. We learned a lot about the challenges that people are facing when they have limited connection to the support of families and friends and when funerals and memorial events are very restricted.  On the other hand, we also learned that for many who are grieving, lockdown brings a kind of relief at not having to put on a smile and a brave face every day and to be able to manage sorrow at their own pace.  We also learned how the residents had been really creative in organising their own social-distanced memorial events.

2. What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

The biggest challenge has been that of all researchers who do ethnographic field work – not being able to face to face field work. On the other hand, we’ve learned to be creative  in developing other methods.  This is also true of another Covid project on collaborative housing (funded by NIHR SSCR) that I have worked on.  Above all,  I feel so lucky to have been able to work with excellent teams of researchers.  Our regular Zoom meetings have really given a shape and purpose to my working week that I may not have had otherwise.  Oddly, I think my working with relationships with these colleagues has strengthened during the pandemic.

You can read about the projects here:




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