Exposing social inequalities and breaking the cycle of disadvantage

A woman on a laptop with a baby on her lap

As an architect of ESRC’s prestigious longitudinal studies data infrastructure Professor Joshi CBE has made an outstanding contribution to British people’s lives.

About her career

In a career spanning over 4 decades, Professor Heather Joshi has helped expose the nature of social inequalities in the UK and advocated continuously for policies that break the cycle of disadvantage.

Professor Joshi’s thoughtful and continuous engagement with policymakers has had a significant impact on social policy since the 1990s. Her thoughtful and continuous engagement is backed by rigorous evidence often drawn from the UK’s ground-breaking birth cohort studies, which she helped nurture.

Video credit: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

An autogenerated transcript is available on YouTube.

Highlighting inequalities

Professor Joshi’s expertise in the relationships between motherhood, employment and pay, supported by longitudinal evidence, has raised awareness of inequalities and directly impacted policy.

In 2000 her report with Hugh Davies on women’s lifetime incomes and pension rights highlighted the disproportionate disadvantages faced by women compared to men under the earnings-related pension system. Ultimately, their findings improved women’s pension rights by helping to shape the introduction of a single tier pension in 2014.

Earlier, Professor Joshi had highlighted the unequal impact of divorce on women’s retirement incomes. This influenced the fairer split of pension rights on divorce that became part of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999.

A crucial role in data resources

Her findings that children of working mothers did just as well as those whose mothers stayed at home was based on her analysis of data from the 1958 and 1970 birth cohort studies. It is two of the UK’s five birth cohort studies.

These generational studies collect wide-ranging data from individuals over their lifetime to paint a nationally representative picture of changing circumstances and lives.

Over her career, Professor Joshi has played a crucial role in these pioneering investments:

  • by bringing their evidence to policymakers’ attention
  • in building the resources themselves through her leadership roles at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), in particular as Director of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) from 2000 to 2011

A passion for longitudinal research

Her passion for longitudinal research is long-standing. Early in her career, she took the opportunity to work with data from the 1946 National Birth Cohort Study, the first of its kind.

Professor Joshi says:

The idea of working with data collected from people born just a month or so before me was compelling. Longitudinal data tells you about the circumstances of a person’s life journey and is perfect for studying inequality and disadvantage.

Leading the MCS

Under her leadership, the MCS, which follows the lives of more than 19,000 babies born in the UK between 2000 and 2002, has become an internationally-renowned data resource. The launch of the MCS was a team effort. The then CLS Director, Professor John Bynner, led the collaborative winning bid, prior to Professor Joshi taking over leadership of MCS in May 2000.

Professor Joshi says:

My vision for the MCS was to build an interdisciplinary, multi-purpose, internationally comparable study, that would become a worthy national asset, bringing in government co-funding to enhance ESRC’s core funding.

Since its launch, the MCS has provided evidence used in over 1,300 academic publications, and influenced government thinking and a range of policies on, for example:

  • infant health
  • parenting and family life
  • education
  • bullying
  • obesity
  • young people’s mental health
  • domestic violence
  • poverty
  • social mobility

Engaging with decision makers

The MCS attracted government co-funding from various government departments and devolved administrations. This allowed Professor Joshi and her team to work closely from the outset with policymakers to fully understand their needs, while also building those direct lines of communication needed to influence policymaking.

To ensure research evidence truly benefits people’s lives and wider society, Professor Joshi has long viewed the nurturing of close contacts and positive working relationships with policymakers as key.

Important, too, is the presentation of evidence in a digestible form. For the MCS, for example, she pioneered the distillation of key findings into 4-page briefings with easy-to-read graphics to ensure the evidence had the widest possible reach.

Supporting the future of cohort studies

The success of the MCS has increased support for new cohort studies at home and abroad. Internationally, the cohort studies launched in the 2000s in France, Ireland, Germany and New Zealand, took note of the design, content and practices of MCS. These newcomers will provide more material for international comparison in due course. Communication between the studies was facilitated by the European Child Cohort Network, which Professor Joshi co-founded.

In the UK, Professor Joshi and her colleagues have successfully helped develop a successor to the MCS. The planning of a 2-year feasibility study for a new UK-wide, ESRC-funded birth cohort study for the 2020s is currently underway.

An outstanding contribution to social science research

Professor Joshi started her career in 1979 as a research fellow at the ESRC-funded Centre for Population Studies. Since then, she has led or shared responsibility for 47 research grants with a total value of £44 million, providing the robust evidence-base on which policymakers depend.

Professor Joshi has proved an invaluable mentor and inspiration to the next generation of scientists working to facilitate positive, lasting and profound changes in people’s lives. She has nurtured the talent of other social scientists such as Professor Jane Elliot, her successor as Director of CLS and Professor Alice Sullivan, former Director of the 1970 British Cohort Study.

Polly Toynbee, Journalist and writer says:

Time and again Professor Joshi’s research emerges as crucial evidence in settling public debates. When some politicians and their press attacked working mothers, she showed mothers’ employment did not harm children’s development.

Her research removed obstacles to subsidised childcare, and proved the value of birth cohort studies’ huge impact on public policy.

Find out more

Professor Heather Joshi is a finalist in the ESRC John Hills Impact Prize 2022.

Read Professor Joshi’s research biography.

See her blog on social inequalities.

Read her IOE blog on the Myth of the Working Mother.

See her blog on the gender pay gap.

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