Episode 93: Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton (or Sab) took my breath away when I met her. She has achieved, and continues to achieve, so much despite her early life being incredibly tough.

Sab found herself homeless aged 16 after her beloved Dad died and her mum's mental health crumbled. She talked to me about how she has suffered from hyper-vigilance ever since, as the strategies she developed for keeping safe while sleeping rough, are still there. 

She eventually found a place to live and was determined to become a fire fighter, applying to over 30 places before being accepted aged 18. She is now Chief Fire Officer of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. 

She met her husband Mike in her early days in the fire service. Following an incident in which she believed Mike had been seriously injured, Sab wrote a research paper on the mechanisms of decision-making under pressure. She has a First Class degree in Psychology, a Masters in International Fire Service Development and a PhD in Behavioural Neuroscince. 

Sab has been faced with a lot of gender bias while in the Fire Service (for example in social settings people will say, 'Oh you're so brave' to a male firefighter; but 'Aren't you afraid?' to female firefighters. She has frequently experienced 'the backlash effect' when people are uncomfortable with you because you are doing a job associated with the opposite gender. She recently published her book 'The Gender Bias' which looks at the everyday prejudices which women experience and also has some practical solutions to offer. In our chat she clearly illustrated this, describing two very striking studies of little children. One study (as it happens, involving a firefighter's pole!) showed how parents unconsciously treat sons and daughters differently when it comes to perceived risk; the other study showed how children also have gender biases from a very young age, but how this can be reversed easily when they're little.

Sab and her husband Mike have a teenage daughter Gabby. Sab remembers how she started her PhD the day Gabby was born (yes, I don't blame you if you have to read that sentence twice!) and was promoted the day she went on maternity leave. She and Mike have been a tight parenting team, but interestingly Sab told me Mike experienced his own backlash when he took their daughter to baby classes, with mums of the other babies tending to gatekeep their maternal role and keep Mike at a slight distance.

Now that Gabby is a teenager, Sab is having flashbacks to her own teenage years and remembering more vividly that she was sleeping rough in a shop doorway aged 15, with people walking past her as if she wasn't really there. She told me how important it is to smile, have eye contact and say hello to homeless people, even if you don't have any change. If anyone knows, Sab does. 

Spinning Plates is presented by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, produced by Claire Jones and post-production by Richard Jones

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