Lessons Learned as a Woman Scientist

Marguerite Evans-Galea is one of a number of women pursuing research science as a profession. She graduated from The University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Music, a Bachelor of Science and a Post-graduate Diploma of Science, and then completed her PhD at The University of New South Wales.

Developing an international profile is critical for scientists, so Maggie accepted a post-doctoral fellowship in Utah, in the United States. Her husband Charles, also a scientist, became the ‘trailing spouse’ and agreed with enthusiasm to the move.

Within the first week of starting her fellowship, Maggie recalls being surprised by a question from her new supervisor about whether she was hoping to start a family. She recalls he said ‘I don’t recommend it; it kills careers for women’. She was shocked to hear someone express this view but, as it turned out, the comment was not too far off the mark. When part-way through her contract Maggie received the exciting news that she was pregnant and eagerly told her boss, he replied with: ‘I think it’s time for you to finish up, Maggie.’ She was gobsmacked.

She sought legal advice about her options, negotiated a severance package and left the team. Maggie then started job-hunting while pregnant.

Charles accepted a position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and they offered to assist with partners finding a position, so the family moved. Maggie accepted a post-doctoral fellowship with two senior clinician researchers. They both understood her needs as primary carer for her daughter and gave Maggie the necessary flexibility around work hours, provided she met her performance outcomes and deadlines. For Maggie, this meant she could totally focus on work during the day and avoid facing a ‘guilt trip’ when she had to leave early for well-baby visits or to beat the childcare’s closing time. This made her feel valued. She was more productive and engaged, with greater well-being and reduced absenteeism – she could effectively maintain her work-life balance.

After 10 years away, Maggie, Charles and Bre decided to return home to Australia. Maggie now works as a research scientist at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The Institute is fostering a new way of working that maximises the potential and productivity of its entire staff who opt for flexible work practices. It provides comprehensive information to managers and staff around planning parental leave. Managers are encouraged to commence discussions with their staff who are planning parental leave, build strategies to keep in touch over the break, and if staff desire, ensure they are included and informed. This approach will help researchers like Maggie better juggle family and work responsibilities.

Girls are opting out of maths and science in their final years of high school in growing numbers, which is exacerbating the scarcity of women in science. The debate around reasons for the low uptake of women in science has been raging for some time. Of all the barriers that hold women back, embedded mindsets and biases about the capabilities of men and women are probably the most insidious – that men are implicitly better than women at science, maths and careers whereas women are more naturally gifted in the arts, family and domesticity.

Yet the facts simply don’t support these biases. Australian girls score higher in mathematics than the average for both genders compared to other OECD countries (although slightly lower than Australian boys). Yet few girls choose Year 12 mathematics and science subjects. In 2004 the ratio of boys to girls studying intermediate mathematics was one girl for every nineteen boys. In 2004 to 2006 the percentage of girls studying combined physics and chemistry averaged 8.6 percent.

Unfortunately, women’s representation at each step of the career ladder in science also markedly declines. In biomedical research, for instance, women are well represented at graduate, PhD and post-doctoral fellowship levels, occupying 50 to 60 percent of positions. Yet only around 25 percent of women fill team leader and group leader roles. The pipeline becomes a mere trickle at the upper echelons of leadership, where women hold a mere 15 percent of leadership roles.

Why then, do women scientists opt out of leadership roles? Part of the answer lies in the timing. The transition step to a leadership role is very important in a scientist’s career, but often coincides with the time when many women start families and so for various reasons, women exit the career at this critical stage.

A second reason lies in the myth of a meritocracy – that objective selection processes will ensure the best person will be selected to a vacancy. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that our selection processes are far from merit-based, but are often flawed, biased and subjective. In studies where identical résumés are assessed, with just the sex of the candidate changed, men are rated more favourably than identically experienced women. Men just have the advantage because of their gender.

Another reason why male leadership is so embedded relates to the pervasive power of stereotypes. Research suggests that the more we talk about these stereotypes, the more we may be unintentionally reinforcing them by legitimizing the prejudice and condoning the status quo, which leads us to discriminate more – a virtuous circle.

Maggie’s experience demonstrates the ongoing challenges of combining a successful professional career with personal fulfilment. In Utah, she experienced first-hand negative biases and ‘stereotypes’ and the consequent scarcity of women in leadership positions. She then experienced a more inclusive organisational culture in Memphis, where her career developed and where women in leadership were more visible.

Reflecting back on that time, Maggie has four pieces of advice for women scientists facing bias, discrimination and/or a lack of support.

First, have a good support network and do not be afraid to ask for help. You need to be able to debrief with someone you can trust and who will unconditionally support you. You also need someone who can share the practicalities of parenting and assist if needed.

Secondly, seek a mentor. Mentors help give perspective, challenge your thinking and provide alternative approaches you may not have considered when facing obstacles or managing unexpected situations.

Thirdly, find the right employer and the right manager. Choose workplaces where part-time or flexible work and career breaks are not considered a career killer, and are routinely accessed by women and men, and work for leaders who understand the productivity and innovation spin-offs that diversity brings.

Lastly, challenge your internal critic and learn to believe in your own abilities. This is the start of shifting from the mindset of ‘I’m not ready’ to ‘I want to put my hand up for this’.

Increasing the numbers of women in science is critical to the future of humanity and society as a whole, and we can all play a role in closing the gender gap. Science still has issues to address, but as Maggie indicates above, looking after yourself and finding what works for you is a priority. Then challenge those unconscious biases and stereotypes whenever you see, hear or experience them. As a role model, encourage young girls to take an interest in science. It can be one of the most rewarding careers they can choose, where they can tackle some of the world’s most challenging issues and truly contribute to making the world a better place.

To read more about Maggie’s story and those of other amazing women professionals, sign-up to purchase “Career Interrupted – How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks”, Norah Breekveldt (Melbourne Books, 2015).


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Norah Breekveldt

Norah is Director of Breekthrough Strategies, a leadership coaching and HR consulting firm. Norah supports business leaders to advance gender equity and diversity in their workplaces, and empowers women to create successful careers. Norah commenced her career in the public sector, then progressed into senior executive roles in the chemical industry, motor industry, finance sector and supply chain organisations. As one of the few women on senior executive teams, she understands the dynamics of creating lasting change in complex, traditional organisations. She is the recipient of the BCA/AFR Work and Family Award in 1993 for the introduction of work/families practices at Kemcor, and the Telstra Business Women’s Award (Victoria) in 1995. Norah is the author of “Sideways To The Top – 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever” (Melbourne Books, 2013 and Career Interrupted – How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks (Melbourne Books 2015).

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