“Career Interrupted” – Lessons Learned as a Woman Scientist

Maggie’s story

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 post-doctoral fellowship in Utah, Maggie recalls being surprised by a question from her 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 heavily pregnant.

Charles accepted a position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. They also routinely offered to assist with partners finding a position and so the family moved. Maggie accepted a post-doctoral fellowship with two senior investigators. They both completely 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 to beat the childcare’s close time. This made Maggie feel valued. She was more productive and engaged, with greater wellbeing 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.

What’s the problem we are trying to solve?

Girls are opting out of maths and science in their final years of high school in growing numbers[1], 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[2] (although slightly lower than Australian boys).[3] 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.[4] In 2004 to 2006 the percentage of girls studying combined physics and chemistry averaged 8.6 percent.[5]

Unfortunately, women’s representation at each step of the career ladder 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.[6]

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 many women leave their careers 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. [7] 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 legitimising the prejudice and condoning the status quo, which leads us to discriminate more[8] – a virtuous circle.

Beyond the issues

We started with Maggie’s story and will conclude with some lessons learned. 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. Looking after yourself, by following Maggie’s four lessons above is the number one priority. Then challenge those unconscious biases and stereotypes whenever you see, hear or experience them. As role models, 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.

Want to read more about Maggie’s story? Then sign up to be one of the first to purchase “Career Interrupted – How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks”, Norah Breekveldt (Melbourne Books, 2015) – at New releases – Career Interrupted

This article was originally published on the Women in Science AUSTRALIA website. Read the original article at Lessons Learned as a Woman Scientist

[1] Girls opt out of science and maths – report finds

[2] The OECD is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (comprising 30 of the world’s rich countries)

[3] Engineers, Australia, Women in Engineering, A Statistical Update, 7 May 2012, p. 2, available at Engineers Australia Information Paper – Women in Engineering

[4] ibid, p. 3.

[5] ibid, p. 4.

[6] Reported in Career Interrupted, How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks Norah Breekveldt, Melbourne Books, 2015

[7] Sideways to The Top: 10 Stories of Successful Women that Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever, Norah Breekveldt, Melbourne Books, 2012, pp. 15–17.

[8] When Talking About Bias Backfires, A. Grant and S. Sandberg, New York Times, NT Times Grant, Sandberg