Why I left research—and what would have made me and other women stay

I read a brilliant article this month by my very talented friend Dr Darren Saunders on “What can men do to stem the exodus of women from science?”.  Many points in his article I found quite sobering, particularly that women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers but just 17% of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes.  I AM one of the women who has left research and it made me wonder….

Why are there so few women in senior research positions?

I spent 15 years working in medical research, leaving the research sector at the end of my prestigious early career fellowship to join gemaker in January 2015. In the end, the push between family life and a research career was all too much and something had to give.

For me, there were periods of my research career where I felt unsupported and lacked mentorship. For some of my peers, it feels like this all the time. I was fortunate enough to be at a university that ran Women in Science programs and networking groups.

The lack of support I experienced didn’t just come from my male colleagues but also from my female colleagues. Some seemed to have the view that they fought hard to ‘make it’ so the next generation should do it the hard way too, instead of thinking “it doesn’t always have to be this way” and changing it.

On my first day, at a Group of Eight university, as a recipient of a highly competitive NHMRC fellowship, I was shown around the department and introduced to my new colleagues. Rather than being introduced with my research capabilities I was introduced, “this is Julie, she works part- time”—, and this was by the only other female with children in the laboratory. Can you imagine introducing David as the father of three kids under five to your work colleagues?  Another instance that stuck with me was when I was pregnant with my third child and a world-renowned female researcher (who was also a mother) asked me if my pregnancy was a ‘mistake’.  It seems having more than two children is considered a no-no in research.

While a number of research institutes have initiated fantastic policies to support gender equity, including flexible hours, family friendly meeting times, financial support for childcare and technical research support for women on maternity leave, women still feel lost returning to work after maternity leave. Due to the pressures of the funding cycle, some women take as little as six weeks leave, returning in a haze of sleep deprivation to full-time research.

The biggest thing that I felt that was missing in my research career was mentorship. I’ve had friends comment that they’d happily swap generous childcare support from their institute for mentorship and guidance from another senior scientist.  For many female scientists the toughest part of their career, establishing their research program, coincides with childbearing. Throw in the uncertainty of funding and career progression, and it’s a bad mix.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved working in research and frequently miss aspects of being a researcher. But I found it so disheartening seeing so few females in senior positions.

There is an increasing number of terrific initiatives promoting gender equity in STEM, which gives me great hope. Programs such as the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and Women in Science Australia, along with the International Day for Women and Girls in Science.  The Women in Science Australia program is a fantastic resource with blog articles written by scientists, including one on the value of mentoring. I wish I’d come across this piece when feeling lost and disillusioned, and think it would be great if all researchers, both senior and junior, took the time to read it.

Women need support from both men AND other women, and I agree with Darren that “sometimes the best thing (for male colleagues) is simply to sit down, stop talking and let our female colleagues be heard”. I’d argue that also asking them how are they tracking regularly would be especially helpful too.

Written by Julie Wheway