| Issue 54 Contents |
Dr Sandra Eady, CSIRO Animal Production, Armidale
Time has flown since we met in Melbourne for the Women Achieving in Science Conference in November 1999. However, a number of issues that were raised in the career development workshop have stayed in my mind.
The request from WISENET was to give a little of my background and then to discuss the outcomes of the workshop I facilitated. I thought this would be easiest to do if I wove the two together. I really need to start back at the high school level. It was at Murwillumbah State High School that I was first exposed to attitudes that could have influenced my career in science. Although I had very good science teachers, there was no strong encouragement from them for me to pursue a science career. Looking back, I do not know if the same lack of encouragement was given to male students. However, I recall vividly the reaction of an English teacher who was quite derogatory about me going to study agricultural science – references to gum boots and slopping round in cow yards!
Many of our best women scientists mention how important the encouragement and enthusiasm of a teacher or parent was in starting them along the science path. These are the "stars" – what happens to the girls who don't receive that support, or unlike me, are not stubborn enough to go off an enroll in a science degree despite the lack of encouragement? Some women in our workshop audience had teenage daughters and were able to highlight for us the type of peer pressure and stereotypic thinking that is still very strong, and limits our daughters from thinking about science as an attractive career.
Then, once started in science, we discussed the types of paths people had taken. For instance I graduated from what was then the Queensland Agricultural College, and started a job within 5 months with the Qld Department of Primary Industries. As I was madly interested in Merino sheep this meant I started my science career at Toorak Research Station, 30 km south of Julia Creek in far north western Queensland; black soil road, 5mm of rain and you couldn't move! There were 3 science graduates and 20 odd farm and support staff and we all lived on the station. It was a harsh and isolated environment and I loved it! Here I was, in my early twenties with a great research project evaluating different strains of Merinos and how they handled heat stress. I learnt how to mules, lamb mark, pregnancy test, and drought feed (it only rained properly once in the three years I lived there). It was my job to look after about 1000 sheep so I would do everything from the experimental work through to checking water, mustering and talking to farmers at field days. During this time I completed an external Masters degree at James Cook University, where trips to Townsville were a welcome break from the dust, open plains and heat! From there I moved to Charleville in far south western Queensland, taking on an extension role with farmers who lived in the most beautiful but isolated places as far out as the Channel country. By that stage I had acquired a dog and a 2-way radio in my vehicle, and we covered lots of miles on outback roads, often staying overnight at the properties I was visiting.
But then came the need to make a career decision - I just couldn't picture myself at 50 driving round the outback in my King Gee work shorts and steel capped boots, slipping into a routine of droughts, field days, shearing and floods. At that stage I made, what for me was a very difficult decision. I left the security of a tenured position with a government agency to go back to university to do a Ph.D., and then join the uncertainty of the job market again. But I built my confidence to do that by planning it out. I applied for industry scholarships so I would have enough money to live on, and checked out all the universities that might offer me the opportunity I was looking for. And just like many of you, chose the university based on the people I wanted to work with. Then I worked hard, and in addition to the scientific work in my Ph.D., did useful things for the groups I was working with so that at the end of my studies I fitted in with ongoing projects on breeding sheep for resistance to worms.
The workshop discussions covered how other people had progressed though their careers and a predominant theme from many women was that there was little planning and things just happened. As a group we seem to be more "takers" of opportunities rather than "makers" of opportunities. And I suspect this is for a number of reasons. There is still not the same exception that women will follow the traditional undergrad, Ph.D., post-doctoral path as these are likely to be the very years that children are born. The male partner's career still dominates, and women tend to move with partners to new towns and countries. Feedback from the workshop was that women in science take job opportunities as they come up, rather than managing their careers in a more planned and structured manner.
From my own personal perspective the ability to plan is very much influenced by family commitments. I have consciously chosen not to have children because I just could not see how I could pursue the career that I wanted and raise children, whether by myself or with a supportive partner. Although I don't have any strong maternal urges, I am not convinced that one day I won't regret this decision! Some women at the workshop who were juggling both family and career expressed a sense of disillusionment; equality in the work place promised us a satisfying and productive career but where we find ourselves today is exhausted, guilty we are not doing the best for our children, and in no way achieving what our male counterparts can in their careers. Many men (and women) will say - "Well that is your own choice, to have the satisfaction and pleasure of your children but a career commensurate to the reduced effort you put in at work." - I find this infuriating - nobody ever says it to men! Why is it they can have the satisfaction and pleasure of children and suffer no career penalty?
Through the workshop we spent some time on the importance of mentoring for women. This largely focused on the lack of informal networking for women that plagues workplaces where they are a minority group. Suggestions were canvassed for different ways that mentoring could be structured to give women the encouragement and personal resources to move along in their careers. I certainly have found the willingness amongst senior CSIRO colleagues to assist me both scientifically and with my career progression to be invaluable. For instance, in 1998 I was given the opportunity to spend 18 months working with our CEO, Dr Malcolm McIntosh, as his Executive Officer. Although in taking this job I had to step away from my day to day research, it gave me invaluable insights into science policy and administration. And the job was still very stimulating from a scientific point of view as I got to see what lots of other scientists were doing within CSIRO. When I came back to the "bench" last year I brought all sorts of new ideas, including one of my current projects on breeding meat rabbits!
The workshop discussion then moved to different paradigms of career progression, designed to give advancement, acknowledgment and reward in a framework that accommodates the competing demands on women. A number of women talked about different models that suited them far better than the traditional work place. The common theme from this discussion was the need for confidence and a willingness to move outside the established system of doing science and delivering results to industry and the community, things like consultancy rather than being employed in a traditional workplace structure. Many participants felt this was a big ask but not impossible for women to do.
Were there any quantum breakthroughs at the end of the day? I doubt it, but I think a number of important aspects were reinforced for me – the need to have a plan, connect with those people in your work place who can help you, and be flexible and lateral in your approach to your career. Many thanks to all those women who contributed.