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INSPIRE TO ASPIRE – a personal approach

by | Apr 7, 2017 | The Agenda

I believe women can achieve whatever they desire and reach the top in any field. What is required, for us as a community and society, is to identify and remove the systemic barriers that stymie the growth and potential of women.

As a little girl, I was curious to explore. Finding new things was MAGICAL. As far as I remember, I was always interested in science.

I wanted to be Mr Spock in Star Trek, to travel with David Attenborough in his adventures, and be the doctor curing illness in the film Fantastic Voyage!

Not many women opted for science back then. I did. I enrolled in the Masters (agriculture) and then PhD (genetics) courses at the Punjab Agriculture University, India. I still remember being the ONLY female in a class of 200 men, their eyes following me as I walked in, every day of the semester.

It was quite unnerving the first day, but I was determined and resilient. I took it as a challenge and I thought of myself as being unique. To this day, I do not mind standing out in a crowd.

I think it also gave me confidence to face uncomfortable situations, and there have been many: Facing interview panel comprising of all men, being in a boardroom meeting of 12-15 men and me – the only “senior” “female” “scientist”, defending my thesis in the presence of a group of high-flying men, and giving speeches to an audience of 200-2000 people.

During my PhD in India, we had no women lecturers in our department, let alone professors! But it was the same story in the UK when I moved there for work, and subsequently here in Australia – there were no women in leadership positions. We had no female role models.

I’ve worked as a scientist and in a senior role for more than 20 years, but when asked about what I do, I sometimes still get told ‘you don’t look like a scientist’. In this male dominated profession, especially as one reaches mid- to senior-level, it was hard work to make a mark. The gap widens from 50:50 females to males at junior/early career researcher to 20:80 at the more senior levels of Associate Professor, Professor, and Head of Discipline/School. I believe I have come full circle. I have now achieved the credentials in my area of medical research and have established my career nationally and internationally. I always wanted to inspire women by leading as an example.

In my current role as Associate Faculty and Principal Scientist at the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, I lead the Alcoholic Liver Disease Program, a unique program in Australia understanding the molecular, cellular, genetic and clinical aspects of this debilitating disease. I am also on the Peer Advisory committee of the Franklin Women, a community of women working in health and medical research.

As the Chair of the Gender Equity Program at the Centenary Institute for over two years (Oct 2014-Feb 2017), I feel privileged to have been able to work towards removing the challenges that young women face today to balance their life and career. During the last two years, the Gender Equity Program team has made significant achievements in several areas influencing a more equitable workplace for all staff, and we received the Centenary “Team Excellence Award” in 2015.

We established several awards to support continuation of work by providing funds to female scientists to hire research assistance while on maternity leave; provide travel scholarships and early career awards for women who return to work after maternity leave to help build their CVs and accelerate their transition into competitive workforce.

A common barrier for early to mid-career development is the lack of maternity leave flexibility. By renaming the ‘maternal leave’ to ‘parental leave’, increasing the duration of paid parental leave for both men and women, and introducing partner leave has helped several staff who are already making use of this provision. For those on parental/carer leave, we also introduced a teleconference tool that allows scientists to patch into meetings from home, enabling them to continue to be part of the team assisting easy transition to return to work.

Based on an institute wide survey, family friendly times have been introduced for regular laboratory meetings to enable parents to pick up or drop off their kids

To showcase female role models in science we have actively sought well known national and international women scientists to speak at our Institute’s ongoing Tuesday seminar series. The numbers of female speakers increased from 18% to 32% in less than 18 months. We support women to attend training workshops and are also establishing mentoring programs enabling women to reach leadership roles.

We can all do things in our own environment for better outcomes for women and young girls aspiring to become leaders. We still have a lot to do to achieve gender equity, and I am determined to work hard and smart towards it so that one day, we don’t have to talk about gender equity anymore.

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