There was a common theme shared by speakers at the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science event in Westmead on Monday – “never be afraid to ask.’’
The University of Sydney event was held at Westmead Hospital and included six professionals being asked about women and the role they play in science. They were: Dr Christina Adler from Westmead Centre for Oral Health, Professor Nadia Badawi from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Professor Jenny Gunton from the University of Sydney Westmead Clinical School and Westmead Hospital, Dr Ruby Lin from The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, Professor Phil Robinson from Children’s Medical Research Institute and PhD student Elizabeth Wojciechowski from The Children’s Hospital.
The audience was told that when students first start studying STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) subjects the proportion of female to male was 50 per cent but this drops as they advance through their careers with a very low proportion of women in senior positions.
Several of the panellists, who grew up in supportive families and in single-sex schools, said they never experience sexism until they went to university. Most agreed that the greatest issue they faced as a woman was after they became mothers.
Prof Gunton said when she returned to work weeks after having a baby she was harshly judged.
“I got so much flack,’’ Prof Gunton said. “People decided that I was being wildly inappropriate, it was really astonishing – even though the child was at home with my husband who is an emergency specialist.’’
When Prof Gunton asked for a room at work to breast feed there was hesitation. When it was finally organised, and a roster was set up, the room was fully booked within 24 hours and a second room had to be opened. She said women should feel more confident in asking for what they need.
“If you don’t ask you’ll never know,’’ she said. “There needs to be more asking. Be calm, be polite. The vast majority of bias is only existing because it hasn’t been questioned and if you point it out they usually so, ‘oh you’re right’. The majority of people will help you.’’
Prof Gunton added that when she was being interviewed for a senior role and informed the panel she would continue to do morning school drop-off they were left open-mouthed.
“I told them that my CV says that I can do the job and get the work done without starting work before 9am.’’
Professor Badawai also encouraged women to ask for more.
“I usually want something more than someone else wants to stop me.’’
Dr Lin said she had to miss meetings because she wanted to work “family-friendly’’ hours.
“So, I missed out on decision-making opportunities because I couldn’t be there. Now I encourage women I work with to come back to work after they’ve had children, making sure there are quiet rooms at conferences for them to bring children, or to give out travel grants.’’
She said having a mentor to guide and promote you as a woman was very important. Flexibility was also important as Dr Lin said many of her female academic friends never returned to work because they weren’t offered part-time positions.
Professor Robinson agreed that mentors were vital and talked about a program at Sydney University where women were paired up with advice on how to progress their career.
“There is so much wastage, if we simply accept that women will drop out at a certain point of their career. The best ideas don’t just come from men and we’re losing all those ideas.’’
The event was once again chaired by SBS Insight host, Jenny Brockie, and included a class of students from Catherine McAuley College at Westmead.