Making a comeback to science

For women, a career in science is hard – recognition for their contributions to research has come a long way. However, there are still major gaps in women’s success in gaining research funding, and advancing in their careers.

In particular, STEM professionals that take maternity leave often feel it is detrimental to their career.

Overcoming gender bias and structural barriers is a hard task, on top of the research itself. But one example of someone who has managed to achieve both is the 2019 Telstra Northern Territory Businesswoman of the Year Award winner, Professor Amanda Leach.

Improving services for children with ear problems

Today she is Director of the Centre of Research Excellence in Ear and Hearing health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children. She is also the Principal Senior Research Fellow at Menzies School of Health Research, and Joint Chair of the Hearing for Learning Initiative.

Overseeing clinical trials that answer the many questions around prevention, diagnosis and treatment of all forms of otitis media (middle ear infections) in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children across Australia, Amanda’s findings have been implemented into national clinical guidelines.

Picking up a research career where she left off

But Amanda’s career progression has not been a straight line. Like many women scientists, she took a career break to start a family.

Early on in her career she stepped away from the lab bench for six years, giving birth to  the first of two children, and moving houses several times for her husband’s work. The career break allowed her to focus on her family, before settling down in Darwin.

“I couldn’t afford to work full time in science because of the cost of childcare in those days. Part-time work was also not a consideration at that time (for me or my husband), so transitioning back into science was really not an option,” says Amanda. “I also didn’t want my children to be in childcare full-time either.”

Childcare and inflexible work commitments continue to be one of many barriers that women in research face.

Re-entering the workforce was not an easy pathway. It was only after the encouragement of friends that she applied for a research assistant role in Alice Springs Hospital’s pathology laboratory in 1988.

“I didn’t think I could ‘perform’ after years with little children and was not thinking about science at all,” says Amanda. The job was a huge adjustment juggling full-time work and her family.

She went on to get her PhD in 1994, finding for the first time that Indigenous infants acquire nasopharyngeal bacterial pathogens within weeks of life, predicting onset of otitis media. Since then, she’s established herself as one of Australia’s leading female researchers.

Changing the industry for women in STEM

Amanda believes that there are many things the research industry can do to encourage STEM women to pursue more senior roles.

Both encouragement and gender biases start from a young age, says Amanda. “I think women from my era were just happy to have work, I never dreamed or aspired to senior roles or doing a PhD. Although I went to a private girl’s school in Melbourne and we were all expected to go to University, the next step for many of my cohort was to have a family – not necessarily a family AND a career.”

It’s important that there’s also flexibility, for hours and place of work, mentoring and support.

“I think STEM industries could encourage young women to seek mentors to guide them through their career choices – open up options and pathways that a young person may not have perceived, or perhaps lack the experience or ‘world view’ to appreciate what those steps are.”

Science meets business

As a scientist, winning the businesswoman award was a foreign concept for Amanda. However, it forced her to think outside the square and view the world through a different lens.

“I hadn’t thought of myself as a business woman until I was going through the Telstra Business Women’s Awards process, aligning the research pipeline with business practices. Then using the terminology of business and applying that to the research pipeline.

“It made perfect sense once I had made that adjustment to my thinking.”

Awards such as these create visibility and inspiration for young women, especially those in STEM. Being taken seriously and recognised out of the science world is a big deal.

For Amanda, she says that “the greatest benefit is having greater opportunity to shed light and raise awareness of the devastating impact that ear disease and hearing loss is having on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

“Most people I have met through these Telstra Business Women’s Awards opportunities are not in research or science, so not exposed to this world – most have said they had no idea that this was happening to First Nation Australians.”

The Telstra Business Women’s Awards are designed to give women in research a platform of acknowledgement, as well as giving young women role models to aspire to, proving that women are capable of whatever they put their minds to.

Nominations are now open for the program, which celebrates and recognises exceptional women in leadership across all sectors, including: small, medium and large businesses, public sector, academia, for purpose and social enterprises

Nominations are open until Tuesday 29 October. Anyone can nominate an exceptional business woman, even yourself. To do so, visit: 

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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