Recognising Mums in science

Achieving gender equity is an ongoing challenge for our society, and for science. One way that science looses its high achieving female researchers is through them choosing to becoming mothers, as well as scientists – once you take a break from a science career it can be very difficult to find funding to support your return. Further, mothers that do maintain their employment often find they are disadvantaged when applying for funding and awards, because of the ‘gap’ in their career.

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The kids help mum cast net for prawns.

This Mother’s Day we wanted to recognise that many of our academic and professional staff are also mothers. We asked some of these women how things have changed for them during their careers, and what they hoped for the future.

Nadine Painter, ARI’s Institute manager

Gender equity has improved greatly during my career. Early on in my career, I was one of five women working in a project management team of 120 people. Many men assumed we were there to make them tea and coffee, or take minutes, even though we were employed to do the same job, same classification, same job title!

Gender equity has improved since then, albeit slowly. My hope for the future is that young women won’t face the same biases I confronted early on in my career, but will be valued and supported for the individual skills and abilities they bring to their employers, that governments will see the value in supporting families and strategically invest in them, and that equity becomes something tangible, and not just the “buzz word” of the 21st century.

Fernanda Adame Research Fellow

Mother's blog MFA

Dr Adame and her son.

Having a working environment that supports me as a scientist and as a mum has given me the opportunity to work in science, while discovering the world through my son’s eyes

Liz O’Brien Associate Director of Research

In planning my science career I took into account that, at some time in the future, I hoped to be a mother. I saw stability as key to ‘having it all’ and was fortunate to secure a State Government position in aquaculture research.

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I would sometimes bring my toddler to feed the scallops or seed the algae on the weekends (daily feeding required) but with the birth of my second child I made the difficult choice to change careers and move to a non-research role.

The pull towards science remained and I encouraged curiosity and discovery in my children, using my knowledge of science to answer their constant questioning of the world around them. In my current professional role, I have the privilege of working in science once again, not as an active researcher but in supporting the talented researchers at ARI.

To my children I am a scientist as well as their mother, both labels I’m proud to wear.

Fran Sheldon, Associate Professor

Motherhood came to me slightly unexpectedly but not unwanted, and when it happened in the middle of my second post-doc I approached it with both excitement but also ambivalence – a baby isn’t going to stop me, I’ll just strap this one in a baby sling and continue on.

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On the banks of the Diamantina, during a field trip.

Continue on with field work I did during pregnancy, 10 hour drive from Adelaide to western NSW and the Darling River for a week at a time, 4 months, 5 months, 6 months, 7 months….. but 8 months? – no way, reality struck – I couldn’t deny it – this was actually going to change my life.

Instead of succumbing I threw myself into ‘nesting’ – not the kind that includes painting a nursery or shopping for cute clothes, but the finishing manuscripts and organizing reports kind – before the now inevitable Armageddon. Then my life did change, not for the worse and maybe not for the better, who will ever know, it just changed. With one child in tow there were more field trips, somewhat challenging, but we all survived, then there were two children, more adventures and we all adapted and survived.

With the current debate over women in science and particularly science academia and the dints in career path motherhood brings, I have a different perspective. Many things cause dints in the career progression of men and women – illness, aging parents, other crises in life outside of work.

Motherhood does cause a dint in the activities we measure research success by – publication rate, grant success and perhaps competitiveness for a period of time, but the skills of being a scientist (which are also getting an airing with the employability agenda) and the benefits of a STEM education – adaptability, problem solving, multitasking – are also the skills required in motherhood.

Many academic science jobs allow flexibility, which helps when children are sick and with drop off and pick up times for childcare and school, and yes many women just don’t want to juggle a full work life with a life that includes children – and if this is their choice then the STEM skills they have gained through their science education are not lost, they are just used in other sectors – maintaining our mantra that STEM skills are transferable.

For me, the 19 years since that initial ‘Armageddon’ that changed my life (and 16 years since the second one) have flown by, sometimes chaotic, often tired, with loads of laughs and tears; but those skills of adaptation, problem solving and multitasking have been honed – and a life with a busy chaotic science mum doesn’t seem to have impacted my kids, they are confident, independent and hard working. So I wouldn’t change a thing.

Angela Arthington, Emeritus Professor

My son came along when I was teaching entomology at UQ [University of Queensland] ages ago. Child care facilities were very limited so I took my young son on field trips to Stradbroke, Moreton and Fraser Island, and Cooloola, even when he was a toddler.

He became very good at picking “wrigglies” from my littoral sweep collections, and once found a baby turtle in a moist wheel rut beside Brown Lake.That new record is acknowledged in my very first scientific paper comparing the limnology of Brown and Blue Lake on Stradbroke Island.

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Professor Arthington and her grandkids.

reWe camped and collected benthos, plankton and fish at Lake Wabby back when it was possible to drive to the shores of this beautiful clear “window” lake. My field colleagues were all males but they took to their little helper and taught him how to set fish traps, measure transparency with a Secchi disc and cook on an open fire.

Later, when I worked on tilapia in North Pine Dam, my boy drove our boat and helped to haul in gill nets and remove fish. Would all this still be possible with today’s strict health and safety rules?

Starting work as a young lecturer in the new School of Australian Environmental Studies at Griffith I found more women companions on the staff and over the years enjoyed seeing them bring up children while holding down tutoring and lecturing jobs, doing field work and travelling to conferences, all as a matter of routine.

Childcare facilities were much better and there was also after school care so that mothers or fathers could keep normal working hours with children safe and happy in the care of communal home care groups. The participating parents shared the job of picking up the children and delivering them to their parents at Griffith, until one day a certain rather absent-minded father forgot it was his turn, and left the children stranded.

It seems different now, and I seldom see staff with young children on campus, probably because care arrangements are much improved, or perhaps children are not so welcome on campus. I enjoyed sharing my working life and especially the field work with my son, who has passed his experience onto his own children. I have not helped to produce a new generation entomologist but one of my grandchildren wants to be a “lizard man” when he grows up.

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