Career breaks in STEM

August 31, 2016

Industry leaders at the national Women in STEM Leadership Summit discuss how to maintain work-life balance and incorporate important breaks into a successful STEM career.

career breaks

Taking career breaks from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) jobs can give you an opportunity to re-engage with the workforce in new ways, say industry leaders.

Maintaining support networks, using transferable skills from postgraduate study and setting effective productivity goals are all essential skills in regaining career credibility after time away from work, say highly ranked women leaders at the national Women in STEM summit in Sydney.

Megan Baldwin, CEO and Managing Director of Opthea Ltd, a biotech company specialising in the factors leading to eye diseases, says it’s also important to realise that no one will judge you if you are going to walk out of the office at 5.30 or 6 at night instead of 8pm.

“You will be judged on how well you do your work. There are always a million things on your calendar. And it’s important to build your network, but you also need to learn to say ‘no’ if it’s not directly relevant to you.”

Deborah Rathjen, CEO and Managing Director of drug discovery and development company Bionomic Ltd says there’s lots of opportunity to come back and re-engage with your work after career breaks or shifts, and these are opportunities that can benefit an organisation.

“There are so many paths to having a productive life and a productive career.”

For example, in moving from academia to biotech, the skills she learnt as a postdoc science student, such as networking, were really important, she says.

“If you are on short term contracts with endless grant writing, that kind of grind is quite intense. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Maintaining your networks and maintaining your supporters during this time is really important,” she says.

Taking career breaks in STEM

Career breaks can be anything from family leave to academic sabbaticals or time spent in another industry, all increasingly diverse pathways that are particular true for women working in STEM, the summit heard.

“It costs a lot of money to recruit and train people,” says Rathjen. “If people then resign because the company is inflexible there is lost time and productivity in that. It’s about having links into the community so you can find replacements for short term contracts but also creating the environment so that people feel like they have the ability to return to work.”

IP Australia, the national patent office which employs 400 scientists and engineers, creates this environment through developing flexibility as a “mainstream way of working”.

“Young people who have come to us from the private sector really value flexible time, the ability to take career breaks such as leave without pay, or even taking time off to work in startups,” says Patricia Kelly, Director General of IP Australia. “Developing methods for young people to work in mobile ways makes the workforce more attractive,” she says.

Alison Stone, Deputy Director General of Land and Natural Resources at the NSW Department of Primary Industries says that some people love 9-5 hours, while others “literally work 7 days a week”.

“But everyone has hours dedicated to their family. For me it’s about keeping to your routine, whatever that is.

“Even though I’ve been in government for 30 years I worked in the private sector also. I’ve found that you often have to re-establish who you are.

“One of the tricks I’ve established is to think about how you’d like to come back to work. In those career break experiences, whether that’s having a child or a sabbatical, it’s an opportunity to come back with a defined objective.”

Leadership in women

“Collaborative leadership is critical,” says Rathjen, who heads a company of 140 staff at Bionomics Ltd. “Your business will wither if you don’t collaborate with academia, and industry. A lot of these skills you learn as a postgraduate. Networking and developing links in Australia and overseas was a big opportunity for me that I took into leadership and that progressed me through my career.”

Megan Baldwin from Opthea Ltd adds that the other key message is to recognise that everyone comes from a different perspective.

“You do need to assert yourself though and you need to be comfortable in those shoes. You need to be true to how you want to lead, but also be authoritative.

“But everyone comes with their own life experience and their own priorities and you need to be attuned to that also.”

“One of the best pieces of advice I had was to take time for ‘thinking’,” says Rathjen. “That’s been a life saver for me. Whether that’s strategy or realising I haven’t touched based on a particular project, it’s about freeing up your mind to look at the big picture.”

– Heather Catchpole

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