People imagine all kinds of life experiences when they ponder what a career in the Royal Australian Navy might offer. Only a small portion of them could ever imagine the range of opportunities available to STEM qualified professionals. The chance to work with cutting edge technologies is not limited to life in the field. Critical work in support of missions occurs everyday in many different environments. The Navy is facilitated by technical and logistics businesses behind the scenes that are amongst the most proficient operations in the world. Careers in the Navy are attracting more and more women each year.
My early career as a woman in the Navy
My 27-year career has not been without challenges. As one of the first female naval officers ever to serve on an Australian warship, the challenges were many and varied.
In the early days, I was a novelty; something foreign in a traditionally male-only environment. There was a need to change peoples’ paradigms of thought about an employee’s suitability, competence and worthiness to lead others.
Through circumstance and rapidly changing policies, I unwittingly become a trailblazer; part of a change that, it would be fair to say, could not be fully understood and meticulously planned before execution.
From those early days when I first took up residence in a cramped three-berth cabin, I learnt as I went – and so did the Navy. In challenging circumstances, away from home for long periods, isolated from my support networks, I made things work. I learned many lessons the hard way, but in the process helped design a better Navy for those who would follow.
Married with children
One of the greatest emotional challenges I faced while serving at sea came after I was married and had children. It was a huge personal struggle even contemplating the idea of leaving my family. There were many times I thought I should leave. I was torn.
When I had first joined the Navy, females were able to choose whether or not they went to sea. But with changing policy it soon became apparent that sea service would be mandatory if I had any chance of progressing through the ranks and receiving the technically challenging and professionally rewarding roles I aspired to. I also really enjoyed my work and was driven to progress.
In the end it was a compromise. I slowed my career during my children’s formative years, and the love and support of my fantastic husband and extended family made balancing career and family manageable, despite remaining difficult on an emotional level.
Balancing career and family
I know many women – and men for that matter – struggle with choices involving balancing career and family and I think the best way to support people is to be honest and truly acknowledge how difficult it often is.
For me, it meant compartmentalising the challenging periods of separation and recognising the sacrifices as short-term compared with a much longer career of professional satisfaction.
These decisions come with varying degrees of difficulty depending on what support networks people have, their level of personal resilience and their own assessment of the opportunity cost. It will never be the same for everyone.
Can women have it all?
One thing I know for sure is that almost anything is possible and for those wondering whether a woman can have it all; I would say yes. But I would also counsel that the pursuit of one desire is almost always at the expense of another. The idea is to be reflective, understand what the risks are, assess what value you place on all aspects of your life and make decisions that work for your circumstances. Always remember that success can take many forms.
With flexible work arrangements, community support programs and different career paths that better cater for the needs of families, many options have been developed during my career. I am glad to have been one of the women who informed these enhancements through experience.
Reflecting on my own career, I feel incredibly privileged to have had so many diverse opportunities for learning and growth. From leading technical teams in operational roles, my career journey has evolved and morphed across a wide range of disciplines. STEM professionals today can expect challenge, growth, diversification and adventure at every stage of what can only be described as an amazingly rewarding career.
Captain Mona Shindy
Directing Staff, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College
Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, 2015
Read next: CEO of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Professor Aidan Byrne discusses women in physics and the ARC’s commitment to women in research careers.
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