"Take heart. Let yourself rage a little. Pick yourself up and think about it a little and then bring laughter to bear."
This is the message that Elizabeth Blackburn has for fellow women researchers on their career journey, seeking to remain engaged in science. At the celebratory symposium "Women in Medical Research – Passionate Minds" on Tuesday July 3 2012, the impressive speaker list included Professors Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Nobel Laureate, Ingrid Scheffer, UNESCO L’Oreal Woman in Science Laureate, Ruth Bishop, discoverer of the Rotavirus and Judith Whitworth, cardiovascular researcher who chaired the Medical Research Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and who is currently Chair of the WHO's Global Advisory Committee on Health Research. The speakers participated in a forum focused on helping women to remain engaged in scientific research.
They have benefited from mentors and now, in turn, are mentors to younger women. What advice can they share and what can the next generation learn from them?
"I've been a recipient of mentoring at various stages of my career and it has been crucial for my success," says Professor Elizabeth Blackburn. She encourages other women to "try to mentor whenever you can."
Overcoming structural, institutional and personal barriers
"Science needs the best minds and should include everybody," says Professor Blackburn, keenly aware of the barriers women face to being continually engaged in science. She does not believe these barriers are insurmountable: sexual harassment was identified as a barrier to women in the workplace and laws were created to prevent it (Sex Discrimination Act 1984). Other barriers remain: a lack of mentors, unconscious bias in decision-making committees and family issues. Solutions require leadership from the top, for example, to provide childcare options for emergency situations when a child is sick. Institutional change might mean advertising all scientific positions as both full and part-time.
These are structural barriers, but lack of self-confidence can also hinder women. "Am I good enough to have a career in science," a young female postdoctoral fellow from her lab asked Elizabeth Blackburn. Elizabeth assured her that she was. This young scientist took advantage of a leadership course for postdoctoral scientists and Elizabeth observed that this allayed her doubts and that she is now thriving.
The personal challenge for women is how to have a successful career and a normal life. It helps to remember that in life there are ebbs and flows. "The intense needs of the family do not go on forever." Professor Blackburn points out that: "as scientists, our brains are very good at working through problems to find solutions. We should use that same logical process to think through our own problems as well."
Advice from the keynote speakers:
- Watch the Women in Medical Research - Keynote Presentations
- Watch the Women in Medical Research - Early Career Researcher Presentations
- Read the 'Voice' article 'Passionate Minds inspire Melbourne'