Women rise to the challenge of balancing a career with motherhood
Women rise to the challenge of balancing a career with motherhood
25 November 2011

University of Queensland (UQ) graduate and academic, Dr Kate O'Brien and UQ graduate (and Associate Professor at Monash University) Associate Professor Karen Hapgood are raising awareness of the universal issues facing professionals, particularly females, who work part-time.

Although the numbers of women in science and engineering courses and postgraduate studies have increased markedly in recent decades, women tend to leave these professions at greater rates than men, a phenomenon often referred to as the "leaky pipe."

Dr O'Brien and Associate Professor Hapgood believe removing the barriers to part-time work and career interruptions are vital for addressing this problem.

As a lecturer within UQ's School of Chemical Engineering, Dr O'Brien has recognised a need for more family friendly practices within the workplace, so that women (and men) who work part-time or take time off to raise their families can still remain engaged with their profession.

"Although the university sector is commonly perceived as a very flexible work environment, like many other professions the paradigm is full-time, continuous employment, Dr O'Brien said.

"Those who do work part-time generally do so in isolation, with few role models."

Formerly a male dominated career path, engineering has seen a marked increase in recent years in the number of female enrolments.

In 2011, the number of female students enrolled in UQ's Bachelor of Engineering stood at 19%.

UQ's percentages are even higher in specific engineering disciplines.

As a top specialisation for enrolments of female students, Chemical Engineering and related specialisations stands at 40%, meanwhile Environmental Engineering is approximately 60%.

While there is a lot written about trying to get more women in science and engineering, there is very little written about working part-time, a key factor to retaining women in these professions.

In order to address this, Dr O'Brien and Associate Professor Hapgood wrote the article 'Part-time balance', which was published in the journal, Nature.

"It takes a lot of courage to work part-time within a full-time environment and encourages those doing so to keep finding ways to make the system work for them, all the while recognising the obstacles they face," Dr O'Brien said.

"While focussed on academia, the article will have relevance for those working part-time in many other professions.

"It is much easier to work part-time when you are well established in your field. However in professions with long training times, like academia, it's difficult for women to become well established before they have children."

For women who want to re-enter the workforce in a part-time position, Dr O'Brien advises them to be strategic in how they undertake this unusual career path.

"Although challenging, it is possible to pursue a part-time career in scientific research while devoting time and creative energy to raising children," Dr O'Brien said.

"Choose a role that lets you maintain and build your skills and define your success on your own terms."

Media: Dr Kate O'Brien (k.obrien@uq.edu.au or 3365 3534) or Madelene Flanagan (m.flanagan@uq.edu.au or 3365 8525)